Presented at the History of Education Annual Meeting, November 2nd, 2017

While often considered the purview of the state, education has a long history of beginning in the home. In the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s, the United States took a conservative turn. Part of this conservative turn was a re-emphasis on the nuclear family and personal morality. Distrust in the state as the provider of education reached an all-time high. From the mid-1970s onwards, home education became a resort for those seeking to avoid influence of what they considered a corrupt, inefficient, and overreaching government. Drawing from both the political right and the left, the Modern Homeschooling movement was born. Yet what began as an initially diverse movement would over time become more and more reliant upon its evangelical wing, who utilized well-worn religious networks to grow and unify the swelling numbers of homeschoolers. The peculiar subculture of evangelical homeschooling quickly became the voice and face of the movement worldwide.

Historians and Homeschooling

The advent of the 1980s homeschooling movement represents one of the most significant developments in the history of modern education. Once perceived as a marginal development, the popularity of home education has grown exponentially over the course of subsequent decades, helping homeschooling become an international phenomenon.[1] The latest estimates by the National Center for Education Statistics put the total number of homeschooled children across the United States at 1.8 million.[2] The growth of homeschooling in the U.S. and abroad has more recently caught the attention of sociologists and educators. Sociologists in particular have made strides in recent years towards understanding the efficacy of homeschooling as an educational model.[3] Despite significant numbers of homeschoolers in America and their recognized influence by journalists and social scientists, this prominent movement has only recently caught the attention of historians. In the past decade Milton Gaither and M.L. Stephens have taken foundational steps towards rectifying this inadequacy. Stephens presented an examination of what he explicitly labels a “social movement” by focusing mainly on the leaders and parents of the movement.[4] In Homeschool: An American History, Milton Gaither presented a historical synthesis of the phenomenon in the United States.[5] Gaither’s survey traced the roots of homeschooling practices from the colonial period to the present. While not apologetic in tone, Stephens’s and Gaither’s rosy assessments of the movement overlooked some of the intricacies of homeschooling family life. Their overviews could not explore the intimate details of what homeschooled children were taught and how they grew up within this peculiar culture. This paper offers a first approach to filling this persistent lacuna in the literature by portraying those within the movement’s ranks by examining the writings of those who helped to craft the movement in its earliest years. Concurrently, this research raises questions about the role of religious home education in a secular society, and challenges the basic narrative of homeschooling as a story of American religious and educational freedom.

This research probes the first decade of the Modern Homeschooling movement by exploring the constituent evangelical print networks that emerged between the 1980s and 1990s. The early periodicals of the movement offer valuable insight into how homeschoolers conceptualized how children’s minds should be formed and molded. These primary sources also challenge the prevailing narrative of evangelical homeschooling representing a fundamentally American phenomenon.

Historical Background

As early as the 1970s, some evangelical parents began pulling their children out of public school classrooms to educate them in their home. Historians have pointed to a selection of influential individuals who they regard as the early leaders of the movement. John Holt, educator and the author of How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), promoted a utopian vision of unencumbered “unschooling” from the leftist side of the ideological spectrum. Meanwhile, from the political right, figures like Raymond Moore and R. J. Rushdoony offered a Christian version of education, advocating the separation of children’s education from what they condemned as an overreaching state. Other right-wingers like Gregg Harris and Bill Gothard helped to organize and solidify the movement in its foundational period.

Although these men laid the intellectual foundations for the spread of modern evangelical homeschooling, the everyday-life experiences of homeschooling families identify another influence of major significance that was central to the development of curriculum, teaching methods, and religious beliefs: the homeschooling periodical. Milton Gaither has described the Christian homeschooling periodical as a “mechanism for corralling and directing the explosive growth of Christian homeschooling.”[6] Moreover, homeschooling periodicals played a defining role in building a vast network of Christian homeschoolers across the nation—and, eventually, the world. These magazines shaped the theological and ideological discourses within the movement, often serving as the foremost source of educational information for homeschooling families. They constituted an important medium for raising awareness about the growing number of homeschoolers around the world. Through periodicals, homeschoolers received advice about curriculum and Christian living side by side. Finally, and most crucially, they catalyzed the emergence of a network of Christian kinship that fostered the growth of homeschooling around the world.

In the early 1980s, eager parents had few resources to assist them in their decision to homeschool. These pioneers relied on a few select publications that offered advice on the practical methods of homeschooling. John Holt represented a key advocate at that time as he was publishing Growing without Schooling, a periodical that served to spread his methodological insights on education. Yet as more evangelical families joined the movement, it became clear that GwS had no sufficiently inclusive ideological base to reassure especially the evangelicals among homeschooling families. Early homeschoolers were concerned about what they perceived as the state’s overreach and a decline in the moral fabric of American society. Living in the aftermath of the 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp Supreme Court decision prohibiting school-sponsored religious activities, and 1974’s devastating Supreme Court ruling of Roe vs. Wade, American evangelicals grew more convinced that the government was their foe, and that a secular society threatened to erase their Judeo-Christian heritage. As a result of these experiences, many homeschooling families believed that only a comprehensively Christian approach to child education would be desirable.[7]

Christian Homeschooling

For Christian homeschoolers, a comprehensive education of the child included spiritual education as well.[8] In 1980, Sue Welch and her family began publishing the first influential magazine specifically devoted to evangelical homeschoolers, The Teaching Home: A Christian Magazine for Home Educators. The Welches claimed that their purpose was to “provide information and support to Christian home-school families and organizations.”[9]

The Teaching Home Cover

The Teaching Home was one of the earliest periodicals dedicated to home education and featured homeschooling families on every cover.

Their statement of faith appeared on the opening pages of every issue, along with the declaration that “the organization and all of its activities and publications will be consistently and forthrightly Christian to the honor and glory of the Lord God.”[10] In their publication, the Welches offered practical advice on the logistics of homeschooling. Each issue had a particular theme but also contained several standard sections that included legal advice, letters from homeschoolers, and notices of upcoming convention and workshops. Yet far from serving simply as a how-to guide for young homeschoolers, the Welches’ volumes offered moral and spiritual guidance as well as columns devoted to advancing the homeschooling movement politically and legally. Opinion pieces on spiritual and political matters were juxtaposed with articles on education in the home. The Teaching Home became extremely popular among homeschooling families, reaching a circulation of 37,000 in 1994.[11] Moreover, it provided a template for a variety of future evangelical homeschooling periodicals.

Homeschooling Periodicals

During the 1980s, The Teaching Home was joined by several other homeschooling periodicals designed to nourish evangelical homeschooling families. In 1989, Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff began publishing Gentle Spirit, another periodical targeting mothers by highlighting their role as spiritual and educational guides within the home. Seelhoff described starting the paper as “a zine created at my kitchen table on a Selectric typewriter.”[12] Initially mailed to seventeen subscribers, Gentle Spirit enjoyed a subscription base of 50,000 by 1994.[13] Dedicated to stay-at-home mothers and their families, the monthly title encouraged women to be “meek, with a quiet spirit, discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands.”[14] The magazine focused on family life and Christian education in the home by offering advice on education, crafting, gardening, cooking, health, and faith, among others. Seelhoff’s magazine emblematized a prominent notion among evangelical homeschoolers of academics as merely one element in a person’s education. In fact, Gentle Spirit tended to explain teaching as a subset of motherhood. Other periodicals like Mary Pride’s HELP for Growing Families, Michael and Debi Pearl’s No Greater Joy, and Mark and Helen Hegener’s Home Education Magazine similarly focused on homeschooling as one part of a comprehensive approach to education both academic and spiritual in nature.

The similarities shared by these periodicals reveal the extent to which women promoted the modern homeschooling movement. Evangelical women established, maintained, and directed virtually all homeschooling periodicals. With the exception of Quit You like Men and Patriarch, which were dedicated almost exclusively to discussing the role of fathers in the home, the most significant homeschooling periodicals were established by mothers. Homeschooling wives also comprised the vast majority of the readership. Printed letters from readers identify most of the enthusiastic subscribers as women. “I couldn’t help but notice that all the letters in the Jan/Feb ‘96 issue were written by moms” wrote one father in The Teaching Home to “give encouragement to the men who may not be as verbal as their wives.”[15] Thus, despite the patriarchal discourses of these magazines, it is impossible to discuss evangelical homeschooling without acknowledging that it was an overwhelmingly female-initiated and female-dominated movement. One lesser known periodical, Sarah’s Promise, is indicative of this circumstance. Edited and managed by four women, the title disseminated articles contributed almost exclusively by homeschooling mothers. These articles addressed a wide variety of aspects from detailed theological discourses to how-to guides for teaching teenagers and on to nutrition. They advanced a concept of female leadership that was not limited to moral, domestic, and natalist elements but included educational responsibilities as well.

Homeschooling periodicals served as the medium of exchange for the burgeoning homeschooling curriculum market, providing readers with knowledge of ideologically consistent educational materials while providing homeschooling entrepreneurs a market for their products. Women such as Mary Pride paved the way by providing curriculum reviews and advertising space for entrepreneurial homeschooling families to introduce their books and other materials. Pride initially began publishing HELP for Growing Families in 1989, but after its failure she refashioned it into Practical Homeschooling, which went on to garner a readership of over 100,000 in the 2010s.[16] The classified ads section of homeschooling periodicals typically reveals the degree to which ideas about education and Christian living were intertwined in evangelical homeschooling families. It was not uncommon for educational material ads to accompany information on modest clothing, midwifery training, and agricultural products. Educational materials were typically advertised as biblically based content. Homeschooling periodicals not only represented a place to find educational materials but also a medium in which entrepreneurial homeschooling families could sell their curriculum to their core clientele.

Finally, like Christian sect publications of previous generations, homeschooling periodicals helped to form a complex network that offering disparate families a sense of kinship in a global family of believers. This distinct aspect of the evangelical homeschooling movement has frequently been overlooked. Yet homeschooling periodicals bear testimony to the fact that Christian homeschooling constituted an outgrowth of a global resurgence in evangelicalism in the latter twentieth century rather than a phenomenon confined to the U.S. Almost all magazines reprinted extensive letters, prayer requests, and testimonials from homeschooling families around the world. Letters from homeschooling families poured in from international scenes as far away as Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Canada, and Australia, pointing to the tremendous scope of these networks even in the early years.[17]

Women 

The majority of these letters were written by women, emphasizing the importance of sisterhood for the flourishing of the movement. Reflecting on her decision to start the publication Above Rubies, Nancy Campbell explained: “I was feeling, I guess as most mothers do today the pressure of feminism and humanism all around me in the media, in the education system, and I didn’t feel that there was any encouragement to mothers who are at home. And I felt this burden to get a magazine out that would keep coming to encourage women and affirm their high calling of motherhood.”[18] Campbell, originally hailing from New Zealand, arrived in Tennessee in 1991 by way of Australia.[19] Her ministry was international from its inception and her magazine soon reached a wide-spread international readership. Campbell’s success with her Above Rubies ministry illustrates that the homeschooling movement should not be simply viewed as a purely American phenomenon. Indeed the evangelical underpinnings of the movement encouraged its global spread early on.

The regularity of the magazines reinforced the notion of community and spiritual kinship. Readers immersed themselves in a world of like-minded parents dedicated to building safe and godly homeschools. Mothers received encouragement from other homeschooling women, and most journal sections addressed other members of the family. As Milton Gaither has noted, many homeschooling families that subscribed to the hyper-natalist vision expounded in these magazines found their beliefs unsupported at their local churches; thus, the periodicals offered them what may have been in many cases the only permanent connection to fellow believers.[20] The Teaching Home printed a regular column with news on homeschooling conventions and workshops news in nearly every state. Likewise, the legal news section informed readers on efforts to ensure the future of homeschooling models, providing a platform especially for Home School Legal Defense Association founder Michael Farris. Rather than regarding other homeschooling periodicals as competition, editors went so far as to recommend other titles to their readers. The editors of Sarah’s Promise even included articles borrowed from the pages of other prominent homeschoolers like Michael and Debi Pearl.[21] Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff’s Gentle Spirit regularly contained advertisements for both Patriarch and Quit You Like Men.

The regularity of the magazines reinforced the notion of community and spiritual kinship.

For foundational purposes, this paper provides only a general overview of the early homeschooling movement by focusing on the periodicals of publishing pioneers. As the overview indicates, the modern homeschooling movement was built and sustained by networks of evangelicals woven by women. Mothers and families built “safe” homeschools for their children to develop unharmed by the alleged threats of secular society. As the history of Modern Homeschooling movement has received comparatively little academic attention much research remains to be conducted, particularly because the significance of homeschooling still is hard to underestimate. Despite contemporary trends that hint at a diversification within homeschooling—represented, for instance, by a recent surge in the number of secular and non-traditional homeschooling families—homeschooling enjoys persistent attractiveness for religious groups that wish to counter state involvement in the education of their children.[22] Muslim parents in particular may find homeschooling an attractive option as rising tides of anti-Muslim sentiment render the home a safe zone where children can be sheltered from pressures to assimilate that they may encounter at secular state schools.[23] African-Americans, meanwhile, have a long history as participants in the movement that has largely remained unwritten.[24] Present-day fragmentation in the United States’ school system will likely spur interest in homeschooling options across many strata of American society as parents attempt to forego problems that affect underfunded public schools, looking to provide their children a safe environment to learn and develop. For these reasons, intensified research of historians on homeschooling in the past may produce knowledge that can speak to the concerns of present-day society and future parents.

[1] Mitic, Ginanne Brownell “Do the Math: The Percentage of Expat Homeschoolers Is Growing.” The Wall Street Journal, Jan 20, 2016, accessed February 28th, 2017. http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2016/01/20/do-the-math-the-percentage-of-expat-homeschoolers-is-growing.

[2] This number is likely conservative, as it does not account for those who choose not to report. U.S. Department of Education. This estimate was taken from a recent survey of homeschooling families as reported by the U.S. Department of Education. See: Redford, J., Battle, D., and Bielick, S. (2017). Homeschooling in the United States: 2012 (NCES 2016-096.REV). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. Pp ii.

[3] See Kunzman, Robert and Milton Gaither, “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research,” Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives. 2(2013): 4-59.

[4] Stevens, M.L., Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). A sociologist by training, Stevens evaluated the homeschooling movement as a dualistic group comprised of the far left and right.

[5] Gaither, Milton. Homeschool: an American History. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[6] Milton Gaither, Homeschool: an American History. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 156.

[7] Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 111-133. Jonathan M. Schoenwald, A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 251-265.

[8] For more on Christian homeschooling see: Milton Gaither, Homeschool: an American History. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan) 2008; Mitchell L. Stephens, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 2001; and Robert Kunzman, Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling. (Boston, Massachusettes: Beacon Press) 2009.

[9] The Teaching Home, Vol. VIII, No. 6. December/January ‘90/’91. 2.

[10] The Teaching Home, Vol. VIII, No. 6. December/January, ‘90/’91. 2.

[11] Milton Gaither, Homeschool: an American History. (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan) 2008. 157.

[12] Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, “CONFRONTING the Religious Right,” Off Our Backs, Vol. 36, No. 3 (2006), pp. 18-25. 18.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gentle Spirit, Vol 4 No. 4, November 1992. 1.

[15] Paul Gebel, “Father Gives Essential Support,” The Teaching Home, May/June 1996. 5.

[16] “How a Practical Homeschooling Magazine Subscription Can Help You,” Homeschoolworld.com, https://www.home-school.com/catalog/pages/phs.php. Accessed October 10, 2017.

[17] Gentle Spirit, Vol. 4 No. 6, January 1993. 52. Gentle Spirit, Vol. 4. No. 9. April 1993. 31-32. The Teaching Home, December/January ‘90/’91. 3.

[18] Interview with Nancy Campbell, “The Above Rubies Ministry, An Overview in Video,” Aboverubies.org. http://aboverubies.org/index.php/home/about-ar-ministry-videos, Accessed October 5th, 2017.

[19] Nancy Campbell, “Who are the Campbells?” http://aboverubies.org/index.php/component/content/article?id=546. Updated July 2013. Accessed October 10, 2017.

[20] Gaither, Homeschool: An American History, 156.

[21] Michael and Debi Pearl, “The Parental Root,” Sarah’s Promise, Vol. 5. No. 4. Sept/Oct 1999. 38-41.

[22] Margaret Talbot, “The New Counterculture,” The Atlantic. November, 2001. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/11/the-new-counterculture/302341/ Accessed September 15, 2017.

[23] Sajjida Sarwar, “What motivates 21st century Muslim parents to home-school their children?” Education Today, 63, No. 5 (2013): 25-29.

[24] See Ama Mazama and Garvey Lundy, “African American Homeschooling as Racial Protectionism,” Journal of Black Studies. Volume: 43 issue: 7, page(s): 723-748. August 26, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021934712457042; Ama Mazama and Garvey Lundy, “African American Homeschooling and the Quest for a Quality Education,” Education and Urban Society. Vol 47, Issue 2, pp. 160 – 181. July 29, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013124513495273.

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