The Cincinnati Bible Wars: When the Bible was removed from schools

The month of May marks the 400 anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The most published book in history, the KJV was once widely read in public schools around the nation. However, in 1872 that trend was reversed by the Ohio Supreme Court in Minor v. Board of Education of Cincinnati which addressed what was called at the time, the “Cincinnati Bible Wars.” In 1869, the Cincinnati Board of Education voted to remove the KJV from the public schools, sparking angry protests and petition drives locally and news interest from coast to coast. Initially, the removal of the KJV was proposed to attract Catholic families who were troubled by readings of the Protestant KJV. However, the case soon became a dispute about the role of religion generally in the public schools. Proponents of the Bible argued that America was a Christian nation with the Bible as the foundation. Opponents argued that the mandatory Bible reading of the KJV unconstitutionally privileged Protestant Christianity.   

Modern day proponents of America as a Christian nation, such as Wallbuilder’s David Barton and the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer have proposed that the First Amendment to the Constitution was meant to prevent the nation from establishing a denomination of Christianity as a national religion but was not meant to address the religious freedom of non-Christian religions. To be sure, at the time, there were those who wanted an explicitly Christian nation. However, as adopted the First Amendment would collapse into contradiction if Barton’s and Fischer’s views were accurate. Christianity would have been established in exclusion of other beliefs, the very result forbidden by the amendment.

The reasoning of the Ohio court regarding the KJV in public schools is worth considering in light of current debates over the relationship of church and state. Proponents of Bible reading had appealed to section 7, article 1, of the Ohio constitution which states: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to pass suitable laws, to protect every religious denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.” This of course is adapted from the Northwest Ordinance, the federal statute which provided rules for admission of new states from the western territories. Those favoring the KJV argued, among other points, that the Ohio Constitution allowed Bible reading since religion was to be encouraged. The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the lower court, thus agreeing with the Cincinnati school board. The Ohio court addressed the concept that the constitutions of the nation and the state meant Christian when religion was written. The logic is clear and compelling. Referring to section 7, article 1 of the Ohio Constitution, Justice John Welch wrote:

The real claim here is, that by “religion,” in this clause of the constitution, is meant “Christian religion,” and that by “religious denomination” in the same clause is meant “Christian denomination.” If this claim is well founded, I do not see how we can consistently avoid giving a like meaning to the same words and their cognates, “worship,” “religious society,” “sect,” “conscience,” “religious belief,” throughout the entire section.  To do so, it will readily be seen, would be to withdraw from every person not of Christian belief the guaranties therein vouchsafed, and to withdraw many of them from Christians themselves.  In that sense the clause of section 7 in question would read as follows:

“Christianity, morality, and knowledge, however, being essential to good government, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to pass suitable laws to protect every Christian denomination in the peaceable enjoyment of its own mode of public worship, and to encourage schools and the means of instruction.”

Nor can I see why, in order to be consistent, the concluding clause of section 2, article 6, should not read as follows: . . . . “But no Christian, or other sect or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to or control of any part of the school funds of the state; but Christians, as a body, including all their sects, may have control of the whole of said funds.”

I do not say that such a reading of the sections in question is literally contended for; and yet I see no fair escape from it, if the word “Christianity,” or the words “Christian religion,” or “the religion of the Bible,” are to be interpolated, or substituted for the word “religion,” at the place indicated.

The court here correctly notes the real substance of the argument in favor of daily Bible reading in the Cincinnati public schools. Those arguing for the reading of the KJV were arguing that the framers meant Protestant Christianity when they wrote religion into the founding documents, i.e., the Barton/Fischer view. On the contrary, the Ohio court offered this rebuttal:

If, by this generic word “religion,” was really meant “the Christian religion,” or “Bible religion,” why was it not plainly so written?  Surely the subject was of importance enough to justify the pains, and surely it was of interest enough to exclude the supposition that it was written in haste, or thoughtlessly slurred over.  At the time of adopting our present constitution, this word “religion” had had a place in our old constitution for half a century, which was surely ample time for studying its meaning and effect, in order to make the necessary correction or alteration, so as to render its true meaning definite and certain.  The same word “religion,” and in much the same connection, is found in the constitution of the United States.  The latter constitution, at least, if not our own also, in a sense, speaks to mankind, and speaks of the rights of man.  Neither the word “Christianity,” “Christian,” nor “Bible,” is to be found in either.  When they speak of “religion,” they must mean the religion of man, and not the religion of any class of men.  When they speak of “all men” having certain rights, they cannot mean merely “all Christian men.” Some of the very men who helped to frame these constitutions were themselves not Christian men.

We are told that this word “religion” must mean “Christian religion,” because “Christianity is a part of the common law of this country,” lying behind and above its constitutions.  Those who make this assertion can hardly be serious, and intend the real import of their language.  If Christianity is a law of the state, like every other law, it must have a sanction.  Adequate penalties must be provided to enforce obedience to all its requirements and precepts.  No one seriously contends for any such doctrine in this country, or, I might almost say, in this age of the world.  The only foundation — rather, the only excuse — for the proposition, that Christianity is part of the law of this country, is the fact that it is a Christian country, and that its constitutions and laws are made by a Christian people.

The United States does have a Christian heritage, of this there can be no doubt. Since the time of the Founding, even unbelievers have been schooled in the Bible and know the themes and stories. Those Founders who rejected the miracles and the Trinitarian view of God, such as Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, were men who believed that the moral teachings of Jesus were sound. However, as the Ohio court opines, the state cannot coerce conscience, Christian or otherwise. The state adds nothing of spiritual significance to the church, while the church has no need of the state’s imprimatur.

One of the lawyers opposing the KJV in Cincinnati schools was Thomas Stanley Matthews. Matthews was a Presbyterian elder and staunch Christian who later became an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. His legal brief in the case reads like a theological treatise against giving the state power to enforce religious views on citizens. Matthews revered the Bible but believed that the Christian position was to reject state coercion of individual conscience. As evidenced above, the Ohio court agreed with Matthews and provided its own lesson in theology. Judge Welch argued that Christianity needed no state support, saying

True Christianity asks no aid from the sword of civil authority.  It began without the sword, and wherever it has taken the sword it has perished by the sword. To depend on civil authority for its enforcement is to acknowledge its own weakness, which it can never afford to do.  It is able to fight its own battles.  Its weapons are moral and spiritual, and not carnal.

Will the Bible, KJV or otherwise, last another 400 years? I suspect it will, and not because Christians win the culture war or establish the Bible in public institutions. The Bible lasts because it is timeless in Authorship and content, and because it speaks to the deepest needs of people. 

For a good summary of the history of the case, see this journal.

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  • Richard Willmer

    The Bible will last – of this I have no doubt.

    That said, it is perhaps ‘christian’ fundamentalists (who often appear to ‘worship’ the Bible instead of God) who pose the greatest threat to the Bible, precisely because they seek to ‘limit’ it by narrow, literal (and often really quite barbaric) interpretation. Many of those who want to see the Bible removed from areas of public life are actually responding to fundamentalist misuse of the Bible. I understand entirely their concerns, by the way.

  • David Farrell

    If I am not mistaken, The Puritans who actually first settled in the new country looked upon the KJV as being corrupt and they preferred the Geneva Bible. As long as their is a sizeable group within Christianity who believes that America is now God’s chosen land and that God holds them responsible for the decisions and the actions of the entire nation we are gonna have this problem.

    I don’t see anywhere in the New Testament where God deals with a nation only with His people.

    David

  • Jayhuck

    Amen Judge Welch.

  • Richard Willmer

    Agreed, Jayhuck!

    (The Fischers of this world are as wide of the mark as can possibly be envisaged.)

  • http://valkalende@blogspot.com Val Kalende

    I’m writing a historical research paper to trace the long trajectory of the language of the Christian Right in influencing the so-called “exportation of homophobia to Africa” which in my opinion needs to be fully questioned and examined. What exactly are they exporting and how big is its impact on LGBT rights in Africa? Is the international media sensationalizing this issue too much? Francis Schaeffer, this man Schaeffer, the “father” of the Christian Right informs my thesis. Prayer and the Bible in Public schools come up as major points in this lecture of his that i’m using.

  • Richard Willmer

    Part of the problem with the ‘Christian Right’ is its desire for a form of theocracy.

    Prayers and bibles per se in public schools need not lead to the problems that the ‘Christian Right’ inflicts on humanity – it’s how those (so called) ‘prayers’ and bibles are used that matters. (I write this having just taken a service at a local Church of England [public] School – and, as always, I did my best to make sure that all the staff and children present had no reason to feel in any way threatened or disrespected. Of course, there is no good reason to threaten or disrespect anyone – to do such a thing would be hypocritical for anybody seeking to be a ‘true’ Christian, although we fail to avoid hypocrisy at times, of course.)

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