Religion in Nineteenth-Century Public Education (Includes ‘‘Bible Wars’’)

2012-08-23 20:34:42

The development of public schools in northern states in the first half of the nineteenth century offered well-intentioned reformers an opportunity to mold children into upstanding, morally responsible adults. As long as most of the children provided that education were Protestant, daily readings without comment from the King James Bible were accepted as a tool to teach both reading and lessons in morality. The influx of Roman Catholics to the United States disrupted this arrangement, and resulted in the ‘‘Bible wars.’’

The first of the Bible wars occurred in New York City in 1840. The Public School Society, a private organization established to teach the poor children of New York City, operated free common schools. Historians of the conflict estimate that over 10,000 Roman Catholic children of school age in New York City did not then attend school. Although some Catholic schools existed, they were not sufficient in number or size to teach all Catholic children. One reason that Catholic children did not attend the schools operated by the Public School Society was the manifestly bigoted views of Catholics and Roman Catholicism promoted by many of the textbooks. Another reason was the use of King James Bible to teach reading and moral instruction, which Catholics rejected in favor of the Douay Bible. In January 1840, New York Governor William Seward urged the creation of schools that attended to the needs of children ‘‘professing the same faith.’’ The Public School Society responded to this political pressure by offering to black out those textbook passages offensive to Catholics. The Society refused to eliminate its use of King James Bible or to allow the Douay Bible to act as a substitute for Catholic pupils. Because the Society barred any commentary on or interpretation of passages read from the King James Bible, it claimed that the use of the King James Bible was nonsectarian. Although the prohibition of commentary on the King James readings may have resolved any theological disputes among various Protestant faiths, this was irrelevant to Catholics. Consequently, Catholics charged that the Society was sectarian, and requested money from the New York City Common Council to fund Catholic schools. After statewide elections, the New York legislature adopted a bill displacing the Public School Society and creating local districts controlling public education. However, the law forbade those districts from funding schools that engaged in sectarian religious education. Reading from the King James Bible was declared nonsectarian, for more than one Protestant faith desired its use in public schools. Catholic teachings were sectarian, and thus Catholic schools were excluded from the public school fund. Catholics then greatly expanded their school system in New York City. Subsequently, reading from the King James Bible was made mandatory in New York for any school funded by the public school fund.

The Bible war in New York was political only. In Philadelphia, the ‘‘war’’ led to violence. In 1843, the local Board of Controllers allowed students to read from a version of the Bible chosen by their parents. By March 1844, this action was declared an attempt to eliminate the use of the Bible in public institutions, including schools. Two months later, an anti-Catholic riot left a substantial number dead or wounded. In other parts of the United States during the remainder of the nineteenth century, the issue of the constitutionality of the use of the King James Bible in a public or common school was tested in courts. It was not until the 1850s that the first appellate case was heard concerning the use of the King James Bible in a public school. In Donahoe v. Richards (1854), Bridget Donahoe, a Roman Catholic, refused to read from the King James Bible. She was then expelled. She sued, claiming a constitutional right to be exempted from this duty. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected Donahoe’s claim of liberty of religious conscience. Any such right, concluded the court, would ‘‘undermine ... the power of the State,’’ and force the will of the majority to bow to the conscience of the minority, contrary to democratic principles.

In the same year that Donahoe was decided, the Know-Nothing Party swept elections inMassachusetts. This nativist group intended to legislate in favor of native-born (and usually Protestant) Americans and against Catholics and immigrants. It largely bungled the job, although the party did manage to adopt legislation in 1855 requiring the reading of the Bible in the ‘‘common English version’’ (the King James version) in public schools. This legislation was tested five years later, when a teacher was charged with assaulting an eleven-year-old student who for religious reasons refused to read from the King James Bible. The lower court hearing the case held that requiring one to read the King James Bible did not interfere with the Roman Catholic student’s constitutional right to religious liberty. Indeed, the court declared that any decision to grant the student’s request to read from the Catholic Douay Bible would constitute an impermissible discrimination in favor of a particular religion contrary to the Massachusetts Constitution. Therefore, the teacher had a right to discipline the child, and the charges were dismissed. Although Massachusetts was the only state to require Bible Reading in Public Schools by statute during the nineteenth century, use of the Bible in public schools was commonplace throughout the United States.

The remaining Bible reading cases arose in the last third of the nineteenth century. Of the half-dozen or so cases concerning the constitutionality of reading the King James Bible in the common school during the last half of the nineteenth century, only one declared that the practice unconstitutional. In State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board (1890), the Supreme Court of Wisconsin declared reading the King James Bible ‘‘without restriction’’ constituted sectarian instruction. The court noted that although much of the Bible was not sectarian, the King James Bible contained numerous sectarian passages, and distinguished the decisions in other states on the ground that the Wisconsin Constitution barred a direct prohibition of sectarian instruction.

The Blaine Amendment of 1876, offered by Republican James G. Blaine, proposed banning any state from, among other things, appropriating funds to any school ‘‘wherein the particular creed or tenets of any religious or anti-religious sect ... shall be taught.’’ The amendment also declared that ‘‘[t]his article shall not be construed to prohibit the reading of the Bible in any school or institution.’’ Although the Blaine Amendment was overwhelmingly adopted in the House of Representatives, it failed to meet the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, whose members voted the party line. Between 1875 and the early 1900s, the amendment was offered in Congress more than twenty times, although it never received more votes than it did in 1876. Although the Blaine Amendment failed in Congress, thirty-three states adopted a version of the amendment in their constitutions between 1877 and 1933.


References and Further Reading

  • Ariens, Michael S., and Robert A. Destro. Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860. New York: Rinehart [1938], 1952. Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper and Row, 1980.
  • Lannie, Vincent P. Public Money and Parochial Education: Bishop Hughes, Governor Seward, and the New York School Controversy. Cleveland, OH: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1968.
  • McAfee, Ward. Religion, Race and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Ravitch, Diane. The Great School Wars. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Donahoe v. Richards, 38 Me. 379 (1854)
  • State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board, 76 Wis. 177 (1890)