From Amalgamation to Separation:

Pentecostals and Education in Newfoundland

Education became an issue for Pentecostals in the twentieth century for similar reasons as it did for Roman Catholics in the nineteenth century. An aggressive missionary presence changed the religious affiliation of communities and called for accommodation and change in the existing denominationally administered educational system. The reticence to change existing conditions on the part of the older churches was affected by the loss of entire communities to the Pentecostals. And the initial subordination of Pentecostal educational concerns under United Church governance predictably led to a heightening of frictions, since it was from this church that the Pentecostals drew their leadership and the majority of converts. An example in point was the situation of Wild Bight, today's Beachside, where Pentecostals were making serious inroads into the United Church community and were unambiguously challenged by Dr. Levi Curtis, the superintendent of education for the United Church, who did not hesitate to use education as an instrument for maintaining the religious status quo of the community. He reproached a community leader in 1929 with these words:

"If you can assure me," the superintendent admonished his correspondent," that the people of Wild Bight are going to stand by the Church I shall see that you get all that can be done for you in school matters."

From the 1930s on more and more communities in central and western Newfoundland became Pentecostal and had "to make the best of it" in educational matters. This early period in Pentecostal education, which saw at times fishing lofts turned into schools, is today remembered with a degree of romanticism, but was a bitter reality to Eugene Vaters, who repeatedly petitioned the school authorities for support on grounds of equity. While the petitions seeking "the same privileges and civic rights as any other of the most powerful denominations" were turned down habitually, eventually a modus operandi, which recognized so called "community schools" under United Church governance, was worked out in the end 1930s, especially after the census of 1935 had established that there were 3,721 Pentecostals in Newfoundland. Some Pentecostals secured teaching positions within their communities but remained precariously dependent upon the whims of the United church school administration. When the census of 1945 showed that the number of Pentecostals had nearly doubled, calls for official recognition increased.

The recognition sought by Vaters and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland at the time differed significantly from the subsequent position on education and suggests an accommodation on the terms of the dominant cultural establishment and one which was least likely to provoke opposition. In arguing for amalgamation instead of separation, Vaters resembles the Roman Catholics of the 1830s, who sought to assure education for their Irish constituents within the confines of an existing province-wide educational system, with the difference that this system was following the Irish non-denominational model. The realities of a change in religious demographics and the dynamic of dependence and accommodation are similar, however. "I have ever been and am now," wrote Vaters in 1945 to Superintendent Dr. Curtis, "for amalgamation with proper protection for our interests with others, and particularly with the United Church which I believe of the denominations has the best schools in the country." This position was officially endorsed by the PAON in 1946 and surfaces also in the now famous brief of Vaters of 1954, which won full recognition for Pentecostals in the field of education. The brief pleads a case for equity within the borders of the existing denominational system. Vaters writes:

The common ideological base which for Vaters guaranteed cooperation was "the generally accepted and historic Protestant viewpoint," a statement far removed from the exclusivism of Alice Belle Garrigus' introversionist sect and that of the legally sanctioned denomination of the 1960s. The problematic character of such cooperation on the basis of a vaguely defined religious ethos immediately surfaces, however, when Vaters writes: "However, we shall oppose any weakening of the fundamental viewpoint and the teaching of organic evolution whether in the classroom or assembly hall as being an unscientific approach and untrue in content."

The enormous gulf separating Vaters plea for cooperation and sharing from today's ethos of distinctiveness can best be explained by the growing numbers, institutional presence, and social respectability of Newfoundland's Pentecostals, which in turn are due in no small measure to the entrenchment of the Pentecostals in the cultural field. The intellectual architect of change, from cooperation to separation, was Geoffrey Shaw, the son-in-law of General Superintendent Eugene Vaters. Shaw, the British-born accountant and convert to evangelical Christianity by Billy Graham, achieved a meteoric rise. After a brief service to Kenya, where he married Pauline Vaters, he was ordained and shortly thereafter made the first superintendent of education for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland. During his 20-year tenure, he directed not only the establishment of 53 schools with an enrolment of 6,500 teachers, he also expressed a philosophy of education which became the mainstay of Pentecostal teachers in the province and is still repeated --close to plagiarism-- by the present superintendent of schools.

Shaw was no professional philosopher and a highly eclectic thinker, but he articulated in the 1960s an ideological rationale for a changed situation, in which an increasingly self-confident Pentecostal community had not merely achieved equal treatment under the law but also government recognition and social respectability. Shaw's argument for Pentecostal education acknowledges both the Newfoundland situation and modern democracy and its human rights. Shaw rejects any neutrality in education and considers a purely secular education as a deficiency, a religiously negative phenomenon of modern irreligion. Thus democracy in modern society is necessarily faced with the dilemma of a religious pluralism and responsibility for education. For Shaw the only adequate response of society is denominational education. He writes: "The only answer is pluralism in education -- which, by the way, Christian parents are under Scriptural obligation to provide for their children." Here pluralism, social responsibility, democracy, and individual rights are woven into an already existing social and cultural fabric, which permits Pentecostals to preserve their distinctiveness yet fully participate in and benefit from modern society. The change from a readiness to cooperate with other denominations in education has been so thorough that today the PAON appears to have taken over the prime role of defenders of denominational education that was once held by the Roman Catholic church. The contrast between Vaters' 1954 brief, quoted above, and the latest statement of "Principles Governing Cooperative Services" is striking. Where Vaters had affirmed cooperation and denied a distinctive philosophy of education, the present position states:

Despite such sectarian language, the cultural values and objectives of a society intent on improving its social conditions through education were adopted by Newfoundland Pentecostals. The delivery of education, the training of teachers, the organization of schools were logistical rather than ideological issues, which had to be clarified within the existing administrative structures. A distinctively religiously oriented education and its rationales emerged only after the fact but helped legitimize and propagate education within a Pentecostal environment. Pentecostals aspiring for excellence in education were now not only good Newfoundlanders but were also fulfilling a divinely willed plan. Sociologically, it represents another moment in the rationalization and bureaucratization of the Newfoundland Pentecostal movement, in short: its selective secularization. Some of these changes have led to a perceived loss of religious intimacy and for a few to a full-fledged identity crisis. The shapers of the new ethos, however, have remained largely unaware of any potential ill effects, since the educational policy received unmitigated community support from within and without. Shaw, in 1967, wrote with full confidence to a correspondent who had asked him whether the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland was "still a despised denomination."

The discipline, pedagogical care, and comparable academic standards of Pentecostal schools with the other schools in Newfoundland as well as the absence of aggressive proselytizing have lately attracted outsiders. Whereas originally Newfoundland Pentecostals schooled exclusively their own, today 18% of those attending Pentecostal schools are non-Pentecostals, including children of the business and academic community. Again, the role once played by the Roman Catholic school system is increasingly taken over by the Pentecostals. The comparison holds especially true for the capital of St. John's, where Eugene Vaters Collegiate increasingly attracts children of educated professionals and even the academic community, whereas before, St. Bonaventure's had experienced most cross-overs from the academic and professional elite.

And, yet, there are clear limits to accommodation. These surface where public interest and religious self-understanding conflict. The case is the tenuous relationship between Newfoundland's Pentecostal teachers and the Newfoundland Teacher Association.

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