The Bible in Public Schools

THE prevalent optimism concerning the present condition of American education as a whole is broken by an almost unanimous confession of failure in one particular. The typical young American of to-day, it is generally admitted, does not know the Bible as his father knew it. “It is apparent,” began a resolution of the National Educational Association at its 1902 meeting, “that familiarity with the English Bible as a masterpiece of literature is rapidly decreasing among the pupils in our schools. ” In all the comments that have been provoked by the rest of the resolution there has been scarcely any attempt to question the truth of this preamble. A few years ago, public opinion, within the churches, at least, was shocked by President Thwing’s revelation of the ignorance of a number of college students whose acquaintance with biblical allusions and quotations he had tested by means of an examination paper. Since then, the decadence of American education in this respect has been the topic of many jeremiads from the pulpit and in the press, journalists lamenting that the style of speech and writing has consequently deteriorated, and preachers bewailing a resultant lowering of the moral standard.

These complaints are probably of a more doleful tone than is warranted by the actual situation. We are told, for instance, that it is no longer possible to introduce scriptural allusions into a speech, as they would not be understood by a modern audience. Yet Mr. Hay’s funeral oration on President McKinley, delivered as recently as last year, contained many notable traces of the influence of biblical thought and phraseology. The very novels of the circulating library give evidence that a certain familiarity with the Bible is still a point of contact between author and reader. Glancing at random through a catalogue of fiction, we come across such titles as Unleavened Bread, In Kedar’s Tents, The Mantle of Elijah, A Book of Remembrance, When the Gates Lift up their Heads, The Hosts of the Lord, By the Waters of Babylon, A Damsel or Two, Vengeance is Mine, They that Took the Sword, They that Walk in Darkness. And how, on the theory of hopeless decadence, are we to account for the large and constant sale not only of Bibles but of Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and other works of exegesis ? There was never a time when the issue of scholarly books of this class, whether at high prices or low, was so good a commercial investment for a publisher. And, as far as the colleges are concerned, it may be argued that the present deficiency in biblical knowledge does not mean that the Bible is exceptionally neglected, but simply that it shares in a general declension of literary interest. President Thwing’s statistics must be set beside those of the Professor of English at a leading New England college, who found — as reported in the summer of 1901 — that of a division of forty sophomores, ten could not give the names of six plays of Shakespeare, fourteen did not know the author of In Memoriam, twenty-six could not mention any book by Ruskin, and thirty-five were similarly ignorant of the title of a single poem by either Wordsworth or Browning.

But, with all allowance for exaggeration in many of the complaints of a general indifference to Bible study, there is undoubtedly room and need for improvement. As the majority of the population passes through the public schools, the introduction of biblical teaching into these schools throughout the country suggests itself as the most obvious means of bringing about the desired reform. The advocates of this policy may be divided into two classes, — those who base their argument upon the value of the English Bible as literature, and those who emphasize its use in propagating the Christian religion.

The position of the former class is represented by the resolution of the National Educational Association, which, after noting the decrease in familiarity with the Bible as a masterpiece of literature, went on to say that “this is the direct result of a conception which regards the Bible as a theological book merely, and thereby leads to its exclusion from the schools of some states as a subject of reading and study. We hope and ask for such a change of public sentiment in this regard as will permit and encourage the English Bible, now honored by name in many school laws and state constitutions, to be read and studied as a literary work of the highest and purest type, side by side with the poetry and prose which it has inspired and in large part formed.” One cannot but sympathize with the motives which prompted this resolution. Both the impoverished style of so many writers for the press and the low standard of popular taste which is satisfied with inferior stuff as its daily intellectual food indicate a lack of acquaintance with good models. Turgid journalese could scarcely give pleasure to any intelligent reader if he came straight to it after reading a chapter in one of the Gospels. It is not clear, however, that this evil would be remedied by the addition of Bible teaching to the school curriculum. What is wanted is voluntary contact with good literature in adult life. Is this secured by compulsory contact with good literature during childhood ? An opportunity of testing the efficacy of this prescription offers itself already. As things are, masterpieces of English literature receive attention in our schools, with the results which we see. It would be unreasonable to expect that any substantial difference would be made by the use of another text-book. For that matter, the Bible is much less suited than the usual text-books for employment as a means of literary instruction in schools. For generations Shakespeare and Milton, Bacon and Burke, have been regarded from a literary point of view, and there has grown up around them a mass of literary comment which makes the work of the teacher comparatively easy. But until quite recently the literary side of the Bible has been ignored, except for an occasional eulogy of the sublimity of the prophets or of the simplicity of the evangelists. Professor R. G. Moulton’s lectures and publications on the literary study of the Bible might almost be quoted as an example of educational pioneering. If children are to be taught the Bible as a literary masterpiece, the provision of an adequate number of competent teachers must first be secured.

Again, owing to the religious implications of the Bible it is impossible to teach it even as literature or history without becoming involved in questions of acute controversy. It is a thin and ineffectual criticism which concerns itself only about an author’s manner to the neglect of his matter, and any teaching of literature which limits itself in the same way is equally unprofitable. But the moment the matter of the Bible is seriously considered strife is inevitable. Nay, in these days it is more difficult than ever before to treat even the manner of the sacred writers without provoking an acrimonious religious discussion. The burning question of theology just now is the higher criticism. Now the higher criticism is in essence an affair of language and literature, not of dogmatics, and it is by students of language and literature rather than of dogmatics that it will have to be settled. Yet the various theories concerning the date and style of the books of both the Old Testament and the New are believed to have such an important bearing upon the creeds of the Christian Church that a clergyman’s reputation for orthodoxy is now as seriously affected by his opinions on these subjects as it would have been half a century ago by his views on predestination. It may be urged that it is possible to teach children the Bible in a literary way without making them acquainted with the critical controversy. That is perhaps true, but they cannot be so taught unless their teachers have taken a position on one side or the other. A teacher cannot satisfactorily expound the book of Jonah to his class, even as a literary production, unless he has made up his own mind whether it is a record of plain fact or a work of the imagination. So, too, there is no admittedly historical book which can be taught as history by a teacher who has not definitely adopted or rejected the doctrine of verbal inspiration.

And while these practical difficulties confront the proposal to teach the Bible in schools as a masterpiece of literature, it must be remembered that whatever literary influence was exerted by the Bible in former generations was achieved by other means. The old-fashioned saturation of style with scriptural idiom and phraseology was not produced by any conscious selection of the Bible as a literary model, but was an indirect result of that very emphasis upon its theological importance which the National Educational Association deprecates. As the Nation has pointed out, quoting Ruskin as an example, the English of King James’s Version became second nature to our forefathers “by means of repeated reading and compulsory memorizing under a father’s eye and at a mother’s knee,” and “the imaginative associations ” and “the indelible memory of epithet and description ” were “borne away formerly by children who read in a trembling and holy reverence. ”

The other and much larger class of advocates of Bible study in public schools is composed of persons who put religious considerations in the forefront. They do not object to ally themselves with the former class in the agitation for a change, — they will even quote Renan and Huxley in support of their demand, — but they do not really mean the same thing. Their concern is with the Bible as a moral force rather than as a masterpiece of literature. Their position is represented by the following resolution passed at a Summer School of the South, held at Knoxville : “Conscious of our dependence upon the God of our fathers, and believing that the highest and truest civilization can be attained only by following the precepts of the great teacher, Jesus Christ, we favor the recognition of the Bible in our public schools. ” To the advocates of this cause the instruction of the young in the morality of the Bible is one of the elementary obligations of any nation that calls itself Christian. The Birmingham woman who said of Dr. R. W. Dale that “he ought to be ashamed to want no Bible when he has got his living out of it all his life ” was an extreme instance, but her difficulty in understanding the position of those who profess earnest interest in Christian evangelism while refusing this short and easy method of promoting it is shared by many other members of the class.

Now it is plain that the requirements of the religious advocates of Bible study in schools will not be met by the kind of teaching that satisfies its literary advocates. No home missionary purpose is served by research into the history of biblical words and expressions now obsolete, or by comment on the descriptions of natural phenomena in the Psalms. So far from promoting religious culture, it is to be expected that an exclusively literary and historical treatment of the Bible will actually impair its moral impression upon the young. If the Bible is used as a corpus vile for lessons in linguistics, it is likely to be placed by the pupils in later years on the same shelf with their arithmetics and grammars and other discarded relics of the schoolhouse. A mechanical instruction in the letter of the Bible given without reverence or enthusiasm — and that is what literary instruction would come to in the hands of most teachers — not only contributes nothing in itself to spiritual edification, but is likely to give children of an impressionable age a deplorably low idea of the purpose which the Bible was intended to serve. The case is different with men and women who have first known it as a text-book of the Christian religion, and who, when already established in the faith, discover in it a new interest as they approach it from the literary side.

The teaching of biblical literary forms, then, is something quite different from a Christian education. It is only by a confusion of thought, which regards the Bible itself as a religion instead of a religious instrument, that the advocates of a Christian education can content themselves with the kind of teaching that is desired by the National Educational Association and has been commended by Renan and Huxley. The heart of a religious education is instruction in faith and conduct, and the heart of a Christian education, in particular, is instruction in Christian faith and conduct.

Now the doctrines on which this kind of instruction must be based differ vitally from the truths on which secular instruction is founded in being intimately concerned with questions of religious controversy. Accordingly, if you once begin to treat the Bible in the public schools as a religious and ethical text-book instead of merely a literary model, you violate the principle of the neutrality of the state in matters of religion. When the purpose of the inculcation of doctrines is introduced, even the choice of the Bible used as a textbook becomes a question of the support of the creed of one church as against that of another. In such a case, as Archbishop Magee pointed out, even the reading of the Bible without comment is sectarian teaching. “For I ask in the first place, what Bible is to be read in the schools ? Is the Bible to be read from the Authorized or the Roman Catholic Version ? If from the former it is decidedly sectarian as regards the Roman Catholic, who will not accept that version ; and if from the latter it is sectarian as regards the Protestant. Is it to be from the Old Testament and New Testament ? Then it is sectarian as regards the Jew; and if from the Old Testament only, then it is sectarian as regards the Christian, who demands the New Testament also. You cannot read the Bible in the school without teaching certain opinions about the Bible as held by different sects, according to the nature of the Bible you use.”

The state, having pronounced on one set of religious controversies by deciding the question of the canonical books and choosing the particular version which is to receive its imprimatur, must next proceed to make an official discernment between the various conflicting doctrines that appeal to that particular version for sanction. It is necessary to make it quite clear whether the religion which bears the state’s seal for use in its schools is Trinitarian or Unitarian, and, if the former, whether Sacerdotal or Evangelical. When the true national faith has thus been defined its purity must be safeguarded by legislation, on the lines of the Test and Corporations Act of Charles II., to regulate the appointment of teachers. This means, of course, that state establishment of religion which has hitherto been supposed inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the American government. It is idle to say that the case is made different by the circumstance that the proposed instruction in a religion especially sanctioned by the state is to be given in schoolhouses instead of in churches, by teachers instead of by clergymen, to children instead of to adults. Religious equality is alike violated in either arrangement. The provision of a “conscience clause ” would mitigate the unfairness of the arrangement but would not remove it, and would not affect the fact that any such scheme would be radically inconsistent with the principle of religious equality. Indeed, if we admit the contention that there lies upon the state the duty of giving biblical teaching because such teaching is essential to the training of good citizens, there is no room for a conscience clause at all, and this teaching must be made compulsory in every instance.

It may be argued, in reply to these objections, that there is an easy method of avoiding any such complications. Why not remove controverted doctrines altogether out of the content of the school teaching ? Trinitarian and Unitarian will not agree on the question of the divinity of Christ: say nothing about it to the children, and there will be no breach of the peace among the parents. Sacerdotalist and Evangelical are at issue respecting justification by faith: ignore the conflict of creeds on this matter, and no conscience will be wounded. There are certain ethical maxims which are accepted by all the denominations: excise from the curriculum everything but these, and the problem of a universally acceptable scheme of religious education is noiselessly solved. Whatever our church connections, we believe in certain elementary precepts of morality, — that it is right to be kind to others, that it is wrong to steal, and the like. Let us make these the staple of our teaching, showing our pupils that the welfare of society demands the conquest of natural inclinations in these respects. Let us purge our syllabus of the dross of dogmatic controversy on such mysteries as the person of Christ, the significance of the atonement, the conditions and means of salvation, and let us teach the golden residuum as a working creed.

The programme sounds attractive, but when it is carried out what have we ? Nothing more nor less than the endowment of Utilitarianism, with the proviso that the Bible shall be used as its textbook. What we have gained is the establishment of the religion of Jeremy Bentham, warranted by the state to contain the essential elements of non-aggressive Christianity, and maintained at the cost of the whole population indiscriminately. There is no one who need complain very loudly of this solution, with the exception of the Roman Catholics, the Greek Church, the Protestant Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Reformed Church, the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Methodists, and any other religious body which believes that the dynamic force of Christianity consists in what is distinctive of it, not in what it possesses in common with other religions and systems of ethics. Christianity and Utilitarianism may agree upon an ethical code, but the mere statement of moral laws is not all that is wanted. We must find a motive adequate to secure obedience, and the motives which the Christian pulpit preaches as the strongest, namely, those connected with the personality of Jesus Christ, must be tabooed in schools that are contented with that irreducible minimum which is sometimes advocated as a basis of agreement for all the churches. During the Bradlaugh controversy Sir Henry Drummond Wolff contended that no one should be admitted to the House of Commons who did not believe in “some deity or other.” This policy was thought to be scarcely adequate as a preservative of the orthodoxy of that assembly, but the kind of teaching which has been recommended by many as a satisfactory means of promoting Christian belief among the young has even less right to the label of “Christian.”

But it will be said that it is possible to exceed this minimum considerably without provoking dissension ; that there can be supplied a form of instruction which is not only religious but Christian, containing those doctrines which are believed by the majority of Christians but excluding all distinctively sectarian dogmas. The recent history of national education in England shows, however, that it is a delusion to suppose that the problem can be solved by providing socalled “ undenominational ” religious instruction.1 The legislation of 1870 supplemented the existing system of schools by a new type, the board school, in which the religious difficulty was believed to be overcome by a compromise of this kind. It was provided that the Bible might be read and expounded in these schools, but with the limitation that there should be used no catechism or other religious formulary which was distinctive of any particular denomination. Any parent was entitled to withdraw his child from this teaching if he disapproved of it. In some instances this “undenominational ” instruction has turned out to be scarcely more than a biblical Benthamism ; generally, however, it has included teaching in what the Evangelical churches regard as the essentials of Christian doctrine. It has not been any the less dogmatic because no formulated catechism has been employed. It would at least fulfill Dr. R. Wallace’s definition of a dogma as “a religious idea expressed in language more or less grammatical.”

The working of this scheme has sadly disappointed the hopes of its supporters. Instead of quieting sectarian differences the board school system has intensified them. The old Nonconformist grievance against the denominational schools remains, for these schools have only been supplemented, not superseded, by board schools; while the institution of the board school has created an entirely new grievance, which is acutely felt by the Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The Nonconformist protest is directed entirely against the denominational schools. The adherents of the Protestant nonestablished churches particularly complain that in 8000 parishes the children of Nonconformist parents have to be sent to distinctively Anglican schools; that the conscience clause is an inadequate protection against the religious teaching in such schools, which is often strongly antagonistic to Nonconformist principles; that these schools, though drawing most of their support from public funds, are not under public control; and that the undue multiplication of schools of this type limits the number of educational posts open to Nonconformists, and thus acts as a religious test for the teaching profession. Accordingly, the reform which they advocate includes (1) the establishment of school boards everywhere in districts of sufficient area, with the consequent provision of a Christian unsectarian education within reasonable distance of every family, and (2) direct local representation upon the management of every school that receives public money. With the religious teaching given in the board schools the Nonconformists are generally satisfied, and they have every reason to be, for as a rule it is very much the same as the teaching given in the Sunday-schools attached to the various Nonconformist churches.

But it is otherwise with the Anglicans (with whom the Roman Catholics may be bracketed in this connection). They are dissatisfied with this undenominational teaching, and feel it incumbent upon them to maintain, wherever possible, schools distinctive of their own faith. They regard it as a grievance that in addition to the subscriptions required for these denominational schools they are compelled to contribute, everywhere by taxes and in many places by rates, to the support of the board schools. If the board schools were kept free from religious teaching altogether, this double expense would still appear to them an unfair burden; but their grievance is the heavier when a part of this payment goes to the support of a type of teaching which they believe to be unfriendly to their own beliefs. The undenominational religion taught in most of the board schools is as objectionable to the Sacerdotalist2 as the Sacerdotalism of the Anglican or Roman Catholic school is to the Nonconformist. This is a position which the average Nonconformist has not yet succeeded in understanding. There is nothing distinctively Congregationalist or Methodist or Presbyterian about the board school teaching, and why should not the Sacerdotalists be content, as the Nonconformists are, with the undenominational religion of the board school, adding to it afterwards, by means of the Sunday-school and other agencies, the distinctive tenets of their own churches ? What is here overlooked is that the parallel is not exact between the two cases. With the Anglican or Roman Catholic his own denominational teaching is of the essence of his Christianity, while with the Nonconformist such matters are secondary. The former knows nothing of the Nonconformist distinction between a question of ecclesiastical order and one of practical theology ; to the former these two are not only of equal importance, but so closely associated that one cannot be adequately taught without the other. It is a mistake to suppose that the Sacerdotalists hold the Nonconformist doctrines plus others peculiar to themselves ; they hold even the elementary doctrines with such implications as to result in their actual transformation. The case of the Anglicans has been clearly put by Rev. W. H. Carnegie as follows: “What we assert is this, that those vital religious truths of which the dogmas of the church are the scientific expression cannot be apprehended apart from one another, that in order to teach even one of them fully we must teach them all, and that therefore to draw an artificial line round certain of them which we are not allowed to pass is to destroy the vitality and real significance even of those inclosed within that line.” The comparative degree of importance to be attached to the various sections of a creed is obviously a matter to be decided by its own adherents. As Lord Salisbury said to a Wesleyan Methodist deputation a few years ago: “We must start with the presumption that every body of men know what religion they really do believe, and that they are in the last resort to say what is its nature ; and it is not open to the Wesleyans to go to the Anglicans, or for the Anglicans to go to the Wesleyans and say, ' This is the essential part of your religion, and that is not. ’ It is they themselves and they only who can judge.” Accordingly, if the Anglican declares that the board school religious teaching is lacking in truths which he regards as vital, it is no answer to say that, according to the creed of another church, the truths in question are not among the fundamental principles of Christianity. Any form of undenominational religious teaching means the selection of certain dogmas as suitable for instruction, and the exclusion of others: in the case of the English board schools the selection is satisfactory to the Nonconformists and unsatisfactory to the Anglicans, so that, in this phase of it, the so-called “compromise ” is actually a victory for the Nonconformists. It is strange that the injustice suffered by Anglicans under this arrangement is recognized by only a few prominent Nonconformists, such as Dr. Mackennal, who has reminded his friends that “we have no more right to force undenominational or undogmatic teaching on those who think religion can only be taught denominationally or dogmatically than they have to force their teaching upon us, ” and that the success of such a policy “would be the triumph of one type of religious teaching over another by political ascendency.”

At present, it is impossible to predict what escape will be found from the educational deadlock in England, where the problem is complicated by the fact that a denominational system was already in possession of a great part of the field before the principle of compulsory education was introduced, so that there are powerful vested interests to be considered. Which of the many suggested schemes for a settlement will ultimately prevail cannot be foreseen by the wisest of political soothsayers; but the one thing certain is that the existing system has broken down irremediably. Undenominationalism, which, as Dr. Joseph Parker well said, “needs a body of police to watch it and a college of divines to define it,” has not only shown itself to require more delicate adjustments than are possible in the machinery of the state, but has been revealed in practical working to be a stimulus to strong sectarian feeling, and a cause of injustice in that sphere in which injustice is most resented. If this is the result in England, what might be expected from the adoption of a similar policy in a country like the United States, where there is no tradition of an established church to make the idea of sectarian privilege familiar, and where there is so much less homogeneity both in race and in religion?

The conclusion of the whole matter is that the teaching of religion is the work of the churches and not of the state. If for any reason it has fallen into neglect, the duty of repair lies upon those organizations which have been formed for the express purpose of the spread of Christianity. It is well for the churches themselves that they should be thrown upon their own resources in this respect, and cease hoping to obtain assistance from Cæsar in the establishment of a kingdom which is not of this world. If it be true that the hold of religion upon the younger generation is weakening, it can be strengthened in two ways, one direct, the other indirect. The direct method is the more earnest fulfillment of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: “Give heed to teaching.” The task of building up the character of those who have not yet had to face the temptations of the world must be regarded as equally sacred with that of rescuing the fallen, and as much time, skill, and money must be spent upon religious instruction as upon evangelism in the conventional sense. It is open to the churches, without offense to the principle of religious equality or injury to their own independence, either to supplement the secular instruction of the public schools by religious instruction given by their own teachers at their own expense, or to establish and maintain, for the benefit of their own adherents and others who may prefer that type of education, distinctively denominational schools which will be free from public control because they will do without public assistance. In any case, it is absurd to suppose that the provision of instruction for an hour or two on Sundays can be regarded as a sufficient discharge of the churches’ obligation for the training of their own children. Indirectly, the churches will do much to amend the present deficiencies if they can awaken the dormant parental conscience. Since biblical, and even since Puritan, times there has been a manifest decay, among heads of families, of the sense of responsibility in spiritual matters. First the father transferred his own share of parental duty to the mother, and in many cases it has afterwards been passed over en bloc to an outsider. In England one of the most lamentable features of the present educational controversy is the suspicion of insincerity in the arguments of so many Anglican clergy and country squires, who, while anxious that the children of the poor should have the privilege of a full Christian education, send their own sons up to Oxford and Cambridge in a condition of amazing ignorance respecting the main events of scripture history, and the similar inconsistency of so many well-to-do Nonconformists, who, while loud in their protests against the exposure of the cottager’s family to ultra-ecclesiastical influences, allow their own boys and girls to obtain much of their religious training from Anglican, and even Roman Catholic sources. In America no less mischief is done to the spread of true religion by the spectacle of the church member who demands that the state shall set up in every schoolhouse a light that has not yet been kindled within his own home.

Herbert W. Horwill.

  1. The following account of English conditions applies, of course, to the system hitherto in operation, without reference to the changes that will be introduced by the recent Education Act.
  2. Sacerdotalist is here used as a convenient word to include both the Roman Catholic and the dominant type of Anglican.