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The Nineteenth-Century Bible Wars and the Separation of Church and State1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Tracy Fessenden
An associate professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.


In December 2004 the George W. Bush administration filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of two Kentucky counties barred by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from posting framed copies of the Ten Commandments in their courthouses, alongside a proclamation from President Ronald Reagan marking 1983 as the Year of the Bible. To those who would object that even a minimalist interpretation of the separation of church and state might preclude the prominent display of a religious text in just that place—the courthouse—where the principle of separation is normatively enforced, the White House offered assurance that “Official acknowledgement and recogntion of the Ten Commandments' influence on American legal history comport with the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment].”

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2005

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2. “Ten Commandments Backed by Bush in Court Fight,” Bloomberg Media, 12, 2004, Scholar.

3. David Lyle, Jeffrey, “Civic Religion and the First Amendment,” One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture, ed. Maijorie, Garber and Walkowitz, Rebecca L. (New York: Routledge, 1999), 2131, 2223.Google Scholar

4. The Ten Commandments, of course, belong to Hebrew as well as to Christian Scripture and so, it may seem to many to follow, to “everyone.” As Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini write of invocations of “Judeo-Christian” moral standards in American jurisprudence, “we should not mistake the hyphen for inclusion or some sign of religious pluralism. Rather, the hyphen condenses the story of Judaism's supersession by Christianity and passes off a wished-for assimilation of difference … as an instance of religious pluralism”: Jakobsen, and Pellegrini, , “Getting Religion,” in One Nation Under God?, 101–14, 109.Google Scholar

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6. Paine, Thomas, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, ed. Adkins, Nelson F. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), 41, 14Google Scholar. Paine further affirmed that “diversity of religious opinions among us … affords a larger field for our Christian kindness” (41).

7. Boles, Donald E., The Bible, Religion, and Public Schools (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1965), 3940Google Scholar. American Protestants had in fact urged their demands for a separation of church and state along the same lines that the Independent party in the English Civil War had articulated England's separation from the Roman Catholic Church. See Hudson, Winthrop, American Protestantism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 1416Google Scholar. See also Banner, Lois, “Religious Benevolence as Social Control: A Critique of an Interpretation,” Journal of American History 60 (06 1973): 2341CrossRefGoogle Scholar: “In freeing men from Catholicism [Protestant republicans believed], the Protestant Reformation had liberated them from their attachment to the feudal state and had stimulated them to develop representative governments” (39).

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10. Webster, Noah, An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia, Penn.: Young and M'Culloch, 1787), 2A.Google Scholar

11. Ibid., 243.

12. Ibid., 329–31.

13. Gaustad, Edwin Scott, “Church, State, and Education in Historical Perspective,” Journal of Church and States 24 (winter 1984): 1729, 25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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15. See Culver, Raymond B., Horace Mann and Religion in the Massachusetts Public Schools (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1929), 149–62.Google Scholar

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21. “Kirwan” (Nicholas Murray), Romanism at Home: Letters to the Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1852), 249–50Google Scholar. Taney, who would notoriously go on to author the Supreme Court's opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), impressed Murray as a Catholic whose training in rationality had overcome the debilities of his religion: “Brought up to a profession which proverbially sharpens the intellect for just discrimination … you are as capable of separating the false from the true, the fiction from the fact, the seeming from the real, as any other American citizen” (18).

22. As quoted by Smith, Timothy L., “Protestant Schooling and American Nationality, 1800–1850,Journal of American History 53 (03 1967): 679–95, 685CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The writer was commenting on the monitory and reformist Lancaster system of education in England, which sought to educate children from indigent families and became the model for charity schools in the United States.

23. These examples come from Cummings, J. A., An Introduction to Ancient and Modern Geography (Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1817), 168Google Scholar; Channing Woodbridge, William, System of Modern Geography (Hartford, Conn.: William James Hamersley, 1866), 326Google Scholar; Frost, John, The Class Book of American Literature (Boston: J. H. A. Frost, 1826), 73Google Scholar; all as quoted by Elson, Ruth Miller, Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks in the Nineteenth Century (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 4648Google Scholar; quote from Elson is 56. See also Fell, Marie Léonore Sr, The Foundations of Nativism in American Textbooks, 1783–1860 (1941; reprint New York: Jerome S. Ozer, 1971)Google Scholar. Some Protestant leaders lamented that children of immigrant parents, who in their view required the benefits of public schooling the most, were being kept from school because of the sectarian content of textbooks then in use. Governor Seward in New York advocated schools where Catholic immigrants could be instructed by teachers of their own faith, “less from sympathy, than because the welfare of the state demands it, and cannot dispense with it”; as quoted by Billington, , The Protestant Crusade, 150Google Scholar. Seward's proposal, like the so-called Lowell experiment in Massachusetts, which set moneys aside to educate Catholic children separately from their Protestant peers, was eventually dismantled in the wake of charges that its allocation of resources for the sectarian education of Catholics impoverished the public school fund. On the Irish boycotting of education generally, see Field, Alexander J., “Educational Expansion in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts: Human-Capital Formation or Structural Reinforcement?Harvard Educational Review 46 (1976): 521–52, 546 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the Protestant-Catholic Bible wars in New York, see Billington, Protestant Crusade, chap. 6; McCadden, Joseph J., “New York's School Crisis of 1840–1842: Its Irish Antecedents,” Thought 41 (1966): 561–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ravitch, Diane, The Great School Wars, New York City 1805–1973 (New York: Basic Books, 1974)Google Scholar; on Boston and the Lowell experiment, see Schultz, Stanley K., The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 252–77Google Scholar; Nasaw, David, Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 6679.Google Scholar

24. Between 1790 and 1834, Philadelphia offered free schooling to children of the poorest citizens only. In 1834, schools were opened to children of all low-income families, not just the indigent, and in 1837 were made available to children of all families regardless of income. Children of the Irish made up the poorest of the white children in schools, which now educated different classes of children side by side. Protestant parents whose children attended public schools, however, were likely to have been those most at economic risk from the immigrant presence, since wealthier Protestant parents tended to put their children in private schools. Moreover, the Protestant assaults were waged almost entirely against newly arrived Irish Catholics, leaving more established German Catholics and their churches unmolested. See Feldberg, , The Philadelphia Riots of 1844, chapters 2 and 3 especially.Google Scholar

25. Catholic Herald, November 25, 1841; as quoted by Meyers, Mary Ann, “The Children's Crusade: Philadelphia Catholics and the Public Schools, 1840–1844,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 75 (06 1964): 103–37, 107–8.Google Scholar

26. Leeser, Isaac, “Jewish Children Under Gentile Teachers,” The Occident and American Jewish Advocate (12 1843): 411Google Scholar; as quoted by Lannie, Vincent and Diethorn, Bernard C., “For the Honor and Glory of God: The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1840,” History of Education Quarterly 8 (spring 1968): 44108; 99, n. 42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27. Reprinted in the Catholic Herald, June 2, 1842; as quoted by Meyers, , “Children's Crusade,” 114–15.Google Scholar

28. Catholic Herald, March 21, 1839; as quoted by Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 97, n. 14.Google Scholar

29. Kenrick, Francis, Letter Ledger, 202–4Google Scholar, Philadelphia Archdiocesan Archives; as quoted in Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 56Google Scholar. Kenrick's letter was reprinted in several Protestant papers, including the North American, January 14, 1843; the United States Gazette, January 14, 1843; Protestant Banner; January 19, 1843; the New York Freeman's Journal, January 21, 1843; and the Philadelphia, Christian Observer, January 27, 1843.Google Scholar

30. Colton, Walter, “The Bible in Our Public Schools,” sixteen-page pamphlet reprinted in The Quarterly Review of the American Protestant Association 1 (01 1844): 1022; 17Google Scholar; Lannie and Diethorn, “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 63. On “phantom[s] of the brain” as a specifically Catholic trait, cf. the Presbyterian minister Elijah Lovejoy: “No man, in his senses, ever believed fully and fairly the [Roman Catholic] doctrine of transubstantiation…. Let us not be misunderstood; there have, doubtless, been many men who thought they believed it, but owing to the prejudice of education, their minds, on this point, were dark, and saw things that were not as though they were. So often do we see individuals inflicted with mental imbecility on some particular subject”: Joseph, C. and Owen, Lovejoy, ed., Memoir of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy (New York: J. S. Taylor, 1883), 104Google Scholar; as quoted by Knobel, , Paddy and the Republic, 56.Google Scholar

31. Episcopal Recorder, March 9, 1844; Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 67.Google Scholar

32. Catholic Herald, February 15, 1844; as quoted by Meyers, , “Children's Crusade,” 118–19.Google Scholar

33. Public Ledger, June 8, 1844, as quoted by Feldberg, , The Philadelphia Riots, 95.Google Scholar

34. As quoted by Feldberg, , The Philadelphia Riots, 95.Google Scholar

35. Hancock Lee, John, The origin and progress of the American Party in politics: embracing a complete history of the Philadelphia riots in May and July, 1844 … and a refutation of the arguments founded on the charges of religions proscription and secret combinations (1855; reprint Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press [1970]), 247.Google Scholar

36. American, Native, May 7, 1844Google Scholar; as quoted by Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 73Google Scholar; for other coverage of Schiffler's death and confusions on whether the first shots were fired by Protestants or Catholics, see Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 100101, n. 62Google Scholar; Billington, , Protestant Crusade, 325, n. 15.Google Scholar

37. Feldberg, , Philadelphia Riots, 109.Google Scholar

38. Native American, May 7, 1844; as quoted in Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 74.Google Scholar

39. Christian Observer, July 12, 1844, 110.

40. Christian Observer, July 19, 1844, 114.

41. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1838–58 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1894), 173Google Scholar; as quoted by Lannie, and Diethorn, , “For the Honor and Glory of God,” 88.Google Scholar

42. Beecher, Lyman, Plea for the West, 37, 142.Google Scholar

43. Mormons and Indians were often conflated in children's textbooks; according to Willard's, EmmaAbridged History of the United States or Republic of America (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1868)Google Scholar, for example, Mormonism constituted “the most extraordinary imposture of our age … giv[ing] its followers license to commit every crime,” but was destined, together with Indians, to be “overwhelmed by the restless wave of civilization” (337–38); as quoted by Elson, , Guardians of Tradition, 59Google Scholar. On Indians in textbooks, see Elson, , Guardians of Tradition, 7181.Google Scholar

44. Campbell, George, A Sermon … at the Ordination of Rev. George H. Atkinson (Newbury, Vt.: L. J. Mclndoe, 1847), 2021Google Scholar; as quoted by Tyack, David, “The Kingdom of God and the Common School: Protestant Ministers and the Educational Awakening in the West,” Harvard Educational Review 36 (fall 1966): 447–69, 457–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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46. Catholic Telegraph, May 16, 1834; as quoted by Perko, F. Michael, “The Building Up of Zion: Religion and Education in Nineteenth Century Cincinnati,” The Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin 38 (summer 1980): 96114, 99Google Scholar. The British writer Harriet Martineau wrote in 1837 of her recent visit to the United States, including Cincinnati, that “hatred to the Catholics … approaches too nearly in its irreligious character to the oppression of the negro.… Parents … put into their children's hands, as religious books, the foul libels against the Catholics which are circulated throughout the country”: Society in America, 2nd. ed., 3 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1837), 3:234–35.Google Scholar

47. Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 101.Google Scholar

48. “The Bible: A Suitable and Important Class Book for Every School,” Ohio Educational Monthly 2 (1853): 233Google Scholar; Hamant, , “Religion in the Cincinnati Schools,” 241.Google Scholar

49. Western Christian Advocate, March 15, 1844, 42; emphasis in original.

50. Cincinnati Gazette, November 16, 1844; as quoted by Stritch, Alfred G., “Political Nativism in Cincinnati, 1830–1860,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 48 (09 1937): 227–78, 244.Google Scholar

51. Stritch, , “Political Nativism in Cincinnati,” 269.Google Scholar

52. Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 101.Google Scholar

53. The Cincinnati Journal had greeted the opening even the first of these schools “with grief and mortification”: “We have witnessed the facility with which papists persuade Protestant parents to place their children at the Catholic schools and colleges. It is a well-known fact that these schools are nothing but proselytizing schemes on the part of the Roman hierarchy”: Cincinnati Journal, July 27, 1831; as quoted by Stritch, , “Political Nativism in Cincinnati,” 259.Google Scholar

54. The Catholic Telegraph, March 26, 1853; as quoted by Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 103.Google Scholar

55. Western Christian Advocate, April 13, 1853, as quoted in Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 103.Google Scholar

56. Michaelson, Robert, “Common School, Common Religion? A Case Study in Church-State Relations, Cincinnati 1869–70,” Church History 38 (06 1969): 210–17, 203.Google Scholar

57. Cincinnati, Gazette, August 28, 1869Google Scholar, as quoted by Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 104.Google Scholar

58. Minor, John D., Plaintiffs, The Bible in the Public Schools (1870; reprint New York: Da Capo, 1967), 67.Google Scholar

59. Michaelson, , “Common School, Common Religion,” 207.Google Scholar

60. Cincinnati, Enquirer, November 2, 1869Google Scholar; as quoted by Perko, , “Building Up of Zion,” 105.Google Scholar

61. The Bible in the Public Schools, 6–15.

62. Judicial opinions are reprinted in Minor, John D., Plaintiffs, The Bible in the Public Schools, 350420Google Scholar. On a “Protestant common denominator” as the “middle ground between sectarianism and secularism,” see Tyack, , “The Kingdom of God and the Common School,” 466.Google Scholar

63. New York Times, Dec. 3, 1869, 1.

64. The text accompanying these images describes morning exercises at the ideal public school: “a short passage of scripture is read, and with folded hands the little ones repeat the Lord's Prayer.” Public schools, the text continues, “constitute our chief safeguard against a relapse into the temporal and spiritual bondage which our fathers sought this country to avoid. … The dangers that threaten them in the way of unsecularization, and a diversion of the large portion of the common schools funds for the support of sectarian schools, are only too happily foreshadowed in Mr. Nast's admirable composition on page 140, which requires no comment to enforce its warning admonitions”: Harper's Weekly, February 26, 1870, 141–42.

65. Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor, 23 Ohio State Reports (December Term 1872): 238–54Google Scholar; reprint in The Bible in the Public Schools, 422–38.

66. McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Fourth Reader (Cincinnati 1848), 6Google Scholar; as quoted by Fell, , Foundations of Nativism in American Textbooks, 82.Google Scholar

67. Hamant, , “Religion in the Cincinnati Schools,” 249–50.Google Scholar

68. Report of the Proceedings of the State Teachers Association, 1884 (Salem, Ore.: W. H. Byars, 1884), 3940Google Scholar; as quoted by Tyack, , “The Kingdom of God and the Common School,” 465.Google Scholar

69. See Johnson, Alvin W. and Yost, Frank H., Separation of Church and State in the United States (1934; reprint Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1948), 3340Google Scholar; Boles, , The Bible, Religion, and the Public Schools, 4857.Google Scholar

70. Emerson wrote in his journal in 1844, “the Catholic religion respects masses of men and ages. … The Catholic church is ethnical, and in every way superior. It is in harmony with Nature, which loves the race and ruins the individual. The Protestant has his pew, which of course is only the first step to a church for every individual citizen—a church apiece”: Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Emerson, Edward W. and Forbes, Waldo E., 10 vols. (Boston 1911), 7:341–42Google Scholar, as quoted by Birdsell, Richard D., “Emerson and the Church of Rome,” American Literature 31 (11 1959): 273–81, 274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

71. See Greer, Colin, The Great School Legend: A Revisionist Interpretation of American Public Education (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 80104Google Scholar; Elson, , Guardians of Tradition, 65185.Google Scholar

72. See Gutjahr, Paul C., An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999).Google Scholar

73. Hamburger, , Separation of Church and State, 462.Google Scholar

74. Ibid., 483.

75. In the words of Justice Rehnquist, “the greatest injury of the ‘wall’ notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights.… The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned”: Wallace v. Jaffree; 472 U.S. 38, 107 (1984), Dissenting; National Alliance Against Christian Discrimination website, judicial.htm. Stephen F. Smith approvingly notes that “the most powerful voice in the recent assault on separation has been Justice Clarence Thomas. His plurality opinion in Mitchell [Mitchell v. Helms, 570 U.S. 793 (2000)] declared that, in the educational context, strict separation was ‘born of bigotry’ and thus ‘should be buried now.’ Incidentally, Thomas was educated by nuns in parochial schools and graduated from Holy Cross. Maybe the nativists were onto something about those Catholic schools after all”: Smith, Stephen F., “We the Protestants,” First Things 128 (12 2002): 4347, 4647.Google Scholar

76. Ibid., 43.