The Reverend Fred Nile MLC is leader of the Christian Democratic Party in Australia. In a letter to a major Australian newspaper on the subject of ethics classes as an alternative to Special Religious Instruction in Australia schools, he wrote of the opponents to his proposed bill:

They wrongly believe that when Sir Henry Parkes introduced free and ''secular'' state education, he meant ''non-Christian'' or ''non-religious''. That was never his intention. In the 1880s, ''secular'' was used to prohibit denominational teaching in NSW classrooms, not scripture classes, which Parkes decreed should fill one hour per day.

Parkes was an Australian statesman whose career spanned the last half of the 1800s.

I found it odd that the word "secular" could be used this way 150 years ago, and checked its etymology.

secular late 13c., "living in the world, not belonging to a religious order," also "belonging to the state," from O.Fr. seculer, from L.L. saecularis "worldly, secular," from L. saecularis "of an age, occurring once in an age," from saeculum "age, span of time, generation," probably originally cognate with words for "seed," from PIE base *se(i)- "to sow" (cf. Goth. mana-seþs "mankind, world," lit. "seed of men"). Used in ecclesiastical writing like Gk. aion "of this world" (see cosmos). It is source of Fr. siècle. Ancient Roman ludi saeculares was a three-day, day-and-night celebration coming once in an "age" (120 years).

That doesn't seem to support the claim.

What reason is there to believe that Parkes intended Australian education to be (a) Christian but non-denominational, as Nile claims, or (b) secular, in the modern (?) non-religious sense, as his opponents claim?

  • Hmmmm... Could this question be considered a "What did X believe?" question which is off-topic? Let me know if you think so, and I will delete.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 5:03
  • Isn’t it completely irrelevant what people 150 years ago thought? It’s the same as with the Founding Fathers in the USA. The debates of whether Ron Paul or his opponents know the constitution better is completely ridiculous. Likewise, the etymology of a word is not an authoritative definition of its meaning. It may be interesting but it’s not the ultimate argument. Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 14:10
  • @Konrad, you are, of course, absolutely right, but whether it is right for government schools to be religion-free is out of scope.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 14:26
  • The first line of the definition you quote "living in the world, not belonging to a religious order", doesn't mean "not religious", it means "not a monk or a nun". Not long ago there could be "secular priests", meaning those that ministered to the lay people instead of living in a monastry. Commented Jan 10, 2012 at 21:16
  • 1
    @Sonny: Tricky. If the question was "Nile says his opponents believe X, not Y; are they correct?", you'd have a valid objection. But the claim is "Nile says Y; is he correct?" If you remove the first sentence from the quote from Nile (which is there to provide needed context) you can see the real claim. Whether his opponents actually believe X is irrelevant.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Apr 6, 2012 at 5:58

2 Answers 2


I think you are misinterpreting the quote:

They wrongly believe that when Sir Henry Parkes introduced free and ''secular'' state education, he meant ''non-Christian'' or ''non-religious''.

What Rev. Nile is say is that people misunderstood the purpose of what Parkes was aiming to do. He was not trying to make school completely "non-Christian" or "non-religious".

In the 1880s, ''secular'' was used to prohibit denominational teaching in NSW classrooms, not scripture classes, which Parkes decreed should fill one hour per day.

What Parkes was aiming to do (according to Rev. Nile) was to prohibit denominational teaching as being intermingled with the secular teaching and should be taught within a dedicated period of one hour per day.

So I think you are just misunderstanding the quote. What Nile is saying is that people are getting it wrong when they think that Parkes was aiming to eradicate religious studies from schools by separating secular education from religious studies. Rev. Nile is not claiming that Parkes wanted to make it Christian but non, denominational.

And for those that care here is the original text being discussed:

Public Instruction Act 1880 (excerpt):

17. Hours for secular instruction

(1) In every school, 4 hours during each school day shall be devoted to secular instruction exclusively and a part of each day, not more than 1 hour, shall be set apart when the children of any one religious persuasion may be instructed by the clergyman or other religious teacher of a religious persuasion but, in all cases, the pupils receiving the religious instruction shall be separated from the other pupils of the school.

(2) And the hour during which the religious instruction may be given shall be fixed by mutual agreement between the school board in consultation with the principal of the school and the clergy of the district or the other person that may be duly authorised to act in his or her place and any classroom of a school may be used for the religious instruction by like agreement:

  • (a) provided that the religious instruction to be so given shall in every case be the religious instruction authorised by the church to which the clergy or other religious teacher may belong; and

  • (b) provided further that in case of the nonattendance of any clergy or religious teacher during any part of the period agreed to be set apart for religious instruction the period shall be devoted to the ordinary secular instruction in the school.


Secular came into English through the Catholic church, where secular clergy were those priests and deacons not subject to a monastic rule (regulum in Latin, hence monks were regular clergy). The secular clergy were those out in the world.

In education in 19th century Britain and its colonies, most schools were attached to religious institutions such as the Anglican and Catholic churches, causing problems for non-conformist Protestants and their children, as well as raising issue about sectarianism. When the State decided to make education compulsory and to provide schools where there were gaps, such as in the Elementary Education Act 1870 in England, the aim was to make schools which were not based on or controlled by a denomination and where there was no religious test for entry. There was provision for religious instruction and services, but it was separate from the rest of the timetable and a relatively small part of the timetable.

The 1880 New South Wales law looks very similar and probably had the same intent.

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