5.3.7. The Midwest, 1865-1920: Bible Reading in Public Schools


The Battle Over Diversity Begins:  Bibles in the Public Schools

Board of Education of City of Cincinnati v Minor – Ohio, 1872 (23 Ohio St. 211); State ex rel. Weiss v. District Board (Edgerton Bible Case) – Wisconsin, 1890 (44 N.W. 967); Kaplan v. Independent School District of Virginia – Minnesota, 1927 (214 N.W. 18)

  • There were deep cultural differences between the first wave of Midwestern immigrants (mostly from New York and New England) and the second wave of immigrants (coming mainly from Germany and Scandinavia).  Those differences erupted in sharp clashes over  education.   Yankees prized public schools as a means of assimilating immigrant children and teaching them “American” values, and as a result Midwestern states were among the first to incorporate the right to a free common-school education into their constitutions.  By contrast, many immigrants supported parochial schools as a means of preserving their cultural traditions and language – and, in the case of Catholic immigrants, religious traditions.
  • As second-wave immigration increased, so did the number of parochial schools.  In the late 19th century, Yankees in many Midwestern states reacted by restricting or prohibiting foreign-language instruction in all schools.  This sometimes elicited fierce resistance.  For example, in Wisconsin, lawmakers who enacted a broad English-only law in 1889 were voted out at the next election and the law was repealed in 1891.   
  • Midwestern courts had little involvement in these battles, but they did weigh in on a related controversy:   Bible instruction in public schools.  Neither Yankees nor second-wave immigrants regarded public school Bible instruction as improper:  the modern rule that freedom of religion precluded religious instruction of any sort would not surface until the mid-20th century.  But battles arose in many school districts over whether the (Protestant) King James Bible or the (Catholic) Douai Bible would be the text of choice; the battles often divided along ethnic as well as religious lines. 
  • The battle made its way to several Midwestern courts.  In the Minor and Edgerton Bible cases, the Ohio and Wisconsin supreme courts affirmed that Biblical “fundamental teachings” were permissible in public schools but that purely “doctrinal” teachings were not.  The Wisconsin court neatly melded its stricture against sectarianism with a bow to the Yankee assimilationist ideal, reasoning that basic Christian moral principles were sufficiently universal to provide “common ground” for pupils of all ethnic backgrounds.


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King James Bible (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“What more tempting inducement to cast their [immigrants’] lot with us could have been held out to them than the assurance that, in addition to the guaranties of the right of conscience and of worship in their own way, the free district schools in which their children were to be .. educated, were absolute common ground, where … sectarian instruction, and with it sectarian intolerance … could never enter?”  -Chief Justice William P. Lyon, in Edgerton Bible

“What more natural than turning to that Book for moral precepts which for ages has been regarded by the majority of the peoples of the most civilized nations as the fountain of moral teachings? … [N]o more exacting rules of obedience to constituted civil authority and of right living … exist anywhere than those found in the New Testament of the Bible - rules to which neither Jew nor atheist can reasonably take exception.” -Justice __, in Kaplan