Bible Riots??

Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 11

Bible Riots??

This is Part 11 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary
that can be of interest “standing alone,” each builds on information,
concepts, and commentary
introduced in earlier entries in the series, and thus
it is most effective
to read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1.
At the end of each entry you will find a link to the next part of the series.


The previous entry in this series explored the circumstances which surrounded the Supreme Court decision (Engel v Vitale) in 1962 that concluded that it was unconstitutional for governmental authorities such as local boards of education to compose “prayers” and establish, either by requirement or by custom, the practice of group recitation of those prayers in public schools. To this day many evangelicals insist that this decision “kicked God out of the schools,” and forbade children and teens from praying at school.

As documented in that entry, this is not a valid representation of reality. Any young person can pray silently at any point in the school day, of course! And individuals and small groups of children and teens can choose to pray out loud in situations…such as “saying grace” at lunch time…that are not disruptive to those around them—and do not seek to force others to join them. Large groups are free to gather outside the school building before classes are in session, such as the common “See You at the Pole” gatherings organized by Christian students and held at the school flagpole any time of the year.


And children and teens can organize religious clubs to meet in school classrooms after school, where they can freely read and discuss the Bible and pray together. To emphasize one more time—the prohibition of the Engel v Vitale decision was regarding “the government” attempting to establish some religious activity in the setting of the public schools…where young people are a “captive audience.” If the “expectation” is that a whole group of students in a class will participate in such an activity, even making a “special exemption” for children who wish to “opt out” of doing so does not solve the problem of subtle coercion. It leaves them open to subtle—or not-so-subtle—ridicule or harassment by other students, and even teachers and school administrators.

In addition, the previous blog entry clarifies that the Warren Court’s decision in 1962 was not a startling, radical change from historical precedent in the United States. In spite of claims that “required religious exercises” had been practically universal across the land since the founding of the nation, the reality was that it had been an issue before many courts for many years.

As public schools evolved in the post-Revolutionary War period, there was a general attitude of indifference toward religion among the American public. While the Bible was often used in schools as a reader and speller, formal daily prayers and devotional readings were held sporadically, often only when a local clergyman visited a school…Rather, the move to require prayer and Bible reading in the public schools didn’t gain steam until the Civil War era, and even then didn’t generally manifest itself in law until early 1900s:

Prior to 1900, only Massachusetts had a law on the books dealing with prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Between 1910 and 1930, seventeen states and the District of Columbia passed similar laws. The movement to get these ordinances on the books was spearheaded by a powerful lobby of conservative church groups, led by the National Reform Association.

Critically, these practices were soon challenged in Court as violating the freedom of religion provisions of various state Constitutions. In 1910, for example, an Illinois Supreme Court struck down religious exercises in its public schools. Wisconsin ruled such exercises unconstitutional in 1890 and Nebraska did the same in 1903…In total, the issue of religious practices in public schools came up in 22 state courts before 1962, with those practices being struck down in eight cases and upheld in 14.  [Source]

In fact, a previous major court ruling in 1948 (prior to “The Warren Court”) titled McCollum v Board of Education (of Champaign IL) had decided that “The use of public school facilities by religious organizations to give religious instruction to school children violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” It was in response to a relatively new phenomenon:

In 1940, interested members of various Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths formed an association named the Champaign Council on Religious Education. This association obtained permission from the Champaign Board of Education to offer voluntary religious education classes for public school students from grades four to nine. These weekly 30- and 45-minute classes were led by clergy and lay members of the association in public school classrooms during school hours. [Source]

The suit that ended up in the Supreme Court in this case was brought by a mother whose son was “ostracized” for not attending such classes.



So First, McCollum v Board of Education in 1948 had ruled against religious organizations operating in the public schools.  Second, Engel v Vitale in 1962 had ruled against governmental/school authorities establishing prayers for students in public schools.  We will now take a look at the Third case in the three-piece set of much-reviled “religion in schools” court decisions, titled “Abington v Schempp.”  From the point of view of many evangelicals, this was “the last straw” in an insidious effort by evil forces to destroy the very foundation of American society.

But things are not always as they seem.

First, what was Abington, and who was Schempp?

Abington stood for the Abington Township School District of Pennsylvania. (Abington Township, pop. 55,000 or so in 2010,  is a township made up of 15 small suburban, unincorporated communities just north of Philadelphia.)


Edward, Sidney, Roger, and Donna Schempp
(See photo of eldest son Ellery Schempp below) 

Schempp was Edward Schempp, husband of Sidney and father of three children (Ellery, Roger, and Donna) who attended school in the Abington Township School District. The Schempp family were members of a local Unitarian-Universalist church. This denomination had just formed in 1961 by a consolidation between the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association. Although the consolidation was recent, the roots of both of the groups go way back in American history. The first Universalist Church in America had been established in 1793, right after the founding of the country. The first Unitarian congregation in the US was organized in 1774, before the Revolutionary War, and the American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825.

Because many Unitarian-Universalists have many beliefs that run counter to the understanding of evangelical Protestantism, they are often viewed by evangelicals as being some sort of “radical modern liberal” sect that just formed in recent times to rebel against what evangelicals view as “Christian orthodoxy.” But as you can see from the dates of those origins in the US, they actually have a history much longer than many American religious groups and movements… including Pentecostals and “Fundamentalists,” which both developed as active movements around the turn of the last century.

The Schempp family’s personal religious convictions included teaching about the Bible to their children, although the U-U does not adhere to a position of “inerrancy of the Bible.” Just as most Protestant groups such as the Baptists and Methodists do not accept portions of the Bible as “applying to Christians” (such as restrictions against eating certain types of meat…or stoning adulterers or young women who are found to not be virgins on their wedding night) U-U believers accept parts of the Bible as wisdom to be followed, and other parts as not applicable.

And that brings us to Edward Schempp’s son Ellery.

For, you see, the case that brought before the Supreme Court the issue of mandatory Bible readings and “religious exercises” in public schools wasn’t “started” by a group of ACLU adults in some office in Big Bad New York City nefariously deciding to “take the Bible out of the schools.”  It was started by the individual, personal efforts of 16 year old high school student Ellery Schempp in a small suburban area near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.



Supreme Court ruling 50 years ago set modern course for religion in public schools

Matthew Brown  6/14/2013

Ellery Schempp knew he could get into trouble.

The studious 16-year-old wanted to make a point that a Pennsylvania law mandating a morning religious devotional in his homeroom class violated his First Amendment right to religious freedom. So, on a chilly Monday morning in November 1956, as an Abington High School classmate began reading 10 verses from the King James Bible, Schempp quietly read a copy of the Quran he borrowed from a friend. But he didn’t catch his teacher’s attention until he remained seated while everyone else stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

“I was a bit naïve,” recalls the now-72-year-old [in 2013] retired physicist. “I thought it was so transparent that these Bible readings and prayers violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment that when we pointed this out, the grown-ups would set it right.”


But instead of his teacher, principal and guidance counselor, who had Schempp sit outside the office during the morning ritual for the rest of the school year, the grown-ups who addressed the problem were nine U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled on the matter 50 years ago on June 17 [1963].

So what prompted this young man to his little personal “act of defiance”?

In the 1950s, during the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War, religion became for many a defining characteristic of what it meant to be American. “One nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” was adopted as the nation’s motto and a National Day of Prayer was enacted.

In this climate, Schempp and a few of his classmates met weekly at each other’s homes to discuss things that were important to them, from dating to social issues. The gatherings were initiated by an English teacher, whom Schempp credits with getting him to think critically about conscience and ethics.

At one of the sessions, Schempp sparked a lively discussion when he brought up how the mandatory daily [King James Version] Bible reading and prayer bothered him and appeared a clear violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits government endorsement of a religion.

“Some defended it on the basis of tradition and that society evolved from Christianity. A lot of Jewish kids were uncomfortable reading the parts about Christmas and Easter,” he recalled, also noting that the Catholic students complained they were taught a different version of the [Lord’s] prayer than what they were forced to recite at Abington High.

For Schempp, the reading he had participated in for more than 10 years had become meaningless, with classmates taking their turns stumbling through passages they randomly picked from a book they seldom read. He recalled a time when students found it funny to rattle off 10 verses of biblical genealogy describing who begat whom. Schempp took his turn at humoring the class by once reading a suggestive section of the Song of Solomon.

“What started to bother me is it took on a kind of silliness,” he said.

As a result of that discussion session, Ellery and a few of his classmates made plans to protest by not standing up for the prayer. The idea of bringing the Quran was Ellery’s… “”I knew absolutely nothing about Islam … I had never met a Muslim. So, it was purely by accident,” he said of picking Islam’s holy book.” A friend’s father just happened to own a copy of the Quran, so he borrowed it to make his own point about religious diversity: “Unitarians have a long history of standing up for individual conscience.”

But when the students informed their parents of their plans, all the other kids eventually backed out as their parents did not approve.  Ellery’s parents, however, reacted differently.

Schempp’s parents, however, were more supportive when he expressed his concerns to them the day before his protest on the drive home from a long Thanksgiving weekend at his grandmother’s house.

And after the protest, when Schempp told his parents during dinner that he had been sent to the principal’s office for not participating in the Lord’s Prayer, his dad suggested he write to the American Civil Liberties Union to request its help and advice.

Ellery Schempp grabbed a piece of his father’s company letterhead, on which he typed out a brief request that the Philadelphia office of the ACLU challenge the constitutionality of the law.

“I thank you for any help you might offer in freeing American youth in Pennsylvania from this gross violation of their religious rights as guaranteed in the first and foremost amendment in our United States constitution,” Schempp confidently concluded his letter.

The ACLU agreed to help, and they challenged the practice in district court in Pennsylvania, winning the case.

During the first trial in federal district court, Edward Schempp and his children testified as to specific religious doctrines purveyed by a literal reading of the Bible “which were contrary to the religious beliefs which they held and to their familial teaching” . The children testified that all of the doctrines to which they referred were read to them at various times as part of the exercises. Edward Schempp testified at the second trial that he had considered having his children excused from attendance at the exercises but decided against it for several reasons, including his belief that the children’s relationships with their teachers and classmates would be adversely affected.

The school board appealed. It took seven years for the case to reach all the way to the Supreme Court (during which period Ellery graduated from high school, and thus his younger siblings took up the position of testifying to their own involvement in the mandated exercises in the Abington schools.)  Once the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, it was consolidated with another case from Maryland with similar complaints. In that one, brought by the well-known Madelyn Murray (O’Hair) against a Baltimore school system, a lower court had ruled in favor of the school system, agreeing that their required recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was constitutional. Since the issue of the constitutionality of mandated school Bible readings and religious exercises such as recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was what was at question in both cases, the Murray case was “folded in” to the Schempp case. At question: Whether the schools’ practices violated the religious freedom of students as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. After deliberation, the ruling was issued on June 17, 1963:

The Court found such a violation. The required activities encroached on both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment since the readings and recitations were essentially religious ceremonies and were “intended by the State to be so.” Furthermore, argued Justice Clark, the ability of a parent to excuse a child from these ceremonies by a written note was irrelevant since it did not prevent the school’s actions from violating the Establishment Clause. [Source]

Justice William Brennan of the Court added an extensive “concurrence” to the decision, which included these thoughts:

Justice Brennan took great pains to also show that many states, such as South Dakota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts, had already enacted and revoked laws similar to Pennsylvania’s by the first half of the 20th century. In addition, many political leaders including attorneys general and presidents like Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt insisted that “matters of religion be left to family altars, churches and private schools” and “[It] is not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in [public] schools“.

Brennan’s concurrence also recognized the plurality of religious thought in the nation as basis enough for restriction of church and state relations. He cited this lack of appreciation of that pluralism as the “basic flaw” of Pennsylvania’s Bible reading statute and Abington Township’s defense of it:

“There are persons in every community—often deeply devout—to whom any version of the Judaeo-Christian Bible is offensive. There are others whose reverence for the Holy Scriptures demands private study or reflection and to whom public reading or recitation is sacrilegious…. To such persons it is not the fact of using the Bible in the public schools, nor the content of any particular version, that is offensive, but the manner in which it is used.”  [Source]

Many evangelicals are absolutely certain that this decision was a modern departure from an almost universal practice of Bible reading in schools throughout American history. That’s because they don’t know their history well enough. In fact, the folks of the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania who were part of fighting the Abington case all the way to the Supreme Court OUGHT to have been much more aware of a deep, underlying problem with mandatory school Bible readings…for their territory was the “Bull’s Eye” of the infamous Bible Riots! What? You say you never heard of the Bible Riots? Neither had I until recently. But here’s the amazing story:

In May 1844, Philadelphia –the City of Brotherly Love– was torn apart by a series of bloody riots. Known as the “Bible Riots,” they grew out of the vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment that was so widespread in 19th century America. Families were burned out of their homes. Churches were destroyed. And more than two dozen people died in one of the worst urban riots in American History.  [Source]

Yes, we’ve had horrific urban rioting in American history. Draft resistance was the issue in some… no, not the 1960s/70s draft riots. The Civil War era anti-draft riots of New York were actually the worst in our history.

The New York City draft riots (July 13 to July 16, 1863; known at the time as Draft Week) were violent disturbances in New York City that were the culmination of working-class discontent with new laws passed by Congress that year to draft men to fight in the ongoing American Civil War. The riots were the largest civil insurrection in American history.


President Abraham Lincoln diverted several regiments of militia and volunteer troops from following up after the Battle of Gettysburg [which had occurred only two weeks earlier] to control the city. The rioters were overwhelmingly working-class men, primarily ethnic Irish, resenting particularly that wealthier men, who could afford to pay a $300 commutation fee to hire a substitute, were spared the draft.

On July 13, 1863, ten days after the Union victory at Gettysburg, a “draft drawing” was scheduled to be held in New York City to get more soldiers for the Union army.

At 10 a.m., a furious crowd of around 500, led by the Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft was taking place. The crowd threw large paving stones through windows, then burst through the doors and set the building ablaze. When the fire department responded, rioters broke up their vehicles. Others killed horses pulling streetcars and smashed the cars. To prevent other parts of the city being notified of the riot, they cut telegraph lines.

But the destruction of the draft office was only the beginning of the rage. The crowds began roaming the streets of New York and destroying everything in their path.

… The Bull’s Head hotel on 44th Street, which refused to provide alcohol to the mob, was burned. The mayor’s residence on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings were attacked and set on fire. Other targets included the office of the New York Times. The mob was turned back at the Times office by staff manning Gatling guns, including Times founder Henry Jarvis Raymond. Fire engine companies responded, but some of the firefighters were sympathetic to the rioters, since they too had been drafted on Saturday.

…Rioters turned against black people as their scapegoats and the primary target of their anger. Many immigrants and the poor viewed free black men as competition for scarce jobs, and worried about more slaves being emancipated and coming to New York for work. Some rioters thought slavery was the cause of the Civil War. The mob beat, tortured and/or killed numerous black people, including one man who was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones, then lynched—hanged from a tree and set alight.  [Actually, 11 black men in all were lynched during the riots, with at least another 100 blacks killed. At least 20 whites were killed, and likely over 2000 people wounded.] [Source]


The military did not reach the city until after the first day of rioting, when mobs had already ransacked or destroyed numerous public buildings, two Protestant churches, the homes of various abolitionists or sympathizers, many black homes, and the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which was burned to the ground. [ibid]

Yes, not even young children escaped the mindless wrath of the mad mob.

The rioters’ targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets.

By the spring of 1863, the managers had built a home large enough to house over two hundred children. Financially stable and well-stocked with food, clothing, and other provisions, the four-story orphanage at its location on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was an imposing symbol of white charity toward blacks and black upward mobility.


Orphans at the New York  Colored Orphan Asylum, circa 1861 

At 4 P.M. on July 13, “the children numbering 233, were quietly seated in their school rooms, playing in the nursery, or reclining on a sick bed in the Hospital when an infuriated mob, consisting of several thousand men, women and children, armed with clubs, brick bats etc. advanced upon the Institution.” The crowd took as much of the bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles as they could and set fire to the building. John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.


Raiding and destruction of the Orphan’s Asylum

In the meantime, the superintendent and matron of the asylum assembled the children and led them out to Forty-Fourth Street. Miraculously, the mob refrained from assaulting the children. But when an Irish observer of the scene called out, “If there is a man among you, with a heart within him come and help these poor children,” the mob “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces.” The children made their way to the Thirty-Fifth Street Police Station, where they remained for three days and nights before moving to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island—ironically, the very place from which the orphanage’s founders had hoped to keep black children when they built the asylum almost thirty years earlier. [Source]

It’s not clear from the record how many rioters may have taken part in the four days of rioting, but since it took 4,000 armed soldiers to put an end to the rioting, there were no doubt several thousand people involved.

I had never heard of the New York Draft Riots of 1863 until four years ago. But when I mentioned the topic to my husband, I was surprised to find out he knew a lot about them. Not because he is a reader of history books…but because he saw Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, that starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz. Set in 1863 New York, the climax of the film is a recreation (not totally historically accurate, but very effective in accurately portraying the mood, the look, and the level of violence of the event) of the Draft Riots.


So there you have a violent response of masses of men to the imposition by the government of a draft in war time. It’s not totally surprising. After all, this was in the midst of a grueling, bleak war, and those men were being asked to go fight and die for a cause that they didn’t support or even have any interest in. Their rage that led to the rampage was horrific, but SOMEWHAT understandable.

What ISN’T so easily understandable was the extreme violence of the riots 20 years before that…sparked by a disagreement about reading…reading the book that features such statements as “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”!

Check out a brief overview of those riots:

Bible reading had stirred controversy in Pennsylvania and other states long before Ellery Schempp decided to take it on, turning his family’s home in the community of Roslyn into a target of hate mail, vandalism and cat calls.

In 1844, more than 20 people died in nearby Philadelphia during the infamous Bible riots, sparked by a dispute over which Bible should be read in public schools: the Protestant King James version or the Douay-Rheims version accepted by the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants.  [Source]

Details from the Philadelphia Encyclopedia website:


Ethnic and religious antagonism had a long history in the city. Since the 1780s, Irish textile workers had come to Philadelphia after losing their jobs to mechanization in the British Isles. As early as 1828, when an off-duty watchman was killed after disparaging “bloody Irish transports,” Catholic presence had provoked anxiety among American- and Irish-born Protestants. In 1831, Irish Catholics battled along Fifth Street with Protestants celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

Anti-Catholic agitation increased in the early 1840s, organized in part around a perceived threat to the Bible in the public schools. Catholic Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick (1796-1863), an Irish immigrant himself, objected to Protestant teachers’ leading students in singing Protestant hymns and requiring them to read from the King James Bible. Nativists used Kenrick’s complaints to gain followers. In 1842, dozens of Protestant clergymen formed the American Protestant Association to defend America from Romanism. In early 1843, editor Lewis Levin  (1808-60) made the Daily Sun an organ for attacks against Catholicism and Catholic immigration, and in December of that year, he helped found a nativist political party called the American Republican Association.

Nativism:  sociopolitical policy, especially in the United States in the 1800s, favoring the interests of established inhabitants [“natives”] over those of immigrants.  (“Established inhabitants,” of course, didn’t include the real “native Americans” that preceded colonization, the indigenous tribes of the North American continent who had been inhabitants there for centuries! They didn’t count as “natives” within this system of reckoning. Nor, of course, did it include Africans in slavery, many of whom had also been “inhabitants” of America long before the latest immigrants came from Ireland and other questionable places…)

But to continue with the Bible Riots story:

In 1844, the Bible controversy intensified in the district of Kensington, a suburb to the northeast of Philadelphia City and home to many Irish immigrants, both Protestant and Catholic. In February, Hugh Clark (1796-1862), a Catholic school director there, suggested suspending Bible reading until the school board could devise a policy acceptable to Catholics and Protestants alike. Nativists saw this as a threat to their liberty and as a chance to mobilize voters, and they rallied by the thousands in Independence Square. On May 3, 1844 they rallied in Kensington itself but were chased away.

The first serious violence broke out three days later. On May 6, the nativists reassembled in Kensington, provoking another fight, during which a young nativist named George Shiffler (1825-44) was fatally shot.


By day’s end, a second man—apparently a bystander—was dead, and several more nativists were wounded, two mortally.


The next day, the First Brigade of the Pennsylvania Militia, commanded by Brigadier General George Cadwalader (1806-79), responded to the sheriff’s call for help. The troops faced little direct resistance, but they proved unable to stop people from starting new fires. On May 8, mobs gutted several private dwellings (including Hugh Clark’s house), a Catholic seminary, and two Catholic churches: St. Michael’s at Second Street and Master and St. Augustine’s at Fourth and Vine.


Conflagration of St. Augustine’s Church 

Only a flood of new forces—including citizen posses, city police, militia companies arriving from other cities, and U.S. army and navy troops—ended the violence by May 10.

The city remained superficially calm for the next eight weeks, but both nativists and Catholics anticipated further violence. In Southwark—an independent district south of Philadelphia City and a seat of nativist strength—a Catholic priest’s brother began stockpiling weapons in the basement of the Church of St. Philip de Neri on Queen Street. On Friday, July 5, a crowd of thousands gathered to demand the weapons. When the crowd reassembled the following day, the sheriff requested militia troops, and Cadwalader led about two hundred into Southwark. Saturday ended without bloodshed, but the situation remained tense, with a small group of militia—some of them Irish Catholics themselves—guarding the church and a group of nativist prisoners inside it.


Armed Clash in Southwark

On Sunday, July 7, the crowd reassembled, and this time it armed itself with cannon. Egged on by nativist speakers, the crowd forced the militia to surrender the church and its prisoners. Cadwalader returned to Southwark about sunset at the head of a column and tried to clear the area around the church. When the crowd attacked the militia with bricks, stones, and bottles, the militia fired on them, killing at least two and wounding more.

Starting around 9pm, the crowd counterattacked. For the next four hours, rioters and militia battled in the streets of Southwark, with both sides firing cannon. By morning, four militiamen and probably a dozen rioters were dead, along with many more wounded. Southwark’s aldermen negotiated the militia’s withdrawal from their district, but thousands of militia troops from other parts of the state arrived to patrol the City of Philadelphia.

Although American cities, particularly Philadelphia, had endured a surge of riots since the early 1830s, few individual riots lasted for more than a day, making the 1844 riots extreme in their severity and duration. While some of the violence had been spontaneous, the ambitions of the nativist newspapers and political party in an election year likely sustained nativist fury through the spring and summer. Though the riots were more than the simple transplantation of anti-Catholic violence from Northern Ireland, they echoed the deliberate provocation seen there.

The riots did not resolve the place of the Irish in the city. On the one hand, few Philadelphians were willing to endorse publicly the attacks on Catholics, and more than two thousand Philadelphians signed an address praising the militia’s use of “lawful force which unlawful force made necessary.” On the other hand, in the October elections, amid the heaviest turnout in Philadelphia’s history, Levin and another nativist won congressional seats and other nativists took lesser posts.  [Source]

Make no mistake that the folks involved DID consider one of the main issues to be the Bible reading matter!

Many newspapers would side with the Nativists in the immediate aftermath, giving prejudiced or incomplete accounts which skewed blame towards the Catholics.  The Nativist press and the American Republic Association would gloss over the burning of churches and destruction of homes, and instead blame the Irish Catholics for bringing violent incidents on themselves as a result of the Bible controversy. Indeed many Nativist publications in the following years would paint an ugly picture of Catholics during the rioting.  In “The Arch Bishop: Or, Romanism in the United States” there is this description:

“Great numbers of women now joined the fray, and no tigress ever fought more desperately or frantically for its prey, than these did for their foreign masters…”By the Holy Virgin!” they yelled, as their unbound hair streamed around their hideously distorted visages.”

The Nativists would make George Schiffler a martyr for the cause.  A rumored six to eight hundred people attended his funeral, and Nativist accounts and images from the scene of Schiffler’s death would place him as a hero for the Nativist cause who had been defending America when he was killed.



There was even a patriotic song published by the “American Republicans,” inspired by the Kensington Riots in which he died.


It included verses like this:

Freemen, rise! Ye that inherit from a line of noble sires
Manly blood and manly spirit, rise to guard your household fires.
By the parents that have rear’d you, by your wives and children dear,
Lest those loved ones should scorn you
Rise without a thought of fear.

Yes, they were urged to continue being willing to take to the streets again… and yes, all of the death and destruction and bloodshed of those riots of May and June were tied tightly in the minds of many to their “right” to have their own religious interests favored in the public schools of the land. And the right—nay, even duty—to defend that right… with violence. I’m put in mind of the old phrase, “Praise the Lord…and pass the ammunition.”

But those Bible Riots of 1844 didn’t ultimately settle anything.

… In a sense, the “Bible Wars” did not end after those violent days of 1844. In 1886, Catholic parents in Edgerton, Wisconsin, petitioned their local school board to stop daily readings from the KJV. The school board countered that “to read the Bible without comment was non-sectarian; to stop reading it because it offended Roman Catholics was sectarian.” After failing to convince the school board to end the practice, the parents took their case to court.

In November 1888 the circuit court decided that the readings were not sectarian because both the KJV and Catholic translations were of the same work. The parents took their case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. In the famous action known as the Edgerton Bible Case, the judges overruled the circuit court’s decision, concluding that it illegally united the functions of church and state. In the end, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed a ruling in favor of the parents and forbade local boards to mandate readings from the KJV.

The Edgerton Bible case was not the only, or even the first, challenge to sectarian religious practices in public schools, but it was especially well researched and well argued by the parties involved. Seventy-five years later, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer from the public schools in 1963 [in Engel v Vitale] the Edgerton Bible case was one of the precedents that Justice William Brennan cited. [Source]

By the way… you’d think that educated people in Abington Township in Pennsylvania in the 1950s/60s would know a LITTLE bit about the history of the 1844 Bible Riots if they studied any area history in school…because the Kensington area where George Schiffler died is less than 15 miles from Abington Township! But if they did know about it, they certainly took away no lessons regarding the ultimate wisdom of imposing religious rituals in the public schools.

As it turns out, “learning from history” doesn’t seem to play a very large part in the “Politics of Religion” (and Religion in Politics) in modern times.

Continue on to the next entry in this series:

The Way We Weren’t


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1 Response to Bible Riots??

  1. Thanks to my father who shared with me about this blog, this weblog is really remarkable.

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