[originally posted 1 March 2011]
unday’s observation about the Bible presenting “the grandest characters in all history” came from one James Wingate, Schenectady County (New York) Commissioner in 1902. The issue was mandating Bible-reading in the schools, a position favored by State Superintendent Charles R. Skinner at that time. Information was gathered from principals and superintendents and various other officials about the practice in their respective districts, along with their recommendations as to policy. Skinner supported mandatory Bible-reading “without note or comment” and saw no conflict with the New York Constitution:
The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall forever be allowed in this state to all mankind…
How reading from a religious text, as part of a religious service involving the recitation of a prayer, with or without note or comment, could possibly be done “without discrimination or preference” he never explained, but rather seems to think that it is somehow self-evident:
There is a wide distinction between the opening of schools with religious exercises taken from the catechism of some church according to a formula prescribed by some sect or denomination and the reading of portions of the Bible without note or comment. The first may be decidedly objectionable to parents of other denominations, while to the other it would seem no reasonable objection could be raised. … Religious freedom consists in a man’s professing and enjoying what religious faith he pleases, or in the right of rejecting all denominational beliefs. This freedom is in no degree restricted when the Bible is read in the public school.
Not everybody agreed with Skinner. Charles E. Gorton, Yonkers school superintendent, wrote:
I am quite content with the present status of the Bible in the public schools, and suspect that an attempt to do more with it would lead to endless trouble, and very likely properly so. We have children of every faith in the schools. The Bible is the foundation of the Christian religion, and the King James version is the foundation of Protestantism. The Catholics would object to the reading of that version; the Jews would object to the New Testament; other religious sects would object to any reading whatever. Except so far as relates to ethical instruction, I believe we had better let the Bible alone in the public schools, and even as a code of ethics there are many other religious sects who claim that their writings are just as sound as the Bible, and quite likely they are. In my judgment it is quite right to maintain the separation between secular and religious education.
But many administrators favored preaching the Bible. They offered a bewildering variety of not necessarily consistent reasons for this choice. One that jumped out at me—as it still does when offered by modern-day Bible-pushers—is the strong desire to proselytize other people’s children, whose parents, perhaps, did not see the value of it. Some examples:
Many argue that religious teaching should be left to the homes and churches, but statistics prove that these two agencies are not fully performing this important function and that a large number of the children of our state do not come under any religious influence whatever.—C. F. Walker, Superintendent, Elmira
As a matter of fact very many of our students would grow up with no knowledge whatever of this book were it not for what they heard read from it in the public schools.—W. C. Franklin (no location given)
Some of the children in that way may hear the precious word, who never would hear it at any other time.—E. Everett Poole, Commissioner, Chenango county, first district
Every day the teacher should impress upon the minds of the pupils the importance of leading a Christian life.—Charles B. Hanley, Commissioner, Hamilton county, sole district
I believe the Bible should be used daily in the public schools, because … [m]any children will not learn the truths of the Bible unless it is used in the public school.—Libbie J. Sweetland, Commissioner, Tompkins county, second district
In the rural districts a great many children never have a Bible lesson read, or even attend a Sunday school, and a few moments spent in the morning are not lost, but lay before the child and student a new field of thought.—Charles C. McCall, Commissioner, Wyoming county, second district
How does this square with the child’s right of free exercise of his or her religion without discrimination or preference? As is almost always the case in these discussions the rights of the child go unmentioned. Parental objections are noted, however. We saw above how Skinner steamrollered over objections by parents of other persuasions by saying that “no reasonable objection could be raised” by say Jews or Muslims to readings from the Christian sacred writings. (Would he have felt the same if the passages in question had been from the Quran or Tao Te Ching?) Some joined in blaming the parents who objected.
This recognition of the Bible as a standard of morals and as an aid in character-building cannot be reasonably criticised.—James M Crane, City Superintendent, Newburgh.
While it is not the business of the public schools to teach religion, I am firmly convinced that they fall far short of their duty if they fail to inculcate morals, and in no way can this be done so efficiently as by the use of the Bible.—D. E. Batcheller, City Superintendent, Olean
A diploma from a high school should be a guarantee that the possessor has a reasonable familiarity with the Bible.—J. E. Massee, School Superintendent, Watervliet
…as long as we are Americans and our institutions are founded on Christian ethics let us teach our children the fundamental principles of righteous living as taught in the Bible.—Charles D. Niver, Commissioner, Albany County, first district
The preamble of our [New York] constitution recognizes God, our courts use the Bible in administering oaths and the United States is recognized as the great Christian nation. Protestants and Catholics alike accept the Bible as the word of God. What harm then can come to our children from having the Bible in the public schools?—E. B. Whitney, Commissioner, Broome county, second district
Spite of assertions to the contrary, this is a religious state, since the preamble to our constitution explicitly recognizes “Almighty God”; and since the whole tenor of our constitution is framed in accordance with the principles of the New Testament, and is at variance in many respects with the principles of any of the other religions of the world, it is also a Christian state.—J. Irving Gorton, Superintendent, Ossining
Take that, non-religious and non-Christian parents. Screw you, and screw your children too, as far as J. Irving Gorton et al were concerned. More rational observations came from other officials:
In my judgment it is hardly probable that the Bible could be taught in the public schools of the state without the instructor coloring his teaching with his personal belief. I have no sympathy with the notion that has been put forward that it is not possible to teach morals without teaching religion at the same time. It seems to me that the safe thing to do is to keep church and state work pretty clearly separate.—H. H. Snell, Superintendent, Hoosick Falls
I think it is not wise to attempt to teach any form of religion in our public schools. I question the desirability of such teaching in public schools. I certainly believe the public schools should be kept free from any religious teaching by sectarian ministers or teachers.—George Griffith, Superintendent, Utica
…controversy over its teaching is the basis of much of the most violent and destructive antagonism of the world’s history, and for this reason, and this only, it has been excluded from the public schools, which, admittedly, must be secular only.—C. B. Gilbert, Superintendent, Rochester
I believe that the Bible should not be read in the public schools, but should be left to special classes, special schools and the home.—J. C. Van Etten, City Superintendent, Dunkirk
It is my observation and belief that no moral benefit is derived from it. It antagonizes some of the patrons of the public schools. Morality and right living can better be taught by the example of upright, honest, conscientious teachers.—William R. Tremper, Commissioner, Dutchess county, second district
In my opinion the reading of the Bible in the public schools would be an occasion for dissatisfaction among the parents of the children. In as much as Bibles differ, and the schools are made up of children of different religious denominations, the home is the more satisfactory place for such instruction, where they may be allowed to follow the dictates of their own conscience.—John S. Bizel, Commissioner, Franklin county, first district
Given the difficulties at hand, you’d think there had to be a pretty compelling reason for trying to shoehorn the Bible in. And various administrators put in their two cents worth on that. Literary excellence, moral example, historical importance—these are some of the reasons given. With any luck I’ll get a chance to examine these in a later section. Uh, in view of my track record, don’t hold your breath, mmm-kay?
[Since I inadvertently published the introduction to this piece on Sunday, I figured I’d keep it up, publishing sections until I come to an end, or get tired of it.]