“One nation under God”? Not when it comes to distributing Gideon Bibles to public schools

tags: religion, Gideon Bibles

Kevin M. Kruse is the author of “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.”   Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2015.

For the evangelical businessmen who belonged to the Gideons International, Inc., selling God was a second calling, if not their first. Founded by a trio of traveling salesmen at the end of the nineteenth century, the Gideons made a name for themselves in the early twentieth by putting millions of copies of the Holy Bible in hotel and hospital rooms across the nation. During the Second World War, the organization distributed, with the military’s blessing, a specially prepared edition of the King James Version of the New Testament and Book of Psalms to every member of the armed forces. After the conflict, the group created a new paperback version of this “Gideon Bible” (now with the Book of Proverbs as well) for distribution at public and private schools for all students between the fifth and twelfth grades. In the words of W. L. Hardin, an Atlanta contractor and past president of the Gideons, their new ministry would help them meet their long-standing goal “to win men and women for the Lord Jesus Christ” by reaching them earlier in life. “In the days of their youth, before the evil days come,” Hardin said in 1946, “the boys and girls of our public schools may by means of the precious Word of God, come to know Him.”

In practical terms, the Gideons’ program reflected their roots as salesmen. Their founders originally considered calling the new organization the Christian Traveling Men of the United States of America but abandoned the idea because, as one later noted, “traveling men don’t have time to use such long names.” So they settled for the simpler calling card, a name inspired by an Old Testament judge who led a small band of faithful Israelites to victory over a vastly larger force. But their identity as on-the-road representatives of business never changed. Indeed, in its first four decades, only traveling salesmen could join the Gideons. Even after expanding their ranks to admit a broader range of businessmen in 1937, this spirit of door-to-door salesmanship still prevailed. The postwar program to distribute their abridged Bibles to schoolchildren is perhaps the prime example. In what quickly became a standard script, a Gideon first contacted a local school board or principal to win permission. He then spoke to the entire school at a special assembly, offering an address that an observer characterized as “evangelical in tone and content, on the advan­tages of Bible reading.” After the sales pitch, the Gideons announced that every student–or, in some cases, every student who provided written per­mission from a parent–was welcome to a free paperback version of the New Testament. Moving from school to school, the Gideons distributed 4.2 million of their Bibles in the first three years, with ambitious plans to distribute 25 million in all.

For the Gideons, their drive to distribute Bibles at public schools seemed a natural extension of the larger effort to encourage public religion in the postwar era. While other religious innovations had been relatively uncontroversial at the time of their creation, the Gideons’ ministry to schoolchildren sparked a contentious debate. Religion  in the public schools had long been considered a local concern. Communities dominated by one faith traditionally instituted sectarian prayers or Bible reading in classrooms with little complaint. More diverse locales often tried to avoid the issue of religion entirely, but the Gideons brought long­ simmering tensions to the forefront. Jewish leaders protested any effort to place the New Testament in public schools, while Catholic officials objected because canon law forbade members of their faith from using the King James Version.”Most children will accept anything free,” noted a priest in upstate New York, and thus they would inadvertently sin in taking the gift. In Boston, it became such a widespread problem that the archdiocese instructed priests to order all Catholic children who had accepted Gideon Bibles to return them immediately. Even some liberal Protestants disapproved of the Gideons’ campaign. The editors of the Christian Centuryinsisted that public schools were simply “not the place” to evangelize, arguing that Christians had “a duty to respect separation of church and state in relation to the schools.”

The objections were strongest in religiously diverse cities and suburbs, especially in the Northeast. In the fall of 1951, the school board in suburban Rutherford, New Jersey, inadvertently caused a controversy when it accepted an offer from the Gideons of Passaic and Bergen Counties to distribute their version of the Bible to all students in grades five through twelve in the district. The board printed up permission slips for children to take home, but when scores of parents protested, it found itself on the defensive. At its next meeting, the superintendent of schools, Guy Hilleboe, insisted that “the Gideon Society was not presenting their own version of the Bible but were merely offering a New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs of the King James Version” for families who wanted it. He pointed out that the Gideons had not, in this instance, been allowed to make a special address at school assemblies, and principals had been instructed to send the permission slips home “without comment.” Furthermore, Hilleboe added, the state’s lawyers assured him that the practice was wholly constitutional.

Despite these assurances, religious leaders and parents continued to object. A local priest asserted that, although he believed Rutherford was a “God fearing town” and he supported the general effort to get “God into the schools,” the board had made a mistake. The separation of church and state had to be maintained in schools because the sectarian nature of the Gideons’ work would assuredly “create tensions.” Likewise, Rabbi Herman Schwartz argued that even if principals offered no comment on the program, several teachers had become “salesmen” for the proposal. The permission slips had also been prepared by school officials, he noted, and therefore the entire endeavor bore the formal approval of the district. Parents echoed these concerns. Mrs. E. K. Ingalls, for instance, reminded the board there had been a similar controversy in their high school over the state-mandated practice of Bible reading during morning assemblies. Catholic students there had refused to read from the King James Version and were castigated by the principal. Was it “good teaching,” she asked, for a school to say “you will read the St. James [sic] version or else”? The superintendent recognized “the right of each child in the Public Schools to use the religion of his choice” but maintained that the board had done nothing wrong. The district’s legal counsel double-checked the law andre­ assured school officials that they were in the right. The Gideons, the board decided, could proceed with their evangelism in Rutherford’s schools. ...

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