Religion in State Schools

My honours thesis is about Queensland’s Bible in State Schools referendum of 1910. In this referendum Queensland voters were asked if they agreed with the following proposition:

Are you in favour of introducing the following system into State Schools namely:-

The State schoolmaster, in school hours, teaches selected Bible lessons from a reading book provided for the purpose, but is not allowed to give sectarian teaching;
Any minister of religion is entitled, in school hours, to give the children of his own denomination an hour’s religious instruction on such days as the School Committee can arrange for;
Any parent is entitled to withdraw his child from all religious teaching if he chooses to do so?

This referendum is part of a bigger story which started with the introduction of ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education in Victoria in 1872.  The Victorian parliament stopped funding religious schools and ordered that secular education only should be given during regular school hours.  South Australia passed a similar act in 1875 as did Queensland.  The ambition was to create a State school system to which all parents would be happy to send their children, whether they were Protestant, Catholic or Jewish.  It was the beginning of the era of universal education in Australia.

New South Wales also passed a ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education act in 1880, but they continued to allow ‘general’ religious instruction given by the classroom teacher and ‘special’ religious instruction where clergy visited the school and gave denominational religious instruction.  Of the bigger states, New South Wales was the only state remaining that allowed religious instruction conducted by representatives of the churches during school hours.  In Victoria, South Australia and Queensland agitation started for the adoption of the ‘New South Wales system’ in their states.   Tasmania adopted the New South Wales system of religious instruction from visiting clergy in 1885.  After campaigning led by an Anglican priest, Rev D J Garland in Western Australia that state adopted the New South Wales system in 1893.

Rev Garland, organising secretary of the Bible in State Schools League

Rev D J Garland. Source: John Oxley Library.

The campaign for religious instruction in state schools in South Australia led to that state holding the first referendum in Australia in 1896 (‘South Australian Referenda‘).  Victoria held a referendum in 1904 on the issue (The Argus, 16/6/1904, p5).  The South Australian referendum did not pass, the Victorian referendum was inconclusive.  I was interested in the Queensland referendum in 1910 because it did pass.  Referendums are only held on matters of great concern to a society and as we know, referendums rarely pass in Australia.  I discovered a fascinating episode of Queensland’s history where women, Labour politicians and the Protestant organisation, the Bible in State Schools League were embroiled in a public debate about an issue that had politicians from around Australia watching nervously, fearing what might erupt in those sectarian times.

Rev D J Garland had moved to Queensland from Western Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. As the organising secretary for the Bible in State Schools League he led the campaign for religious instruction in Queensland.  After the referendum he moved to New Zealand and led an effective campaign for the reintroduction of religious instruction in New Zealand state schools, but World War I intervened and he became a chaplain for the troops.  After the War he was instrumental in establishing ANZAC day in Australia and New Zealand.

My thesis, Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum 1910: A Case Study of Democracy, is now available for download from the University of Sydney eScholarship Repository.


  • Austin, A G, Australian Education 1788-1900:  Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, (Carlton, Vic:  Pitman Pacific Books, 1972).
  • Austin, A G, Select Documents in Australian Education 1788-1900, (Melbourne:  Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, 1963).
  • Campbell, Craig. 2014. ‘Free, compulsory and secular Education Acts’, Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 28 February.
  • Clark, Manning, A Short History of Australia, (New York:  Nal Penguin Inc, 1987).
  • Gregory, J S, Church and State:  Changing Government Policies towards Religion in Australia:  with particular reference to Victoria since Separation, (North Melbourne:  Cassell Australia, 1973).
  • Mansfield, Wendy M, ”Garland, David John (1864 – 1939)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, Melbourne University Press, 1981, pp 619-620.
  • Photo of Rev D J Garland.   John Oxley Library,  State Library of Queensland.Neg 193923.
  • South Australian Referenda, State Electoral Office, South Australia, 2005.

6 thoughts on “Religion in State Schools

  1. That is definitely a timely topic. A little while ago I was exploring the secular movement in universities in the USA, which according to what I was reading ousted the strong religious hold over university posts in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries . I am still meditating on what I found, but what I have settled on so far is that the secular push in universities depended upon having an ossified or entrenched opposition. Its claim to have triumphed over religion once and for all time actuallyundermines its own purpose, which it hadn’t fulfilled before declaring victory. I wonder how much of what is happening now is reflected in the past. I think secularism stumbled and wasn’t providing a sufficiently cohesive approach to the general idea of education, and as a result the arguments for religious instruction in schools have found justification for returning. The major issue arising is that secularists might, out of fear of losing educational power, resort to methods which are counter-productive for the grand design of the secular ‘project’, only a step away from the insidious anti-religious, anti-intellectual pogroms of dictatorial regimes. If secularism hadn’t lost its way, which I think it did by being as unjustifiably absolutist as the religions it was rapidly supplanting, then religions wouldn’t have had a chance to resurrect their influence.


    • Thankyou Peter for your considered response. The issue of religious education in schools is certainly not a clear cut one. I was astonished when I first delved into the history of this debate in Australia to find that it has been a prominent issue debated in the public sphere on and off since the European settlement of Australia. It has been a very contentious issue and as you have noted in the case of the universities in the United States, the participants have generally, but not always, have taken entrenched positions from which they have refused to budge.

      I am currently reading Veit Bader’s, Secularism or Democracy? Associational Governance of Religious Diversity (Amsterdam University Pres, 2007). While I have only read the first couple of chapters so far Bader gives a deep and nuanced analysis of the handling of religions in western democracies. He challenges the binary thinking behind the debate about separation of religion and the state and argues that nowhere is this truly practised (even in France and the United States).

      It is encouraging to find thinkers like Bader who are digging beneath the politics of it all and seeking a response that will accommodate the myriad of world views in a society while upholding basic principles of justice, tolerance etc. Absolutist thinking from anyone, irrespective of their worldview, is an impediment to this process.


  2. Hi Yvonne, I note that you are member of the Professional Historians Association of New South Wales and administer the NSW PHA website. I am your counterpart in the PHA Qld. I am very interested in your thesis on Queensland’s Bible in State Schools referendum of 1910. I am finishing off a school-community history soon and need a passing reference. There is also a larger interest. I have done two theses (B.A. Hons., and Ph.D.) on Protestant churches in Queensland. I don’t recall much in those works that would help you, and at any rate, my work covered a later period from 1919 to 1985. I would be most keen to discuss common research areas. For my immediate need I am looking for a summary reference to terms of the 1910 settlement. In particular, the practice of the parent/guardian providing permission for the pupil to attend R.I., was that originally the practice from the introduction in 1911? For my current book its not worth my while to research the legislation. Its only a small point in the 100,000 word tome.


    • Thanks for dropping by Neville. My thesis only covered the passing of the legislation that enabled religious education in Queensland in 1910, so I didn’t cover the setting up of the religious education system in 1911. My interest was in the use of democratic processes by politicians, churches and women to debate and decide an issue of concern to many people in Queensland.

      I’ll get in touch so we can discuss this further.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.