The Bible In The Public School

Has the Bible a legitimate place in the public school? This question, with its implications, is receiving increasing attention in our country at present. The issues raised by it have been much debated in recent years by able partisans, and judicial students have been seeking some ample common ground on which conflicting claims might be justly and wisely reconciled. It cannot be said that a large measure of success has attended these efforts, and yet they have not been without some valuable results; at least they have made it clear that vital interests are involved in the discussion, to which thoughtful people cannot afford to be indifferent.

Of course the problem as it now confronts us has a history; it strikes its roots into the soil of the past, and we must glance at the developments which lie behind us, in order to comprehend the existing situation today.

Not many centuries ago—four or five—religion was the dominant interest in the western world ; and the Church, which was the chief religious institution, exercised a controlling influence over theology, education, charity, and many civil and political affairs : indeed, it had long been the aim of the Church to be absolute mistress in both the spiritual and the secular realms; and the great conflict of the later Middle Age arose largely from the struggle of the State to free itself from the tyranny of the Church. This conflict, protracted and titanic, enters, in one form or another, into all our modern history, making and explaining England and America as far as any other factor that has contributed to the production of their peculiar institutions. At length the State was completely successful as against the Church, especially here in this new country. Accordingly the one striking feature of our civil and ecclesiastical situation is a reversal of the mediaeval arrangement, making the State not only independent but supreme, so that the Church really derives her legal existence from the State, just as any other chartered body does; although the Church is left free within her own distinctive sphere. Thus we have a free Church within a free State, and the individual citizen is more free in both than anywhere else in the world.

As a part or concomitant of this very significant historic development, the State has gradually taken over the control of a number of important interests which were formerly within the jurisdiction of the Church, wholly or mainly—for example, the regulation of marriage and divorce; the administration of charity, or the care of the dependent, defective, and delinquent classes ; and the conduct of education. The Church still has her share in the promotion of human welfare by and through these vital concerns; but the State’s share has steadily increased, until now it is paramount, and without its great work in these respects we can hardly see how our social fabric could be maintained, and certainly life would be vastly poorer for us all.

Is it a misfortune that the State has thus be-come the principal agency for the management of these great interests? It is certainly so regarded, particularly in the matter of education, by a large and respectable class of people among us, notably our Roman Catholic brethren. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of our citizens consider the development an immense blessing; and I, for one, am deeply convinced that the right lies with the majority in this case. For think what has really occurred. The principles and spirit of the Christian religion, inculcating and reinforcing all pure social sympathy and solicitude, and prompting to every noble sort of helpful service, have overflowed the confines of the Church and are spreading far and wide through society at large; and society at large, responding to this diffused and holy influence, is engaging, with the revenues and machinery at its command, in gigantic enterprises of human betterment for all classes and individuals. Is this to be regretted? Do we want the sunshine of Christianity bottled up in the Church? Are we not glad to see it radiating in all directions, and brightening every place where men live? In-deed, is not this precisely the grand object of Christianity—the effective diffusion of the Christ-like spirit everywhere? Henry Drummond was right when he said :

People do not dispute that religion is in the Church. What is now wanted is to let them see it in the City. One Christian City, one City in any part of the earth, whose citizens from the greatest to the humblest lived in the spirit of Christ, where religion had overflowed the Churches and passed into the streets, inundating every house and workshop, and permeating the whole social and commercial life—one such Christian City would seal the redemption of the world.’

Now I hold that our entire modern democratic movement, in spite of all its faults, means exactly this—the overflowing of Christianity from the Church into the City and the State, so that these great organizations, representing all the people, are undertaking to work for the welfare of all the people in certain large and vital things—sanitation, charity, education, art, and even amusement. I call this process, for want of a better word to describe it, a vast consecration of society; and cannot but rejoice that it is taking place.

Now in the light of this brief historical review we see how and why education has come to be so largely an affair of the State, particularly in our own country; and it is easy to understand why formal religious instruction has had no place in our public-school system. The divorce between Church and State, which is here an accomplished fact, is the result of a long and bitter controversy, which was inevitable, and the issue of which marked a great advance in the progress of our western civilization. But because people in our part of the world are very sharply divided along lines of religious belief and practice, while a few even are hostile to any and every form of religion, it has seemed necessary for the State, representing and serving the whole population, to relegate religious teaching to the Church, leaving it out of the public schools altogether, in order to deal consistently and justly with all classes and individuals.

On this account our public schools have been called “godless” by unfriendly critics, and have been charged even with being nurseries of a kind of infidelity and immorality which will soon or late bring our nation to grief. I think there is a degree of truth in this criticism, and shall try to estimate it later on ; at least I suppose the majority of the staunch supporters of the public-school system would acknowledge that the omission of all religious instruction entails some incidental losses to our civilization and to the cultivation of the race that are of a serious character. But neither critic nor friend has yet shown us a more excellent way for a strictly public-school system in a thoroughly democratic country. Meanwhile, those who are most dissatisfied are establishing parochial schools; and of course there are many private schools, with or without the prominent incorporation of the religious element. Nevertheless, the public-school system goes on working and growing, and is the great educational agency for our nation as a whole.

Now the reason why the Bible has been denied a place in the public schools altogether, or has been restricted in its use to the mere reading, without comment, of brief passages, lies in the fact that the Bible is so closely associated in the popular mind with religion as to appear to be a very definite religious instrumentality. It has been supposed that the Bible could not be studied or extensively read without the inculcation of theological conceptions and doctrines which might be offensive to someone, and so the rule of impartial justice should be broken. As indicating this prevalent attitude in our country, the following exhibit of custom and law is given by Dr. Charles H. Thurber, of Boston, in his address before the first Convention of the Religious Education Association, at Chicago, February, 1903:

In New York State, the Bible may be read, if no one objects, but must not be read if anyone objects. Massachusetts requires some portion of the Bible to be read daily in the public schools. In Missouri the trustees may compel Bible reading. In Illinois a student may be expelled for studying during the reading of the Bible. In Georgia the Bible must be used in the school. Iowa leaves the matter entirely to the judgment of the teacher and permits no dictation by either parents or trustees. In Arkansas the trustees settle the question. In North and South Dakota the Bible may not be excluded from any public school, and may be read daily for not to exceed ten minutes, at the option of the teacher. In most states that permit Bible reading no pupil can be compelled against his parents’ wishes to take part in the reading or to be present during the reading. But in Maine a child expelled for refusing to read the Bible cannot recover damages. Arkansas forbids the granting of a certificate to a teacher who does not believe in a Supreme Being, and Rhode Island recommends the rejection of any teacher who is in the habit of ridiculing or scoffing at religion. Washington prohibits the reading of the Bible in the schools; Arizona revokes the certificate of any teacher who conducts religious exercises in school ; and in 1890 the supreme court of Wisconsin decided that the reading of the Bible in the public schools is unconstitutional. In 1862 the Cincinnati school board was upheld in forbidding the reading of the Bible. The same action was taken in Chicago in 1895, and in New Haven in 1878.

New Hampshire requires that “the morning exercises of all the schools shall commence with the reading of the Scriptures, followed by the Lord’s Prayer.” Pennsylvania says : “The Scriptures come under the head of textbooks, and they should not be omitted from the list;” in 1895 the Bible was read in 87% per cent. of the schools of the state. Virginia seems to have no law on the subject, but the Bible is generally read. South Carolina has no law on the subject. The Bible is not read in any of the schools of Utah.

Continues Dr. Thurber:

In 1896, reports on this subject were gathered from 946 superintendents, representing all parts of the country. Of this number 454 reported the Bible as read in all their schools, 295 reported it as read in part of their schools, and 197 reported it as read in none of their schools. The law ranges, as you have observed, between absolute prohibition of Bible reading; permitting it when no one objects, but not otherwise; leaving it to the option of the local authorities, either trustees or teacher; and requiring it, either leaving the amount and method to the option of the teacher or prescribing a very limited amount of reading daily.

Dr. Thurber properly remarks :

At best this is not much, not much of the Bible, and almost nothing in the way of effective teaching. But it is well to understand that there are laws governing this matter, and that we are not dealing with a question that can be settled offhand in a religious gathering or a teachers’ convention. If there is not more direct religious teaching in our schools, at least it is not the fault of the teachers. Nor can there be more than there is now, unless the laws are changed. Referring to the reasons I have suggested for the enactment of these laws, and with a knowledge of the lurking danger of sectarian strife, we cannot escape the conviction that we have here a most difficult and delicate problem.

Having thus got the situation fairly before us, by a glance at its history and by a statement of its present aspects, we are ready to ask what can be done to improve it.

Evidently no radical departure from existing usage can be hastily made; any change that may be brought about must come gradually and with-out force; strife or bigotry, on either side, will do more harm than good. At the same time, it is quite apparent that certain modifications of current thought are silently growing which are tending to alter the judgment heretofore prevailing, and which are possibly preparing the way for a wiser, more generous public policy.

i. There is a growing appreciation of the Bible as a noble literature. It is almost universally conceded that the Scriptures comprise some of the very finest and grandest writings ever produced ; and it is increasingly recognized by intelligent people as a misfortune and an injustice to deprive the youth of our land of an acquaintance with this ancient, incomparable literature. Not only ought Christian children to know about it, but all who love culture or for whom culture should be an end in education are entitled to understand the large place which the Bible has occupied in history, and to appreciate the great ideas and the exalted spirit that make the Bible unique. As the literary excellences of the Bible become more familiar, and as the study of literature in general increases, disclosing countless allusions to biblical passages, the demand for some knowledge of the Bible purely as literature is likely to grow. It is growing at present, and I am confident that it will continue to do so.

2. There is likewise an increasing appreciation of the Bible as a means of moral culture. It is the most intensely moral literature in the world. It throbs with moral earnestness, it pleads for righteousness with passionate ardor, and its teaching about duty is clear, positive, comprehensive, and applies with equal effectiveness to the individual and to society as a whole. Because of this remarkable quality possessed by the Bible, ethical teachers like Dr. Felix Adler and Mr. Walter L. Sheldon turn to the stories, prophecies, psalms, and parables of the Scriptures as the very best writings for awakening moral sentiments in the young, or for strengthening moral conviction and purpose, or for affording moral guidance in practical conduct. The simple fact is that no literature surpasses, no extensive literature equals, the Bible in this respect. Therefore it is too important a means of ethical culture to be ignored. Thoughtful people are more and more taking this view.

3. There is a growing recognition of the inadequacy of a merely intellectual education, or even an intellectual and an aesthetic education. Everywhere, in recent years, educators have been calling loudly for character as the essential pro-duct which our schools, especially our public schools, should turn out. The acquisition of in-formation or the sharpening of wits may be but an equipment for shrewder crime, unless countervailed by moral invigoration and discipline. The chief stress of modern life is a moral stress, the chief danger that threatens the modern State is moral danger, and the chief need in safeguarding and perpetuating our precious heritage of free institutions is character, formed upon firm principle, and imbued with the spirit and power of righteousness. Otherwise we shall make shipwreck of our American experiment, while wrecking the lives of countless thousands of our individual men and women. This, too, is a deepening conviction among enlightened people.

4. Once more, there is a growing recognition of the great advantage and the serious responsibility of the public school for effecting the moral education of the young. It reaches directly and commandingly the vast majority of the children of our country; it has them in charge from three to five hours a day, and five days a week, for from thirty to forty weeks a year, for eight or ten years. Thus its opportunity is the largest and best that is possessed by any organized institution among us. Not even the Church can do so much with and for the children, because of its want of time. The schools have the time, the children, the material equipment, the support and compulsion of law, the deep interest of the people in general, and the service of trained men and women as teachers. Surely their opportunity is large, and their responsibility for results must be held to be correspondingly large. If, to no slight extent, these results may be rightly expected to be moral, the schools must certainly fulfil somehow an exceedingly important moral function.

Here, then, are certain elements of possibly a new judgment respecting the question before us: on the one hand, we have a growing appreciation of the Bible as a noble literature, and also as a means of moral culture ; and, on the other hand, we have an increasing demand for moral results in education, along with an increasing recognition of the opportunity and responsibility of the public school for furnishing it.

If, now, we could take two or three additional steps, we might perhaps reach a satisfactory solution of our problem.

a) If we could discard the dogmatic use of the Bible, and treat it simply as a great literature imbued with the spirit of morality and religion, and could be content to read it as literature, with a view merely to letting this strong, characteristic quality make its own natural impression upon the mind and heart, we might quicken the moral and religious spirit in the souls of the young without attempting to impart, much less impose, any definite theological or ecclesiastical notions.

b) If, moreover, we could find and employ special teachers to go into the public schools to teach the Bible in this way, as we now employ special instructors in music and drawing—teachers abundantly qualified for a delicate and difficult task—we should approach still nearer the goal so earnestly desired by many good people.

c) If, once more, we could simplify or lighten the present overloaded school curriculum, giving the pupils a little more time to feel, to absorb, and to think, we should discover that the Bible, when used as has been just now proposed, would, like a noble production in poetry, painting, sculpture, or music, convey its own sublime message into many a young mind and heart; whereas, without time to feel—that is, without opportunity to ponder and wonder and respond—even the reading of the Bible would be a superficial and worthless exercise.

Theoretically all this would seem feasible enough, and justifiable. No thoughtful person will dispute the claim that the Bible is a great literature, or that its ideas and ideals, its historic associations and its potent spirit have had a substantial influence in the development of our modern civilization. Surely, then, it were illogical to refuse a recognition of the Bible as such a literature and such a powerful factor, and unjust to the young to withhold from them a knowledge of these things. The history of Israel is as deserving of study as the history of Persia or that of Italy; and there ought not to be any more difficulty in reading the writings of Isaiah or Jeremiah, for example, in connection with Israel’s history than in reading the sermons of Savonarola, or interpreting the art of Michael Angelo, in connection with Italian history. Indeed, if we may properly decorate our public schoolrooms with distinctively Christian pictures, why exclude all knowledge of the Christian Scriptures which helped to produce such pictures and can alone explain them? If we relate the story of the Pilgrims, in teaching the history of the United States, how can we fail to imply and convey some conception of the place and influence of the Bible. in the lives of those universally honored pioneers? Or if we describe the Spanish explorations and settlements in the New World, why ignore or minimize the religious considerations which often had a large place in their plans? The fact is, we cannot dodge the subject of religion, if we try, in the study of history, literature, art, music, or any other important phase of modern civilization; and we ought not to try. But it is possible to treat religion in a large, fair, sympathetic way; to distinguish between the religious instinct or sentiment or spirit, on the one hand, and its expressions in worship, theology and ecclesiasticism, on the other hand; and to seek to quicken and strengthen this religious spirit, which underlies all forms of worship, all creeds, and all churches, without indulging any prejudices or preferences respecting dogmatic and sectarian interests.

If we can bring ourselves into this generous and reverent attitude, learning to have more regard for the soul of religion than for its body, we shall soon raise up, in our churches, normal schools, and universities, a supply of enlightened, magnanimous teachers who shall be competent to deal with the vital interests of moral and religious education as wisely, delicately, and justly as others now deal with history, literature, music, and art; and we shall find that there is ample room in the public school for such teachers, loving the spiritual aspects of civilization and sympathizing with all the noble aspirations of the race, to make a vital, inspiring, and delightful use of the Bible purely as a great spiritual literature inculcating the spirit of morality and religion, with-out aiming to impart a bit of theological bias or any taint of sectarianism. Then we shall discover that the influence of the Bible will be to set righteousness into the midst of. life’s great interests, and to buttress it by reverence on the one side and by brotherly love on the other side. Thus we shall acquaint the young with what is most essential in this precious literature, and shall powerfully reinforce the central principle of all good conduct, righteousness, to which every con-science testifies, by the hallowing spirit of reverence and by the unselfish spirit of brotherly love.

The obstacles to the course here suggested are mainly inherent in the fact that the people generally are not yet ready to regard and treat the Bible in the large and free way just indicated; nor are they prepared to be content to put the emphasis upon the soul of religion, and to consider its manifold bodily forms as of secondary importance. But they are progressing rapidly toward this more liberal and more spiritual position. With the advances made during the last generation in biblical knowledge and in educational theory, we may reasonably expect another generation to bring us to the desired goal-to the point where we may appropriate the essential and potent spirit of the Bible to the paramount ends of true culture and of ethical-religious impression, without injustice to any individual or class.

The process, however, will be necessarily gradual and prolonged. We must all be patient, magnanimous, and kind while it is going on. We cannot force results or methods. We must give every interest a fair hearing; and we must wait. The public mind will have to “catch up” with the advanced positions of biblical scholars and educational leaders ere the literary, historical, and spiritual values of the Bible can be handled in the public schools with due discrimination and appreciation to render the work acceptable to the people at large or highly profitable to the pupils. We must remember that the existing situation, involving the divorce between Church and State, along with the entire exclusion of religious instruction and the partial exclusion of even the reading of the Bible from the public schools, resulted from certain powerful ideas and influences long operative in the past which we have not yet wholly outgrown; and we are now in the midst of the process of transforming some of these, and must patiently await the great improvement which the change will ultimately yield.

A right ideal of the place of Scripture in the public school consistently followed might have prevented a woeful setback to real enlightenment on subjects pertaining to morality and religion. But we had first to learn what this ideal is,- and how biblical science should be taught. Perhaps the reaction may come when the notion of the Bible as a compendium of standard religious doctrines, a textbook of theology, has yielded to a more reasonable faith. Perhaps the beginning may be when the public sees the right ideal maintained, and the right system of biblical science pursued, in our Christian colleges and universities.

The foregoing examination of the question brings us back to the present status of affairs.

We see that this cannot be suddenly or extensively altered. Discussion and tentative experiments may bring some modifications of thought and policy, but no radical or sweeping changes can be expected; neither would they be desirable. Meanwhile, however, we may well take to heart two or three considerations.

1. It is cause for gratification that so much is being done in our colleges and universities along the very lines just indicated in Professor Bacon’s words. Within the last two decades many of these institutions have established professorships and courses in biblical literature and history, which have become quite as popular as others. The fruits of this fundamental work are already accruing in two ways : sending out numbers of soundly educated young men and women in matters pertaining to a correct general conception of the Bible; and also spreading through many communities a new and more enlightened interest in the proper study of the Scriptures. Churches are benefiting by all this; and gradually a generation will grow up that will easily and fully share the new appreciation of the Bible, whence we may look for a wider and more vital use, as well as a more keen enjoyment, of the manifold riches of this ancient, age-lasting literature. Here, again, the institutions of the higher education are proving themselves the worthy guides and sure redeemers of society.

This movement is actuated, it would seem, by the same motives that support the study of other literatures and histories, namely, an appreciation of intellectual, aesthetic, and practical value. Only thus can the results of the present development become widespread and permanent. At best, the rapidity of the spread must be limited by the whole force of educational tendency and tradition that has emphasized other literatures rather than this one. It must be limited, too, by present popular feeling as to the true function of the Bible, by present interest of students in the modern rather than the ancient, by present lack of suitable teachers and endowments. A growing recognition, however, on the part of educators of the true claims of the Bible as a part of a liberal education will steadily overcome these difficulties.

2. While awaiting the enrichment of the popular mind, thus to be ultimately derived from the work of the colleges and universities, we must re-member that we have other agencies than the public schools for educating the young in morality and religion. Education is, indeed, “a unitary process,” as President Nicholas Murray Butler has said ; but it does not therefore follow that all phases of education must be furnished in one place or under one system. As a matter of fact, it is not so, and it cannot be so. Everything educates, or miseducates—the home, the school, the church, the street, the newspaper, life, Nature. We do not expect the public school to instruct our children in dancing, in instrumental music, in etiquette, in painting and sculpture, although all these are regarded as essential by thousands of people. No more should we require the distinctively ethical and religious aspects of education to be supplied by the public schools, much beyond the rudimentary ideas, principles and habits necessary to all proper conduct, which are incident-ally yet inevitably inculcated through the ordinary relationships of teachers and pupils. We send our children to the dancing master for one kind of education, to the music teacher for another kind, and to the art school for still another.

This brings us plainly to see that we are to look chiefly to the home and the church for the education of the young in morality and religion. And precisely here lies one of the points most needing to be strengthened in the life of today. The due co-operation of the home and the church with the school is an imperative requirement, but it is far from being adequately met. The home has been somewhat weakened, in many in-stances, by the increasing influence of wealth, the growth of the boarding-house habit, and, alas ! the too facile disruption of the marriage bond; and it is to be feared that it has been further weakened, all unwittingly, by being relieved of the sense of parental responsibility for the education of the children through the taking-over of this task by the public school and the Sunday school. The time has come when we need to understand as thoroughly as possible that the school and the church cannot fulfil the function of the home, but can merely supplement it ; and when we must do everything in our power to create and maintain a living sympathy, an earnest and intelligent co-operation, between the home and the school, between the home and the church. And it must be said that the church is not at present rising to its opportunity in this respect. By inviting the family to send its children to the Sunday school for education in morals and religion, it has done much, albeit with the best of intentions, to break down the sense of parental responsibility for such eduation; but it has not done enough to counteract this evil and to secure a greater good by throwing back upon the home a spiritual interpretation of such responsibility, and by throwing back into the home sufficient helpful influences to enable the parents to do their duty. A reform or improvement in the church’s ministration in this particular is urgently called for; it cannot commence too soon; and when started, the church will find a new and most fertile field for the abundant production of the fruits of the spirit. If the home and the church can be brought into vital connection and adequate co-operation, as would appear to be one of the most natural openings or relationships for the ministry of Christian education, there will be little cause for complaint on account of the neglect of moral and religious interests in the work of the public schools. Let the responsibility rest where it really belongs.

3. Finally, we must not fail to appreciate the spiritual influence of the public schools under existing conditions. They are not “godless,” nor are they immoral, either in the positive sense of breeding bad morals or in the negative sense of failing to inculcate good morals. To allege that they are so, implying that such is generally the case, is a gross and malignant slander; and when one sees this charge made most frequently in precisely those quarters where the effort is most sedulous to get sectarian parochial schools accepted as an equivalent substitute for the public schools, so that they may receive a portion of the public funds, or so that their supporters may not be taxed for the maintenance of the public-school system, one cannot feel that the allegation proceeds from entirely disingenuous motives.

Wholesale judgments are always liable to contain a considerable element of error ; but scarcely any general judgment is safer than that the public schools of America, as a rule and on the whole, tend very strongly to produce a noble type of life and character. Their teachers, as a class, are high-grade men and women, whose personal influence is refining and elevating; they are usually earnest, honest, unselfish, public-spirited, and they diligently seek to present true ideals to their pupils, and to incite them to worthy endeavor. If the schools do not directly and purposely inculcate reverence in the religious sense, they do at least, by their ordinary and necessary work, instil reverence for excellence; and this lies at the foundation of all true reverence for things divine and eternal. More than a foundation for the building of a good character, more than the humble beginning of a preparation for life-long growth in knowledge, usefulness, and happiness, the public schools cannot be reasonably required to furnish. By furnishing this, even to a moderate extent, in the enlightenment and training they afford, in the refining and elevating influence they exert, and in the noble ideals they present, they are fitting the children to enter upon the larger life which opens, continuously before them—the reading of good books, including the Bible; the study of history, comprising its moral and religious phases as well as its economic, social, and political; the appreciation of art; the pursuit of scientific knowledge; and the cultivation of the virtues and graces of Christian man-hood and womanhood. Rendering this fundamental service, their work is of priceless worth. If thereupon the Bible and all the great spiritual interests which it represents do not make, through other avenues, an effective appeal to the minds and hearts of our American youth, the fault cannot be justly laid at the door of the public school.






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