Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

As of June 27, the Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction now requires all public schools to teach the Bible in grades 5-12. The decree is not directed to home school, private voucher schools, and parochial schools presumably because they already teach the Bible! He expects “immediate and strict compliance” to this new policy (see “Oklahoma Moves to Require Teaching the Bible in Public Schools,” (NYT June 28, 2024, front page and “In Culture War Volley, Oklahoma Tests Limits of Bibles in Its Schools, NYT July 1, 2024 print).

Republican Ryan Walters justification for this proclamation is:

The Bible is an indispensable historical and cultural touchstone. Without basic knowledge of it, Oklahoma students are unable to properly contextualize the foundation of our nation which is why Oklahoma educational standards provide for its instruction…

Every teacher, every classroom in the state will have a Bible in the classroom, and will be teaching from the Bible in the classroom.”

He did not specify what biblical instruction would be. Possible areas include history, civilization, ethics, and contemporary religion. Of particular interest [for the Bible and the Ten Commandments] “is for their substantial influence on the nation’s founders and the foundational principles of the Constitution.”

His has a reputation as a “bombastic figure in Oklahoma politics and an unapologetic warrior in education.”

“In Oklahoma, we are very proud to lead the country on pushing back on the leftists trying to rewrite history and say, No we will teach from the Bible.”

Although he is a member of the Protestant Church of Christ, he said he would not favor a particular version of the Bible.

“Public schools are not Sunday schools,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement in response. “This is textbook Christian Nationalism: Walters is abusing the power of his public office to impose his religious beliefs on everyone else’s children.”

The Oklahoma Education Association said in a statement that Walters “cannot usurp local control and compel education professionals to violate the Constitution.” The group pointed out that the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently decided that school districts have the right to choose which books are available in their libraries and classrooms and “a memo from the State Department of Education does not change that ruling.”

Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for state Attorney General Gentner Drummond, told The Associated Press that Oklahoma law already explicitly allows Bibles in the classroom and lets teachers use them in instruction.

“…indispensable historical and cultural touchstone” and “to properly contextualize the foundation of our nation”

Let’s ignore issues of freedom of religion and separation of church and state and instead focus on contextualizing the historical and cultural issues that seem to concern the Superintendent.

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln said both the Union and the Confederates “Both read the same Bible,” his sentiments may have been noble but his facts were in error.

If both sides read from the same Bible, how come they arrive at such different interpretations on slavery? Presumably, classroom teachers will have to deal with students having different interpretations regarding the same passages and words. How are they supposed to respond? What teacher training programs will be developed so teachers can handle differences of opinion?

In addition, not everyone read from the same Bible. In the north there were plenty of Irish (and German) Catholics who did not read from the same Bible as Protestants. This difference had been a bone of contention starting in the 1840s in the Philadelphia school system. Battles were fought, sometimes physically, over which Bible to use in the classroom, Catholic or Protestant.

Even then, there were differences with Jews and Mormons not having the same Bible as Protestants. Since Lincoln’s time, one could add the Eastern Orthodox Bible as the demography of the United States changed. Then there are people who read from no Bible at all or who do not belong to the “People of the Book” or the “Abraham people.”

HISTORY

Let’s narrow the focus to history. Back in the 1600s, the Massachusetts magistrates sought a legal code for governing the new Puritan colony founded in 1630, ten years after the Plymouth Bay colony in 1620 and around the same time Puritan New Haven Colony was formed. They wanted a legal code based on the Bible which could serve as the legal code of the colony.

In 1636, Reverend John Cotton produced such as document. It was published in 1642 as An Abstract of the Lawes of New England.  Since Cotton’s opus rested on the Bible, John Winthrop called it “a model of Moses his judicials.”  Massachusetts never formally adopted this biblical-based law code for the colony. By contrast it remained the legal foundation for New Haven until 1662 when the Cromwell-supporting colony was absorbed by Connecticut.

These earlier colonial efforts represented the most significant effort to make the Bible, especially the Pentateuch, the law of the land. It should be noted that there are 613 laws within the Five Books of Moses, a number which far exceeds the mere ten of the Ten Commandments.

How or will this effort into biblical law as political law be taught? How will teachers be trained in this part of American history? How will the curriculum be changed?

SUNDAY SCHOOL

There is an unsung and frequently overlooked effort to standardize the teaching of the Protestant Bible in Protestant Sunday Schools.  In 1865, Methodist John Heyl Vincent drew on his involvement in Sunday School teaching and his interest in biblical geography to propose the Uniform Lesson Plan in Chicago which he subsequently published in the Sunday-School Teacher in 1866 as “Two Years with Jesus.”  As editor of the Sunday School Quarterly and superintendent of the Department of Sunday School for the Methodist Episcopal Church, he had a forum from which to promulgate his ideas. (Vincent also would found Chautauqua in 1874, “the most American thing in America” according to Teddy Roosevelt.

The Uniform Lesson Plan removed from the local school of teacher the decision-making about the subject and sequence of the lessons to be taught. By uniform lesson, it did not mean that everyone of all ages was taught identically. The uniformity was in the topic or verses from Scripture selected for study. Vincent certainly recognized the need to differentiate the actual lesson based on the different capabilities of the students.  He proposed a four tier system: infants age 3 to 6, primary age 6 to 10, third grade age 10 to 16, and senior grade over 16 including adults all learning the same lesson on the same Sunday simply geared towards their age group.

The idea of uniform lessons soon assumed national importance.  That plan was adopted at the 1872 Sunday School Union conference at the insistence of B.F. Jacobs who had reinvigorated the organization after having been recruited by evangelist Dwight Moody. According to one observer in 1911, Jacobs (of Puritan and Huguenot descent) and Vincent had been “brought together by the good providence of God”.  Once again, Divine Providence had acted in history.

The lessons covered a six-year cycle. They allowed for individual denominations to set the content while the national plan set the schedule for scriptural passages.  One of the challenges was to combine the lessons which had been developed from competing plans into a single unified lesson system.  The compromise solution in 1871 created a composite plan that drew on three sources, two already in existence and third to be developed under the auspices of the new program.  The compromise uniform document was approved at the National Sunday School Convention in 1872 which actually included representatives from Canada, England, and India, hence the International Lesson System.  The adoption process recognized that “our scholars are migratory” and that the new plan would enable them to continue with their studies with the help of their parents and the Sunday-school publications no matter where they happened to be.

During the Gilded Age, Sunday Schools were in their golden age.  Their success as a weapon of war was undeniable.  In the Yale Lectures of 1888, Henry Clay Trumbull, editor of The Sunday School Times who had chaired the original committee of the Uniform Lesson Plan at the 1872 National Sunday School convention, voiced this triumphalism:

“In the latter third of the 19th century, Bible-study and Bible-teaching have a prominence never before known in world’s history, and vital godliness is shown and felt with unprecedented potency in the life and progress of mankind.  This change is due to God’s blessing on the revival and expansion of the church Bible-school as His chosen agency for Christian evangelizing and Christian training.”

During the first three cycles, 1872-1893, there were 1,031 lessons with 130 from Acts, 79-97 from each of the four gospels, and 64 from Genesis. Over the 52 years of the program from 1872-1925, the call of Abraham was studied 37 times. Certainly anything controversial during this time of Higher Biblical Criticism was to be avoided.

In 1890 the Uniform Lesson series commanded a global army of over 10,000,000 teachers and students, later to increase to 15,000,000 by the turn of the century and 16,000,000 by 1910).  Students were to be converted to Christianity through biblical instruction. By 1905, 17,000,000 scholars participated in the program. There were choices to be made about what biblical passages to teach.

As the 20th century continued, the challenges to the Uniform Lesson Plan increased. Holding together science and religion in the wake of continuous archaeological discoveries and new theories of biblical writing proved more and more challenging.  The publication of biblical commentaries, dictionaries, and encyclopedias which incorporated the results of archaeology and Higher Criticism complicated the task of selecting passages that avoided controversy.

A 1925 Yale dissertation still fought the battle against the Uniform Lesson Plan.  In this study, Willard Uphaus reviewed every single lesson since the inception of the program.  His overall conclusions about the program reveal the messages which the program delivered whether consciously or not.

1. Based on the verses selected for Daniel and the Book of Revelation, the Sunday School lessons emphasized miracles and symbolism “that has contributed greatly to the unsatisfactory adjustment of many Sunday school pupils to the scientific temper of the present (thus revealing the preferences of the author)(Uphaus 53).  He considers that the failure

to teach correctly the intricate symbolism of the closing chapters of Daniel and all of Revelation has left unguided Bible readers with a literalistic interpretation that is largely responsible for the apocalypticism so prevalent in recent years.  It is this imperfect and partial treatment of apocalyptic literature that has turned the eyes of Christians to an imaginary realm beyond, often cultivated impatience with this life and blinded their vision of a possible kingdom of God here on earth (Uphaus 53).

2. “Taking the lessons as a whole, there was too much emphasis on the miraculous and otherworldliness, and not enough on the practical teachings of the Bible that would throw light upon the immediate and perplexing problems of the growing Christian” (Uphaus 92).  This author was a strong advocate for the graded lesson system that adjusted for the age of the students and blamed the excessive dropout rate it on the inadequacy on the uniform lessons (Uphaus 104).

3. The lessons do not teach the “social aspects of the gospel” that relate to the problems of youth (Uphaus 105).  The Bible was still being taught the old-fashioned way that made it increasingly irrelevant to the needs of the young in the present preparing for their future.

4. “The Uniform Lessons did not give the older students any conception of the gradual development of law as social and economic conditions required (Uphaus 25).  Here the critic expresses the tenets of Higher Criticism and Comparative Religion which he considers not have filtered their way into the curriculum.  Uphaus was dismayed because he viewed such an omission as contributing to the lack of awareness by “so many folk” of the Bible as a “progressive revelation of God in the life of man” (Uphaus 26).

5. Uphaus was disturbed that prophecy “which contains the highest religious conceptions of the Old Testament” are given short shrift in the Uniform Lessons (26).  Prophets become important solely for what they foretell about Jesus and not for their message in their own time to their own people and the social conditions of their present … which has significant implications for how people approach problems in the American present (Uphaus 37-38).

99 years later could the same criticisms be levied in Oklahoma?

How will it be decided what passages are taught?

What training will teachers receive?

How will objections or disagreements with the teachings be handled?

Again, besides the legal issues over the teaching of the Bible in public schools, there are questions to be raised over whether a particular brand of Protestantism will be preached over whether the Bible will be taught.

For suggested readings on Sunday School see:

Carter, Robert Lee, The “Message of the Higher Criticism”: The Bible Renaissance and Popular Education in America, 1880-1925, (University of North Carolina, unpublished dissertation Ann Arbor: UMI, 1995).

Crandall, Robert Andrew, The Sunday School as an Instructional Agency for Religious Instruction in American Protestantism, 1872-1922, (University of Notre Dame, unpublished dissertation Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997).

Lankard, Frank Glen, A History of the American Sunday School Curriculum, (Cincinnati: The Abingdon Press, 1927).

Noll, Mark A., In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017).

Sampey, John Richard, The International Lesson System: The History of Its Origin and Development, (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1911).

Shalev, Eran, “The United Tribes, or States of Israel”: The Hebrew Republic as a Political Model before the Civil War,” in American Zion: the Old Testament as a political text from the Revolution to the Civil War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 50-83.

Uphaus, Willard, A Critical Study of the International Sunday School Lesson System, (New Haven: Yale University, unpublished dissertation.1925)

Vincent, John H.

“Appointing Sunday School Teachers,” The Sunday School Teacher I 1866:193-195.
“Two Years With Jesus,” The Sunday School Teacher I 1866:13-23, 42-50,81-84.
“The Sunday School Teacher and the Church,” The Sunday  School Teacher II 1867 60.

Wardle, Addie Grace, History of the Sunday School Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, (Cincinnati: The Methodist Book Concern, 1918).

Wolosky, Shira, “Biblical Republicanism: John Cotton’s “Moses His Judicials” and American Hebraism. Hebraic Political Studies 4.2 (Spring 2009): 104–127

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.