One of the most important spheres of activity in the early nineteenth-century Church of England was the establishment and support of schools for the poor. The primary agent of such activity was the National Society. Founded in 1811 by clergymen and philanthropists, this organization aimed to maintain Anglicanism as the ‘National Religion’ by instructing as many poor children as possible in church doctrine under clerical supervision. By 1837, almost a million children across England were being educated in Anglican charitable institutions. This remarkable effort has largely been the province of educational historians. Yet it was also a political enterprise. The creation of a national system of education along exclusively Anglican lines represented an assertive intervention in the contemporary debate about the relationship between church and nation-state. Using a wide range of neglected sources, this article discusses how such political concerns were manifested at a local level in National Society schools’ teaching, rituals and use as venues for political activism. It is argued that these aspects of the society's work afforded the church a powerful political platform. This analysis informs our broader understanding of the ways in which churches’ involvement in mass education has sustained religiously inflected conceptions of nationhood.
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