Trump is Signing Bibles in Alabama

trump Bible

Some of my thoughts on this story can be found in Sarah Pulliam-Bailey’s coverage at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

John Fea, a historian at Messiah College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, said he has never heard of any president signing Bibles before. The American Bible Society, he said, produced a Bible commemorating President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but it came out after his death. There’s a tradition in many families that generations would sign a Bible.

Trump’s actions, Fea said, fit his appeal to many white evangelicals in the South.

“The fact that people are bringing Bibles to him says a lot about them,” Fea said. “It seems to imply that they see him not only as a political leader but a spiritual savior for the nation.”

Trump has appealed to them as someone who can protect them from the decline of a Christian nation, Fea said.

“The message of the Bible represents for many white evangelicals a source of spiritual comfort in the midst of suffering,” he said. “It says volumes about how evangelicals see … Trump as a figure sent by God to protect them from all storms of life.”

Read the entire piece here.

It is worth noting that Trump is signing a Bible distributed for disaster relief by the American Bible Society.

Oh the irony of it all!

What Should We Make of Trump’s Tweet About Bible Classes in Schools

Here some context from

I have written about these Bible classes before.  So has Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who is an expert on such classes.

I would refer you to these posts:

post on Kentucky’s attempt to start Bible classes in public schools.  It draws from my own work on the Bible in America, including The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

post on Mark Chancey’s work.

Finally, I have written extensively about this idea of “turning back” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me 3d

Episode 16: Abolitionism


podcast-icon1Two weeks ago, we discussed the Civil War. But the Civil War didn’t just occur
spontaneously. Instead, it was a reaction to many larger political currents that had their roots in the very foundation of the United States. One such current was abolitionism. Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling discuss this issue and connect it to John’s own work on the American Bible Society. They are joined by the highly decorated historian Manisha Sinha (@ProfMSinha), who has just released The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. 

The GOP Platform on Bibles in Public Schools: Some Historical Context

Bible in SchoolI case you haven’t heard, the Republican Party wants to bring the Bible back into public schools.  The GOP platform encourages public high schools to teach elective courses about the Bible.  The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown has a great piece on this effort.  Here is a small taste:

Several GOP delegates said that they aren’t seeking to inculcate schools with Christianity, but they are trying to make sure that young people are acquainted with a document that has played a significant role in shaping Western culture.

“This is not designed to teach religion in the schools as a means of proselytizing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and a GOP delegate from Louisiana who supported the Bible-in-schools provision. “You can’t really fully understand the American form of government and society without some understanding of the Bible.”

The article goes on to cite Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey‘s study of already-existing Bible courses in Texas public schools.  Another taste:

In 2013, the Texas Freedom Network used public records requests to study the curriculum, lessons and assignments given to students in Bible-related courses in 57 districts and three charter schools.

For example, the preface of a book used in the Dayton Independent School District reads: “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.’”

In contrast, Chancey described other assignments and curriculum as academically rigorous and constitutionally sound. Students in the Grapevine Independent School District, for example, were asked to show their understanding of literary devices — such as simile, metaphor, allusion and personification — by writing about how those devices are used in Psalm 103.

Chancey, who is now working on a book on the history of Bible courses in public schools nationwide, said that teaching about the Bible in a legal fashion is easier said than done.

“Even with the best of intentions, people’s own biases creep into their presentation of the material,” Chancey said. And occasionally, he said, “some teachers use these courses deliberately as Trojan Horses to promote their own religious beliefs over others.”

In Chancey’s view, the call for teaching about the Bible is the Republican party’s response to the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion, or with religions other than Christianity.

“The timing of this is not accidental. It’s a reaction to the current demographic trends and the increasing Christianization of party elites,” he said. He said he believes that an “educated citizenry” needs an understanding of all major world religions, not just Christianity.

Some districts were doing a good job treating the Bible’s contents as the subject of academic study, according to the organization’s analysis, conducted by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. But many were not.

“Unfortunately, a fair number of courses are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views,” Chancey wrote.

Courses were rife not only with religious bias but also with factual errors, he found, and most were taught by teachers who had not taken any college-level courses in biblical, religious or theological studies. Some schools were using curriculum materials that presented the Bible as historical fact, and others used materials that explicitly called on students to adopt one particular faith.

As some of you know, the Supreme Court removed mandatory devotional Bible reading from public schools though the 1964 Abington v. Schempp decision. Interestingly enough, the largely Protestant American Bible Society, the largest distributor of Bibles in the United States in 1964, supported the Supreme Court’s decision.  This, however, did not stop them from getting more Bibles into public schools.

Here is how I described it all in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Perhaps the most significant political and cultural issue that the ABS had to deal with in the early 1960s was the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Abington v. Schempp the decision that struck down the mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools. Abington v. Schempp followed on the heels of Engel v. Vitale, the verdict that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional.  Both of these decisions drew heavy fire from American Christians.  In August 1963, George Gallup concluded that 70 percent of Americans supported prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  The debate over religion in public schools heightened over the course of the next several years as legislators, the most prominent being Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow prayer in public schools, essentially overturning the court’s decision in Engle v. Vitale.  The so-called Dirksen Amendment…did not directly challenge Abington v. Schempp, but many ordinary Americans believed that if Engel v. Vitale could be overturned, so could Abington v. Schempp  Dirksen was their champion.

The American Bible Society did not make any formal statement about Abington v. Schempp…until popular support for the Dirksen Amendment began to find its way into letters Bible Cause Coveraddressed to the Bible House.  About one month before the amendment reached the Senate for a vote, Mary Peabody of Hancock, New Hampshire, wrote to the ABS to call attention to the “valiant effort” that Dirksen was making to bring the Bible back into public schools.  (She obviously misunderstood that the Dirksen Amendment was about school prayer, not Bible reading).  Her letter was stapled to a postcard with an image of Jacob Duche, the chaplain to the First Continental Congress, praying in Christ Church, Philadelphia, with several of America’s founding fathers on their knees surrounding him.  Peabody was present in Washington during hearings on the proposed amendment and was astonished to learn that the Methodist Church and the Seventh Day Adventists opposed it.  As representatives from both of these Protestant denominations made their cases before the Senate, Peabody lamented that there was no one present to “oppose or answer their wicked arguments.”  Unless an organization like the ABS was committed to “rouse the nation” to protest against the “atheism” and “immorality” that Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp represented, the amendment would fail and “Freedom of Religion” would be lost….

The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about Abington v. Schempp by putting a positive spin on the Supreme Court decision. [Secretary Robert] Tayl0r’s response to [a writer from Reseda, California] was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in the public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as Secretary Homer Ogle wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools,” and the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures.  The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision.  Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading, the ABS saw it as an opportunity.

In January 1966, the [Bible Society] Record ran a news report on a recent meeting of the ABS Advisory Council.  The Society asked the members of the Council a simple question: “Should the Bible be included in a public school curriculum?”  This, of course, was a very different kind of question than the one taken up by the Supreme Court in Abington v. SchemppThe issue for the ABS was not whether the Bible could be used in public schools for devotional purposes, but whether it could be part of a school curriculumThe article quoted from Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion in the Schempp case:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be consistent with the First Amendment.”

With the use of the Bible in the curriculum as a very real option, the ABS was ready to embark on a program to bring Biblical literacy to public school children by providing schools with resources to help them teach the Bible as literature.  When it came to this issue, Taylor was a realist.  He was willing to accept the fact that the days of devotional Bible reading in schools were over.  The ABS would thus throw its resources behind the cause of Biblical literacy.  In an interoffice memo titled “The Objective Teaching of the Bible in Public Schools,” Taylor informed his staff that Schempp offered the ABS an “unusual opportunity.”  If any organization was equipped to advocate for the Bible in the school curriculum is was the ABS.  He announced that a program of “research and experimentation” devoted to this issue was already under way in the state of Indiana, supported by the Lilly Endowment.  Taylor was not willing to completely write off the possibility that the academic study of the Bible could lead to spiritual transformation among young readers. He ended his letter to one concerned ABS members by reminding him that “God works in mysterious ways…and it is quite possible for us to move from a rather perfunctory Bible reading and prayer period in schools to a vital study of the Holy Scriptures.  If this is to occur, it demands the dedicated wisdom of many Christians.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #100

It is time for another update on the ABS project as it enter its final month.  I have been doing three things lately:

1.  Oral history.  Over the last couple of months I have been to New York City; Crawford, Nebraska; Columbia, Missouri; Easton, PA; Cleveland, TN (actually, I am heading there on Monday); and Upland, Indiana.  I have or will have interviewed three ABS presidents, an ABS General Secretary, three deans of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, and three current vice-presidents.  I am thankful to my team of student assistants who have been frantically transcribing these interviews so that I can send them off to the interviewees for final approval.  These interviews will be important sources as I write the final one or two chapters of the book.
2.  Picking images.  I have chosen 30 images for the book.  This was not an easy process because the ABS photo collection is so rich.  I think I have chosen a nice blend of sketches (mostly from the early 19th century), photographs, and other images (such as ABS seals and posters).  Oxford University Press has been very generous in allowing me so many images.
3.  Research.  I have been reading through the papers of some of the ABS presidents and general secretaries from the 20th century.
4.  Writing.  Most of my time, of course, is now involved in writing.  The research is 95% complete, but I still need to do a lot more writing between now and the beginning of May.  In other words, I have my work cut out for me. 
Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #53

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

I am back in the American Bible Society archives this week.  Today I was once again working in materials related to the Civil War, specifically letters written to the ABS by Civil War chaplains.  Here is part of a letter I read today.  It is from the chaplain of the 16th Massachusetts from Middlesex County, Mass.  The New England exceptionalism evident in the connection he makes between Lexington and Concord and the Civil War  is priceless.

“My own regiment is not indebted directly to the American Bible Soc.—Massachusetts sends her regiments thoroughly equipped into the field and she would not deem them so, did not every soldier have offered him ‘the sword of the spirit which is the word of God….

The American Bible Society have donated about five hundred Bibles and Testaments in addition all of which bear the imprint of the American Bible Society.  They have all been called for and with those given as parting gifts by wives and mothers, there can be but few in this regiment not now supplied and I know many, very many would on a march part with every other book or even much clothing sooner than leave behind their Bible.  If the knapsack be too full to hold it, why then the owner would wear it in his bosom to shield in the day of battle the heart its divine truths had first purified…

This regiment is from Middlesex County, Massachusetts, the Co. which contains Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill, the early Battlefields of our first revolutionary era.  Its soldiers like their fathers believe in praying as well as fighting, nor deem the one inconsistent with the other, providing the cause be as holy as is ours today (Indeed we identify the struggle of this eventual hour with that inaugurated April 19th 1775 and call it, not a curious coincidence but a special Providence. That is was Massachusetts blood, of men from the same Middlesex County, which flowed as the first blood, on the anniversary of the same day, in Baltimore 18th April 1861….   

“We have just had our Forefathers Day, December 22d, a dedication of a chapel tent given by the citizens of Massachusetts for the religious services of the regiment, a fit method of keeping the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth rock.  In that dedication nearly every Protestant sect and the Roman Catholic priest took part, a significant and beautiful fact.  While writing this last sentence an official order from our Colonel has been put into my hand notifying me that tomorrow, being Christmas, all unnecessary military duty will be suspended and the regiment will observe the day religiously, attending divine service in the morning….

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #10

Atrium of the American Bible Society headquarters in NYC

I am writing from the very sunny first floor atrium and coffee shop of the American Bible Society (ABS) at 1865 Broadway in New York City.  I spent most of my Tuesday morning in a poorly lighted office on the third floor of the ABS headquarters but have now moved from “darkness into light.”  I think I will stay here for a while.  A prayer-group is going on a few tables way.  ABS employees with laptops are scattered throughout the room, apparently doing the same thing I am doing. It is a beautiful day in the city and the coffee is free after the first $1.00 cup. Not bad. It is a shame that the ABS will be leaving this building soon.  I fell like I am working at the center (Columbus Circle) of what writer Russell Shorto called the “island at the center of the world.”

I continue to read the Monthly Extracts of the American Bible Society.  I am currently in the 1820s.  Just before I sat down I read a speech by a Rev. Mr. M’Murray, a New York Dutch Reformed minister, delivered before the Female Auxiliary Bible Society of New York City. M’Murray suggests that the Bible society movement has opened up a new role for women.  He writes:

Once it was the happy privilege of a few pious women to sit at the feet of their Lord, and to hear the words of grace which flowed from his lips.  It was considered an honor to be permitted to wash his feet with their tears, and wipe them with the hairs on their head…Once too they were honored to be the first witnesses of his resurrection and triumph over death and the grave; and to be commissioned to tell the joyful tidings to his terrified and scattered disciples.   
But now women have progressed beyond the limited role that they played during Bible times. They have moved from a support role as servants and messengers to an active role as promoters of the circulation of the Bible through female Bible societies.   The creation of Bible societies:
…opened before your sex their appropriate sphere of usefulness where the benevolence of their hearts may have its full exercise, and their Christian graces shine in their full splendor.  They are thus furnished with the opportunity of being workers with Christ, in promoting the eternal interests of their fellow-beings, in a manner perfectly consistent with that delicacy which is their highest ornament.”  

From a historical perspective, M’Murray’s speech is about progress–1820s style.