Dr Michael Smythe
historian and educational consultant living in San Diego, California

Benjamin Justice, The War That Wasn't: Religious Conflict and Compromise in the Common Schools of New York State, 1865-1900. SUNY Press, 2005, 285pp. ISBN 0791462110

In his recent masterpiece, The Bible in English (2003), Dr David Daniell rightfully challenges historians and writers who possess the 'puzzling' attribute of 'Bible-blindness' when it comes to their renditions of American colonial history. Their omissions and/or distortions of the Bible's significance in that formative period are ill founded and their miscues amount to building a house on sand. For Daniell, "Colonising is a Bible thing."

But as he moved into the Revolutionary War era, Daniell recounted in arresting detail how the prominent bookseller and printer Robert Aitken appealed to Congress in January, 1781, for authorization and financial support of the first complete English Bible to be published in America. Due to the ravages of war, copies had become scarce. According to Daniell, it is here "one first encounters three unexpected circumstances that will haunt the story of the Bible in America." Besides the fact that Americans stubbornly clung to the KJV only and refused to do fresh translation work, what primarily concerns us is the curious "reluctance of the first Congresses to have anything to do with such a printing." In the fall of 1782 after prolonged committee investigation, opaque replies and no forthcoming monies, Congress could only muster a mild resolution in behalf of Aitken's Bible. Finally, reducing matters to an even lower equation, they qualified their commendation by acknowledging his Bible as "an instance of the progress of the arts in this country."

It is noteworthy to read Aitken's original request before Congress where he stated:

That in every well regulated Government in Christendom the Sacred books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming injuries the Christian faith might suffer from the Spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation...(italics mine)

Fatal confusion? In absentia, Daniell upbraids Aitken in his obsequious campaign for political sanction and approval of his Bible by posing the acid question: "Did it not occur to him...that he was free to work independently?" (Presumably, as did Tyndale, who had the teeth of the English State at his heels!) Daniell concluded: "Self-interest, and those increasingly distressing assumptions about the United States as God's elect nation, began to muddy the stream."

The irony of Daniell's remarks strikes a nerve in the American vein for its clamouring about independence and the pretensions of an evolving Civil Religion. A great disjunction or wall of confusion protrudes over America's self-understanding of the past and present concerning the dimensions of law, government, religion, society, education, and their relationship to the Bible.

To be sure, Bible production in the early American republic and throughout the nineteenth-century was prolific. Writing of the American Bible Society, historian Peter J. Wosh recorded, "Observers marveled at the system and order of the enterprise, the logical progression of the work, and the staggering production." Producing 228,000 Bibles in 1842, a decade later the ABS shot it up to 842,000. Print explosion coincided with the advent and expansion of public schools. Above all, Americans had faith in their institutions: none was higher than that for common or public schools. As historian John Patrick Diggins reported on antebellum America, "the schoolhouse replaced the polis as the source of human development." Roughly speaking, the common assumption was that the American experiment, especially its schools, rested upon virtue, virtue upon morality, and morality upon the Bible.

Traditionally, Americans pictured the Bible as being applied freely, actively and integrally in public schools from their inception in the early nineteenth-century onward in continuity with earlier periods. This view did not change much until rumblings began to surface over various Supreme Court rulings starting in the 1940s and culminating in Vitale v. Engle that banned prayer in 1962 and Abingdon Township School District v. Schempp that banned Bible-reading in US schools in 1963. America's moral, spiritual and legal nosedive in the 1960s was considered by many to be only a very recent phenomenon, one that continues today in the never ending 'Culture Wars'. Some even believe the decline of America's schools and diminution of the Bible's importance within them was the direct result of recent, radical influences. Who is fooling whom? This is nothing new or without precedent.

Although applied to higher education, D. G. Hart lamented: "Educational historians have been hard pressed to look at the rise of universities from a perspective other than the warfare perspective." Here Hart was referring to habitual clashes between secularists and Christians, especially Creationists and Darwinists (now it is the debate over 'intelligent design'). Yet the same distinction has held true for historians writing about the place of religion, particularly the Bible, in the origin and development of public schools in American history. That is, until now.

In his new work The War That Wasn't (a book that will redefine the landscape of educational historiography), Benjamin Justice, Rutgers University Professor of History and Education, bemoans the notion that in "the last 100 years, the history of religion in American public schools in late nineteenth-century America" related "a most gruesome story of irreconcilable conflict" featuring pitched battles between competing ideologies and groups like Republicans and Democrats, Nativists and immigrants, Catholics and Protestants, over such religious exercises as prayers, hymn-singing and most significantly Bible-reading. Hence, the so-called 'warfare thesis'. While Justice neither denies nor ignores collisions over the Bible, taking note of such conflicts as the Cincinnati Bible Wars where the city Board of Education banned Bible-reading in public schools in 1869, his surprising conclusion over the use of the Bible (at least in New York state in the second half of the nineteenth-century) was largely one of 'peaceful adjustments'. He further cites brawls like the 1871 Orange Day Riot in New York City in which 100 Catholics and Protestants were killed, and from Harper's Weekly he displays cartoonist Thomas Nast's caricatures of Catholic bishops depicted as crocodiles landing on New York's shores snapping up innocent Protestant children attending public schools. He discloses President Ulysses S. Grant's efforts to fuel anti-Catholic sentiment saying "if the nation should go again to war, the new Mason-Dixon line would be drawn at the common schoolhouse door, and sectarian (Catholic) influence would be the new enemy." He relates Rochester's Catholic Bishop Bernard McQuaid's charge, "that public schools gave Catholics 'a defective, injurious, poisonous education' and were either offensively Protestant or dangerously infidel," and he "and other leading bishops in New York State openly threatened Catholic parents and their children with denial of the Sacraments (and thus eternal damnation) for refusing to send their children to parochial schools." Notwithstanding this parade of fussing, fuming, and fighting, Justice thinks the sound and fury of state and national rhetoric about religious differences was overblown and far removed from daily reality.

Historian R. Laurence Moore thinks "the most neglected issue in the endless discussions about religion in American public schools is the historical question: What constituted general practice in the multitude of school districts across the nation?" "Rather than focus on the rhetorical battles over religion at the state and national levels," Justice takes up Moore's suggestion by examining "how local school districts dealt with religion in practice." One must first realize that the entire machinery of the New York state department of education at this time was comprised of one superintendent, three clerks and a single deputy to oversee nearly 12,000 school districts spread throughout the state. Although given 'broad powers' by the legislature, the superintendent's office overwhelmingly deferred to local officials, called trustees, to decide school matters, including religious issues, but the one thing the state consistently did was "intervene in behalf of religious minorities who objected to mandatory religious exercises." The role of the state department consisted of managing state funds, recording statistics and administering state law, but for many years there was "little effort to clarify policies toward religion."

From 1822 to 1913 superintendents received 12,000 appeals. Justice says the appeals "process also offers the most sterling example of the weakness of religion as a state educational issue," appearing in "only 1.5 per cent of appeals," and then "usually as a complaint about religious meetings in the schoolhouse after hours." In a revealing find, he located state surveys during the years 1827-1840 where the public schools of each town reported on the 'common usage' of various textbooks and reading materials, including the 'New Testament and the Bible'. Of all schools, Bible usage recorded a high in 1830 of 28 per cent and ten years later in 1840 a disastrously lower figure of 11 per cent. On a national scale, Moore found Bible-reading to be 'widespread' but "neither universal nor framed uniformly." Justice says this "evidence shows that religion was not a major, bitterly divisive issue in local practice in cities or rural districts." But this is true for reasons that the public has either forgotten or never learned.

Running counter to virtually all histories of America education, Justice describes what amounts to a crucial yet neglected structural revolution that permanently altered American society. He succinctly explains:

A quiet revolution occurred from 1800 to 1830, in which democratic governance supplanted ecclesiastical and private control of community schooling. (italics mine)

He elaborates saying "the workings of the common school system after the Civil War requires looking to its foundation decades before. The tangled relationship between religion and nineteenth-century common schools stemmed from the late eighteenth-century-from seeds sown in the American Revolution (as Daniell noted above). Historians of education and would-be reformers have focused much of their attention on this formative period, and rightfully so. From the formal ratification of the federal constitution in 1789 to the end of the early national period in the 1820s, American education underwent its own revolution-one that redefined the relationship among religion, government, and schooling."

This is the revolution of which Americans are seemingly oblivious. Justice adds "that the most significant feature of early nineteenth-century common schools is not that they often contained elements of culture as religion...but that their mode of control and course of study were so startlingly secular." From the very beginning, public schools served secular interests and assigned the Bible a secondary and subservient role. The center and circumference of the public school rested with the priority of the civil over the religious. Most Bible exercises were mere window-dressing, perfunctory, applied either before or after school hours, brief, and often ignored. If anyone objected to a Scripture reading, for the sake of peace, the Bible was tossed and minority interests were protected. Civil Religion reduced the Bible to an empty symbol and ritual devoid of its true meaning. Scripture was muted when only read as bare KJV text 'without note or comment'. The biggest state in the union at the time with more immigrants pouring into its ports than anywhere else in the world, New York further straitjacketed the Scriptures by requiring its readings to sound nonsectarian and inoffensive to the ears of its diverse student population and their parents. The Bible had to accommodate itself into the one, uniform, public school system always wearing a harmonious dress. Before hardly bolting out the gate in the young America of the early nineteenth-century, state and culture had already swallowed the Bible, feathers and all.

David Tyack, Emeritus Professor of History at Stanford University (and Justice's mentor) realized the implications of this sort of accommodation and wrote about its political, social and ideological consequences forty years ago. It leads to a paradox.

Having fought a war to free the United States from one centralized authority, they attempted to create a new unity, a common citizenship and culture, and an appeal to a common future. In this quest for a balance between order and liberty, for the proper transaction between the individual and society, (Thomas) Jefferson, (Benjamin) Rush, and (Noah) Webster encountered a conflict still inherent in the education of the citizen...the free American was to be, in political convictions, the uniform American...they saw conformity as the price of liberty.

This meant no less than that in the sprawling new nation of promise in the early republic, American citizens, families, churches, ministers, officials, villages, towns, and cities individually, progressively and en masse authorized and sanctioned control of the education of their children from their own hands and placed them into the hands of the secular state and its schools. An example and consequence of this remarkable transfer of power is illustrated through the words of New York's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Victor Rice who declared in 1866: "A teacher has no right to consume any portion of the regular school hours in conducting religious exercises, especially when objection is raised. The principle is this: Common schools are supported and established for the purpose of imparting instruction in the common English branches; religious instruction forms no part of the course." Justice successfully argues that this astonishing transformation was achieved passively, quietly, 'seamlessly'. Should this be surprising when historian Steven Watts in The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America (1987) demonstrated that from 1790 to 1820 America underwent 'a massive shift' from a communitarian society to a liberal, commercial republic? Historian and legal scholar Mark Douglas McGarvie further augments Justice's research in his compelling work One Nation Under Law (2004) with the critical observation that as churches disestablished in the early republic, they passed from being public institutions to becoming private corporations. This change directly affected schools:

Not only were churches redefined as private corporations but religion was largely excluded from schools and statehouses. Many children's books and other materials used for teaching from 1790 to 1820 were rewritten to substitute republican virtues for Christian pieties and to foster attitudes of individual advancement over the communal good. While the Bible may still have rested on many an American's bookshelf, law became the ultimate authority....Under the law, churches enjoyed no special privileges in the political forum.

In the shape and passage of America's educational sojourn, schooling passed through three phases: the colonial period of the seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries accenting a Biblical Commonwealth that primarily trained ministers of the gospel; nineteenth-century schools turning to a radically new system controlled by local, democratically elected officials where secular courses and a compromised morality prevailed; and twentieth-century education marked by bureaucratic centralization under the aegis of secular Progressives.

Reflecting upon his university students for whom the Bible had become an alien object, Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) writes: "The loss of the gripping inner life vouchsafed those who were nurtured by the Bible must be primarily attributed not to our schools or political life, but to the family...fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise-as priests, prophets or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine. Contrary to what is commonly thought, without the book even the idea of the order of the whole is lost" — an idea for which Tyndale lived and died.

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