Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thomas Jefferson on the Bible in Schools

by Brad Hart

We’ve all heard it said that our founding fathers would be appalled at the fact that religion – particularly the Bible and other Christian teachings -- has been removed from the public school system’s curriculum. As a result, a number of Christian enthusiasts have fought tirelessly for the inclusion of prayers in school, classes on the Bible, etc. To lend support for these causes, a number of Christian apologists have appealed to the legacy of our founding fathers and their alleged loyalty to the Holy Scriptures. The ultra conservative Christian group, Wallbuilders, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. On their website, they point to the establishment of the American Bible Society as evidence that our nation’s founding was based on biblical doctrine. In addition, Wallbuilders makes the claim that, “the signers of the Declaration of Independence firmly believed in the Bible as the primary text in America’s schools.” [1]

While there were a number of signers to the Declaration of Independence that believed in making the Bible the premiere text for American schools, a larger number were against such an idea. After all, the teaching of the Bible in a school setting brought up a number of Church/State issues that have continued to our present day.

The foremost advocate against the use of the Bible – as many of you can easily imagine – was none other than the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson. As we all know, Jefferson was a passionate proponent for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In addition, Jefferson was also a devout supporter of educational reform. Jefferson believed that a secularized education, free from the shackles of religious piety would create a superior learning environment. It was largely due to this conviction that Jefferson established Mr. Jefferson’s University, or the University of Virginia as it is known today.

For Jefferson, the instruction of biblical or Christian doctrine took a back seat to the more important lessons of ancient history and philosophy. As Jefferson stated:

“Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” [2]
A number of Christian apologists – David Barton in particular – have insisted that Jefferson not only supported the study of the Bible in public schools, but in fact participated in its teaching. This myth is not only the result of over enthusiasm, but also the result of poor historical research and knowledge. As Jim Allison states:

"On page 130 in his The Myth of Separation, David Barton makes the following claim:

'Thomas Jefferson, while President of the United States, became the first president of the Washington D. C. public school board, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymnal as reading texts in the classroom. Notice why Jefferson felt the Bible to be essential in any successful plan of education: I have always said, always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.'

Barton's reference for Jefferson's service on the Washington D. C. school board is J. O. Wilson, "Eighty Years of Public Schools of Washington," in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. 1, 1897, pp. 122-127. Barton's quotation from Jefferson is taken from Herbert Lockyear, The Last Words of Saints and Sinners, 1969.

Apparently, Barton wants us to conclude that, since Jefferson was president of the board for a school system that used the Bible for reading instruction, he must have approved of using the Bible in this manner. In fact, some readers of this web site have claimed in their e-mail correspondence with us that Jefferson requested the Bible to be used for reading instruction. But nothing in Barton's source supports either of these claims. In fact, Barton's source suggests that someone other than Jefferson was responsible for introducing the Bible into the schools, and that this policy was adopted after Jefferson had left Washington for retirement in Virginia. Here are the facts:

On September 19, 1805, toward the end of Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, the board of trustees of the Washington D. C. public schools adopted its first plan for public education for the city. Given its resemblance to a similar plan proposed several years earlier by Jefferson for the state of Virginia, Wilson (Barton's source) suggests that it is likely that "he [Jefferson] himself was the chief author of the...plan." The plan called for the establishment of two public schools in
which:

...poor children shall be taught reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, and such branches of the mathematics as may qualify them for the professions they are intended to follow, and they shall receive such other instruction as is given to pay pupils, as the board my from time to time direct, and pay pupils shall, besides be instructed in geography and in the Latin language.

As you can see, there is nothing in this plan that mentions religious education or the use of the Bible in reading instruction. Nor, we might add, was the Bible mentioned in any of Jefferson's plans for public education in the state of Virginia, either before or after his presidency (check out an extract from Leonard Levy's book
Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side for documentation on this point). There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Barton's source that connects Jefferson to the practice of Bible reading. So how did the Bible come to be used in the Washington public schools? Remarkably, Barton's own source provides an answer to that question." [3]



Notes:
[1] Wallbuilders. “The Aitken Bible.” http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=46, accessed July 23, 2008.
[2] Thomas Jefferson. The Administration of Laws and the Description of Laws?
[3]
Thomas Jefferson supported Bible reading in school; this is proven by his service as the first president of the Washington D. C. public schools, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymns as textbooks for reading. By Jim Allison. http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/arg6.htm

17 comments:

bpabbott said...

I wonder how Barton would respond to public school Bible classes using Jefferson's Bible ;-)

Brad Hart said...

Ha! Now that would be the ultimate in irony!

Pinky said...

.
I can't remember my source; but, several years ago I read that the Bible was used in public free schools because it was one of the few books that was commonly available.
.
.

Cheryl L. Stansberry said...

I've read somewhere that Jefferson's Bible was actually used to introduce the natives to Christian morality through the words of Jesus.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, it looks like you nailed David Barton, Brad, if the above is accurate and i don't doubt that it is.

By overreaching for Jefferson, Barton misses a strong point, that the Bible was routinely used in the public schools at the birth of the nation.

"Pinky" has a good explanation [the availability of Bibles], but they were still used, something that would give many people a cow these days.

The Shawcrofts said...

I love this site! I wish I was a history buff so I could prattle off some factoids and fit in. Keep all the good stuff coming!

Brad Hart said...

I am very glad to hear that you enjoy this site, Shawcrofts. There are no "experts" here -- I doubt there ever was or is such a thing as an expert in history -- so feel free to chime in whenever you feel like it!

Ed Darrell said...

In his plans for public education in Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson not only urges that the Bible be removed, but he adds this zinger:

"The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds; such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits."

That's right: Take out the Bible, and teach morality instead.

Did Jefferson smile when he wrote that, knowing Barton would stumble over the idea later?

Tom Van Dyke said...

I have always wondered if Washington's thoughts in his Farewell Address [quoted in the above post by Jonathan Rowe] were specifically directed at Jefferson.

MissionaryJames said...

First 2-Laws enacted by the 1st Congress was a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving and for 50,000 Gutenberg Bibles to be distributed throughout the 13-Colonies for 3-Reasons:

a) To teach the illiterate to read
b) To teach them Right from Wrong
c) To hold them (politicians) accountable to such principals!

The 1st SCHOOL BOOK for used in K-3rd grades was called the NEW ENGLAND PRIMER and was used until 1943 and the whole Book is Bible Verses...For example:

A = Ask and you shall receive
B = Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ

So, YOU DIMWITS of this web-page want us to believe, that although Thomas Jefferson was the presiding President, WHETHER OR NOT HE ORDERED BIBLES TO BE USED OR SOMEONE ELSE BEFORE HIM ORDERED SUCH, that Jefferson somehow KNEW about the Bibles being used, but DID NOT AGREE to such use?

There is no record of Jefferson BANNING BIBLES from such DC-Schools and HE MUST HAVE SURELY KNOWN of the Bible's prescence in DC-Schools, after all....HE WAS THE PRESIDENT YOU DIMWITS....

Finally, JEFFERSON WAS A CHRISTIAN and Founded a BIBLE SOCIETY you dimwitted Bozos called the:

VIRGINIA BIBLE SOCIETY (google it)

Over 200-Bible Societies were Founded in America shortly after the Constitution, mostly by the Signers of the DOI and the Constitution, Presidents, Congressman, Senators and DEANS from Universities and more!

Anyway, Here are a few Jefferson quotes below:

"The Bible is the cornerstone of liberty...students' perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands"

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, which is a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?"

"I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ"

So having said ALL THAT, are you still going to hold the idiotic notion that although Jefferson was the President of DC-Schools, HE did not know, or was somehow indifferent and/or silently disagreed with Bibles being used therein?

We know who you people are! You are not one of us and you are deceivers attempting to rob us of the truth, to overthrow us! You can not do so, you will lose! Stop trying us or you will regret it one-day...and by the way things are going in our Nation, as a result of your 50-year encroachment plan to overthrow us, your regrets promised by WE THE PEOPLE will come sooner, rather than later!

Long-Live this Judeo-Christian Republic called AMERICA, home of the Brave, Land of the Free, thanks to the Bible!

IBWCP1775 said...

Thank You Missionary James. I can tell you are self-educated and can think outside the mistruths of this webpage.

Ed Darrell said...

First 2-Laws enacted by the 1st Congress was a Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving and for 50,000 Gutenberg Bibles to be distributed throughout the 13-Colonies for 3-Reasons:

a) To teach the illiterate to read
b) To teach them Right from Wrong
c) To hold them (politicians) accountable to such principals!


That's false, on almost all particulars -- especially on the distribution of "50,000 Gutenberg Bibles," of which probably fewer than 15 existed at the time, each worth more than the annual incomes of all federal officials put together.

But I digress.

The first law passed dealt with the oaths to be administered to officials of the government:
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=146

I have never found any act of Congress authorizing the printing of Bibles on the government dime, let alone 50,000 of them. Among other things, the Bible was probably the most common book found in America -- most families had one. Why would Congress duplicate that, when money was scarce?

The claims of Missionary James are 100% false.

The 1st SCHOOL BOOK for used in K-3rd grades was called the NEW ENGLAND PRIMER and was used until 1943 and the whole Book is Bible Verses...For example:

A = Ask and you shall receive
B = Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ


Ben Franklin's fortune was based in large part on his edition of the "New England Primer," which outsold all others. Franklin made it a more useful book to teach reading by eliminating Biblical references and religious verses that were simply difficult to read and understand. That was about 1750. From that time on several other editions were printed, by Franklin and others, each much more secular than the last. Instead of "Adam to Zacheus," for example, Franklin's version went from "Apple" to "Zoo." The series went out of favor in the early 19th century. Perhaps a version was published as late as 1943, but it was an odd, rarely used thing by then.

So, YOU DIMWITS of this web-page want us to believe, that although Thomas Jefferson was the presiding President, WHETHER OR NOT HE ORDERED BIBLES TO BE USED OR SOMEONE ELSE BEFORE HIM ORDERED SUCH, that Jefferson somehow KNEW about the Bibles being used, but DID NOT AGREE to such use?

In fact, Jefferson worked hard to get Bibles out of schools. Bibles were used as readers simply because the books existed. Most families couldn't afford better textbooks -- Jefferson proposed local and state governments purchase books to replace Bibles. Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that the Bible was difficult to read, and hampered the moral development of young children who should not be reading of such debauchery and violence at tender ages. Jefferson said that teaching reading without the Bible would go faster, and leave more time for learning useful stuff. That would leave time, Jefferson said, for instructions in morality, once the Bible had been eliminated. Did he intend others to laugh at his joke?

[Continued next post]

Ed Darrell said...

[Continued from previous post]

There is no record of Jefferson BANNING BIBLES from such DC-Schools and HE MUST HAVE SURELY KNOWN of the Bible's prescence in DC-Schools, after all....HE WAS THE PRESIDENT YOU DIMWITS....

There was no serious public school system in Washington, D.C., until after 1820. To claim the president at any point would have had anything to do with the management of the schools is pure fantasy, but especially in this case, considering Jefferson left the presidency in 1809.

However, as I noted above, Jefferson campaigned against the use of Bibles in schools, everywhere. As a member of the board of the College of William and Mary ("Board of Visitors" as it was then called), Jefferson got the clerics employed by the college fired, scotched religion and Bible classes, and hired teachers of law, rhetoric and history instead.

In his plan for public schools in Virginia, the Bible played no role.

In his plan for the University of Virginia, clergy and Bible studies were excluded -- as was a chapel excluded.

It's unlikely there were even D.C. schools during Jefferson's administration. To claim Jefferson headed the schools is purely fatuous. To claim he endorsed the use of the Bible in those non-existent schools, contrary to his life-long animosity to such impediments to learning, is a grotesque insult to the history of America, to Jefferson, and to Americans.

Finally, JEFFERSON WAS A CHRISTIAN and Founded a BIBLE SOCIETY you dimwitted Bozos called the:

VIRGINIA BIBLE SOCIETY (google it)


Done. Jefferson was not a founder. He donated money to this private group, demonstrated his love of books and of scriptures generally, but did not endorse the Bible for use as a school book. Read it here:
http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/bible-society-virginia

Over 200-Bible Societies were Founded in America shortly after the Constitution, mostly by the Signers of the DOI and the Constitution, Presidents, Congressman, Senators and DEANS from Universities and more!

This is getting beyond delusional. Yes, there were a lot of Bible societies. No, they were not the preoccupation of most of the founders, nor most legislators.

Anyway, Here are a few Jefferson quotes below:

"The Bible is the cornerstone of liberty...students' perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands"


Spurious. Jefferson didn't say it. Check with the authorities at Monticello:
http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/bible-source-liberty-quotation

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, which is a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?"

That's a mashup of quotes -- sorta like what shows up on one panel in the Jefferson Memorial. But by no stretch can it be taken as an endorsement of scripture, rather than what Jefferson intended it to be: A criticism of slavery. Read it here:
http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/quotations-jefferson-memorial

[Continued next post]

Ed Darrell said...

[Continued from previous post]
"I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ"

Well, yeah, he said that, but you strip it of its context and Jefferson's meaning. Jefferson thought Jesus to be a supreme philosopher, much like Aristotle or Plato -- and NOT in any sense divine, NOT the Son of God. Jefferson wrote that churches and clerics had abused Jesus's philosophy and religion, and Jefferson said he was an exponent of the true Jesus philosophy, which was not at all what a Christian would recognize.

That's not what Missionary James meant, of course.

So having said ALL THAT, are you still going to hold the idiotic notion that although Jefferson was the President of DC-Schools, HE did not know, or was somehow indifferent and/or silently disagreed with Bibles being used therein?

Yeah, I'll stick with the truth, thank you. Jefferson was never president of the D.C. schools. Jefferson did not endorse the use of Bibles in public schools, nor in any school. Jefferson thought Bibles should be removed from schools to protect the morals of the children.

We know who you people are! You are not one of us and you are deceivers attempting to rob us of the truth, to overthrow us! You can not do so, you will lose! Stop trying us or you will regret it one-day...and by the way things are going in our Nation, as a result of your 50-year encroachment plan to overthrow us, your regrets promised by WE THE PEOPLE will come sooner, rather than later!

Quit insulting Jefferson, the Declaration, and America. Read Jefferson sometime.

You might want to start with the "Jefferson Bible," which strips all the miracles and Son of God claims out of the New Testament. You should definitely check out Notes on the State of Virginia, especially Query 14 (if I recall correctly) in which he describes the problems of using the Bible in schools, and by all means read the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Please, stop misquoting Jefferson.

Long-Live this Judeo-Christian Republic called AMERICA, home of the Brave, Land of the Free, thanks to the Bible!

Thanks to Mr. Jefferson, we can read our Bible, and misinterpret it to our heart's content.

Long may the republic live, but as Jefferson noted, a republic to protect "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination." That is, not a Judeo-Christian republic, whatever that might be, but a democratic republic, protecting the rights of conscience of all. (See quote here: http://timpanogos.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/encore-post-jefferson-on-religious-freedom/ )

Rob Baker said...

Thanks for this great post. It leaves me incredibly motivated to research the issue further.

Anonymous said...

It's absolutely amazing how everybody thinks they are an expert on this subject, but nobody's researched it, and nobody is singing the same tune. Every pseudo-historian and lay-lawyer is contradicting the other. I'd say that makes somebody right and somebody wrong, because you can't both be right. There's enough evidence across the board from America's exploration, colonization, national formation, and subsequent policies, and court decisions to prove America was founded as a Christian nation. If you want a secular nation, I suggest Russia. In fact, the old USSR's constitution specifically stated about the church's separation from government and education from the church. But, I can't explain that to a bunch of fellow communists who want to go down the same path.

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