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How Public Schools Began Offering Bible Courses:
The Perspective from North Carolina



Current North Carolina Bible courses have no curricular guidelines of any type--no learning objectives, course standards, or recommended resources. This lack contrasts sharply with earlier decades, where teachers had the benefit of the general guidelines, outlines of study, and recommended bibliography, theologically infused though they were, that the NCCC and state Education Association had prepared.



See Also: The Bible and Public Education: Recent Developments

Has the Bible Curriculum Been Revised?

Coming Soon to a School District Near You? Bible Curriculum in Public Schools

A Bill Too Far: Teaching the Bible in Wyoming



By Mark A. Chancey
Professor of Religious Studies
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences
Southern Methodist University
December 2014


This essay is adapted from my article “Public School Bible Courses in Historical Perspective: North Carolina as a Case Study,” published in Religion & Education 40:3 (2013): 253–69, and later modified for publication under the same title in Mark A. Chancey, Carol Meyers, and Eric M. Meyers, eds., The Bible in the Public Square: Its Enduring Influence in American Life (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2014), 193–214. It is reprinted with permission from Taylor & Francis and SBL Press.

In the early twentieth century, the legal status of school-sponsored Bible reading across the country was dictated by a mishmash of state laws, court decisions, attorney general opinions, and state and local policies. The situation remained fluid as legal conditions within particular states changed as the result of new laws and court decisions. Such variations would continue until the Supreme Court weighed in in 1963.[1] North Carolina fell into the category of states with no law or court rulings on the matter. Many Carolina communities—likely most, though it is hard to determine conclusively—incorporated Bible reading into their school day, whether in homeroom, opening assembly, or elsewhere.

The practice of Bible reading generated controversy in some quarters, and such debates about its appropriateness both reflected and contributed to heightened interest in the Bible’s place in public education. When this interest combined with growing support for more systematic religious education, the result was a new phenomenon: grade-school courses devoted to the Bible, as well as courses in theology and character formation. These classes were offered collaboratively by public schools and local faith communities, often in a program called Weekday (or Week-Day) Religious Education (often abbreviated WRE or WDRE).

The traditionally cited pioneer in WRE is Gary, Indiana, which instituted a program for Protestants and Jews in 1914.[2] Some school systems awarded academic credit for religion courses. The latter idea actually predates the Gary program, as North Dakota had launched a widely hailed plan in 1912 in which schools gave credit for Sunday School and similar off-campus religious education classes that covered material specified on an official state syllabus.[3]

When the first North Carolina Bible courses appeared is not clear, but by 1916-1917, the state had begun tracking the number of students taking them (29 in rural school systems, as opposed to 7410 taking Latin, with no reported number for urban systems).[4] The number of courses and students increased modestly as communities devised policies allowing academic credit for Sunday School or similar classes and specifying requirements for instructional time, teacher certification, and administration of exams.[5] Some programs created in this period lasted for decades, such as Charlotte’s, which ran from 1925–1984. Its theological stance was representative: “The course was to be taught as the Word of God from the Christian viewpoint without denominational emphasis, elective to all students but compulsory for none.” Despite this claim of denominational neutrality, however, the Charlotte program’s bylaws specified further that the material be taught from “the conservative viewpoint.”[6]

The early and mid-1940s were a heyday for WRE throughout much of the country.[7] The turning point for North Carolina Bible courses came when the Durham-based North Carolina Council of Churches (NCCC), a newly formed group comprised mostly of mainline Protestant churches, made such courses a top priority. In 1940 NCCC’s Committee on Week-day Religious Education, which included the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, devised a Bible credit program to be collaboratively implemented by the NCCC, churches and other organizations, and state and local educational agencies.

The council recommended that elective courses be offered “on school time and in the school building,” although alternative locations were deemed acceptable, especially “if there is likely to be any protest against the use of public school property.”[8] In each community local sponsors, whether churches, ministerial associations, YMCAs, women’s groups, or other civic organizations, recommended a suitable teacher and raised sufficient funds to pay her (less often, him). The NCCC quickly became a job placement clearinghouse, connecting prospective instructors with searching schools.

“A veritable wave of enthusiasm for the teaching of the Bible in the public schools is sweeping the state of North Carolina,” the council soon proclaimed.[9] Its newsletter carefully charted increases in the number of Bibles courses, claiming in late 1943 that courses in 90-100 communities drew more than 20,000 students (“both whites and Negroes”).[10] Newsweek declared that year that North Carolina had the “fastest growing state program for religious education in the nation.”[11]

The NCCC emphasized the importance of teacher qualification and professionalization. As early as spring 1941, Bible teachers were sufficiently organized to petition the North Carolina Education Association for official recognition as its Bible Department.[12] The state’s Department of Public Instruction became the first in the country to issue formal certification for Bible teachers, requiring “15 hours of Bible in an accredited institution of higher learning,” a number that later rose to 21 at the NCCC’s urging.[13] Any courses taught by uncertified teachers would not count toward the credits required by the state for admission to college. The NCCC occasionally succeeded in getting schools like Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Guilford College to provide training for Bible teachers.

The sole textbook for students was the Bible, although teachers were free to draw upon supplemental resources. The course’s focuses were life lessons and familiarity with biblical material, rather than critical analysis. Although local systems had tremendous freedom to craft their own courses, the council recognized the need for some degree of standardization.[14] Uncomfortable with existing materials, it developed its own curriculum, which received approval from the state in 1951.[15] North Carolina thus became one of several states with an official Bible curriculum or syllabus.[16]

This curriculum suggested course policies and best practices, which included regularly scheduled worship; specified which biblical books and stories should be read in particular grades; identified suitable memorization verses; recommended supplemental books, filmstrips, and other resources; proposed service projects; and provided advice for creating Bible clubs. Course objectives included moral training, spiritual growth, and cultural literacy. High school courses, for example, were to “teach the Bible as the Book among books, containing the supreme revelation of truth, the laws of God, the greatest of literature and the inspiration for the best in art and music;” and to “help each student discover by experience a vital relationship with Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, Lord, and Friend.”[17]

From the council’s perspective, the program was perfectly compatible with the separation of church and state, a principle it vigorously affirmed.[18] The council promoted its courses as “non-sectarian in content and presentation,”[19] but its understanding of nonsectarianism generally extended only to avoiding preferential treatment of one traditional Protestant denomination over another. To be sure, other Christian groups were not systematically excluded from the program—a 1947 study noted a smattering of courses sponsored by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, and Christian Scientist churches.[20] In general, however, any concerns about how a widespread Protestant-dominated program might affect other Christians, Jews, adherents of other traditions, or the nonreligious are largely missing in the NCCC’s materials.[21]

Ironically, the major legal challenge to WRE was directed not at a solely Protestant program but rather at one designed to include Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in Champaign, Illinois. As that lawsuit made its way up through the courts, WRE supporters nationwide worried that a far-reaching decision might prohibit all school-sponsored Bible reading and religion courses as well as in-school prayers, devotionals, and hymns. Warning about a potential “staggering tragedy for Protestantism,” the NCCC asked every local Bible committee to contribute $5 for Champaign’s legal defense fund.[22]

The Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling on the issue, McCollum v. Board of Education, was widely regarded as ambiguous. On the one hand, the Court flatly declared the Champaign program unconstitutional, rejecting the use of “tax supported property for religious instruction and the close cooperation between the school authorities and the religious council in promoting religious education” and the “utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.”[23] Thus, on-campus courses taught on school grounds during class hours by religious groups were no longer acceptable. On the other hand, the decision was less clear about the legality of off-campus courses or, for that matter, on-campus courses taught by regularly certified teachers rather than religious representatives.

Many North Carolinians, like Americans elsewhere, were confused about the import of the case. Most North Carolina school systems with Bible courses decided that because their programs were voluntary and nonsectarian in nature and thus distinct from the plan prohibited by the Court, they could continue them without modification, a decision supported by the NCCC.

The Supreme Court decisions of 1962 and 1963 invigorated debates about the place of religion in public education. The first, Engel v. Vitale, prohibited school-sponsored prayer, whereas the second, Abington v. Schempp, barred school-sponsored Bible reading.[24] Like McCollum, these decisions met with confusion, with some thinking that they applied only to laws and policies mandating the practices. “We do not require the Bible and praying but we do these things because we want to,” North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford reasoned. “We will go on having Bible readings and prayers in the schools of this state just as we always have. As I read the decision, this kind of thing is not forbidden by the Constitution, and indeed, it should not be.”[25] Both prayer and Bible readings continued in some North Carolina communities. Twenty years later, an investigation by People for the American Way found schools in the state continuing these practices.[26]

The immediate impact of Abington v. Schempp on North Carolina is difficult to determine. Student interest in religion courses had already been fading in some communities; only days before the Court’s decision, one newspaper announced the cessation of local courses because of low enrollments.[27] The NCCC itself soon retreated entirely from on-campus courses.

Nonetheless, many existing courses continued, some adapting to meet the Court’s goals of objectivity and others maintaining their overtly Protestant nature. When the North Carolina Education Association revised its Bible curriculum guide in 1965, it retained course goals such as “cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus” and advice on planning devotionals and creating Bible clubs. Its introduction directed, “When questions arise on which our Christian groups differ, either an unbiased explanation of the attitude of each group is given or the students are referred to the ministers of their own denominations.”[28] The guide’s understanding of “nonsectarianism” was still merely intra-Protestant non-denominationalism. In its ongoing affirmation of Christianity, the state’s official Bible curriculum thus displayed no hint that Schempp had ever occurred. This document would eventually fade from memory and usage, but the equation of "nonsectarianism" with nondenominational Christianity that it reflected lingers still.

A half century after Schempp, many North Carolina schools continue to offer Bible courses. The single biggest difference between current and recent courses and those offered pre-Schempp are that today's courses no longer bear the trappings of worship in the form of prayers, hymns, and devotions. Any such practices that do occur under the radar are anomalies rather than the norm. Similarly, courses are (theoretically, at least) no longer offered for the primary purpose of faith formation, and they no longer explicitly function as extensions of church-related religious education programs.

Current North Carolina Bible courses have no curricular guidelines of any type--no learning objectives, course standards, or recommended resources. This lack contrasts sharply with earlier decades, where teachers had the benefit of the general guidelines, outlines of study, and recommended bibliography, theologically infused though they were, that the NCCC and state Education Association had prepared.

Today’s Bible courses likely exhibit considerable variety in content. Many may be completely locally produced, based on whatever resources (sometimes nonsectarian, sometimes religious) available to their teachers. Others rely on materials from organizations such as the North-Carolina based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which has traditionally produced highly sectarian materials, or the Bible Literacy Project, which strives much harder to be genuinely nonsectarian, though with varying degrees of success.

A district-by-district review of current course materials would no doubt discover notable successes that exemplify the hopes of the 1963 Supreme Court. However, it would almost certainly also find courses that promoted particular religious viewpoints over others. Ultimately, if North Carolina and the country as a whole are going to ensure progress toward the Court’s goal of academic, nonsectarian Bible courses, educational authorities will have to create expectations for those courses, their teachers, and their curricula that go beyond laissez-faire.



Notes

[1] William Ross Hood, The Bible in the Public Schools: Legal Status and Current Practice (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, 1923); Ward W. Keesecker, Legal Status of Bible Reading and Religious Instruction in Public Schools (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, Office of Education, 1930), Donald E. Boles, The Bible, Religion, and Public Schools (3rd ed.; Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1965), 48-154.

[2] Arlo A. Brown, “The Week-Day Church Schools of Gary, Indiana,” Religious Education 11:1 (1916): 5-19.

[3] Vernon P. Squires, “The North Dakota Plan of High School Bible Study,” Religious Education 8:2 (1913): 225-31.

[4] N. W. Walker, Tenth Annual Report: State Inspector of Public High Schools of North Carolina for the Scholastic Year ending June 30, 1917 (Raleigh, 1917), 12 (North Carolina Digital Collections; http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm4/index.php).

[5] E. C. Brooks, “The Public School and the Churches,” North Carolina Education 16:1 (1921): 14.

[6] The Fifty-Nine Year Miracle: The History of Bible Teaching in the Public Schools of Charlotte (1925-1984) (Charlotte: Friends of Bible Teaching in the Public Schools, 1984), 2, 22.

[7] Mary Dabney Davis, Week-Day Religious Instruction: Classes for Public-School Pupils Conducted on Released School Time (Washington, DC: United States Department of the Interior, Office of Education, 1933).

[8] Price H. Gwynn, Jr., Teaching the Bible in The Public Schools of North Carolina (Durham: North Carolina Council of Churches 1941), 5.

[9] P. H. Gwynn, Jr., “Elective Bible Courses are Offered in Many Schools,” Church Council Bulletin 2:2 (1941): 1.

[10] “Teaching the Bible in the Public Schools of North Carolina,” Church Council Bulletin 4:5 (1943): 4.

[11] “N.C. Bible Classes,” Newsweek (Jan. 25, 1943): 62.

[12] “Bible Teachers Organize,” Church Council Bulletin 2:3 (1941): 1-2.

[13] Gwynn, Jr., Teaching the Bible, 2.

[14] “Curriculum Studies,” Church Council Bulletin 6:5 (1945): 5.

[15] “Condensed Report of the Board of Christianity Activities for Year 1951,” Church Council Bulletin 12:1 (1952): 3.

[16] Davis, Week-Day Religious Instruction.

[17] North Carolina Education Association, Suggested Twelve-Year Program of Biblical Education for the Public Schools of North Carolina (Raleigh: North Carolina Education Association, Bible Department, n.d.), 9.

[18] Gwynn, Jr., Teaching the Bible.

[19] “Week-Day Religious Education in North Carolina: Constitutional Foundations,” Church Council Bulletin 4:5 (1943): 1.

[20] Ruth LeValley, “Religious Education in the Public Schools of North Carolina,” High School Journal 30:2 (1947): 77-84.

[21] Although other religious groups were free to create their own programs, their small numbers in North Carolina and correspondingly limited resources made such initiatives unlikely.

[22] “Cooperative Action Imperative to Save Bible in Schools,” Church Council Bulletin 8:3 (1947): 1-2.

[23] McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948), quotes from 209, 210.

[24] Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).

[25] “Some Schools Will Keep Religious Note,” Burlington Daily Times News, Aug. 7, 1963, 61.

[26] People for the American Way, Religion in North Carolina’s Schools: The Hidden Reality (Washington, D.C. and Winston-Salem, N.C.: People for the American Way, 1983).

[27] “Two Schools Drop Bible,” Gastonia Gazette, June 13, 1963, 15.

[28] North Carolina Education Association, Curriculum Guide, quotes from 3, 2.





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