According to scholars, the role of the Bible and religion in American public schools has evolved through four basic periods: In the Puritan era, the Bible and religion -- informed by Calvinism -- were the mainstay of school instruction.
After the American Revolution, religious instruction was still primary, but was taught within a less rigid Evangelical Protestantism.
Just before the Civil War, and through the late 19th century, public schools -- now nondenominational -- dropped away from teaching religion. Bible reading was also a less central concern, though biblical imagery and themes provided implicit and explicit confirmation of American cultural suppositions -- in history, in national goals, and in attitudes toward success and work.
In the South however, both black and white schools continued a conservative Evangelical Protestant teaching of the Bible through the end of World War II.
Finally, in the 20th century, the Bible and corresponding religious thought all but disappeared from the classroom, surviving mainly in literature-survey courses.
The reasons for the changing role of the Bible and religion in American schools are as diverse and complex as America itself. But scholars agree that fundamental to the change is the growth of the nation from the homogeneous 16th-century Massachusetts culture to the extraordinary cultural pluralism that extends across America today.
The roots of American public education go back to the Reformation in Europe in general, and to John Calvin's 16th-century Geneva in particular.
Education researcher Patricia Lines, in a recent study for Stanford University, notes that Calvin created free schools where children learned Scripture and to read and write. Previously, such learning had been confined to nobility and to men of the church. For Calvin, the ``common man'' capable of reading the Bible did not need church prelates to solidify his relations with the Divine. Accordingly, a central idea of the Reformation was to allow the individual access to knowledge. This idea brought fort h public schools.
Calvin's ideas dominated Puritan America.
In 1647, Massachusetts passed the ``Olde Deluder Act,'' which required every township with 50 households to establish a common school. Children were required to attend and to study the Bible -- it being understood that one of the ``chief projects'' of ``the Olde Deluder'' (Satan) was to keep people from a knowledge of the Scripture.
Religious instruction in these schools was in conjunction with that of the church. As Edwin Gaustad, religious historian at the University of California at Riverside, says, children in New England schools well into the 1700s ``could expect to learn ideas about their place in the universe and about God's sovereignty over them.''
After the Revolution, a demanding Calvinism lost its edge as the culture diversified. In the schools, too, some of the missionary zeal waned. However, Dr. Stanley Lundy of the University of Tennessee, who is writing a history of religion in schools, points out that in the Evangelical Protestantism that informed schools from the Colonial period to the mid-19th century, ``Bible reading and Bible instruction continued to be essential components of schooling.''
The Bible was used to ``nurture human beings, and keep an eye on their eternal future,'' Mr. Lundy says. But increasingly, he says, it provided a moral context in which to teach children to contribute to ``the good society'' through ``worldly accomplishment.''
Protestant emphasis on individual spiritual growth remained strong in local schools, though. Horace Mann, founder of the common schools (forerunner to public schools) in 1830, typified the Protestant piety of the early 1800s when he defined education as ``such a culture of our moral affections and religious sensibilities as in the course of nature and providence, shall lead to a subjection and conformity of all our appetites, propensities, and sentiments to the will of heaven.''
But massive immigration during this time, combined with the fact that by 1830 Roman Catholicism was the country's largest single denomination, started a nondenominational trend in many schools. As Lundy notes, the exact ``will of heaven'' mattered less in the schoolroom after 1840. Matters of the soul gave way to a more modest moral training -- how to be just to your fellow man, how to benefit society.
By the 1840s and '50s, the Bible was used in the classroom mainly ``as a buttress for moral and ethical understanding,'' Gaustad says.
The most important textbook of the time was the fabled McGuffy Reader, a pious little tome that sold 120 million copies between 1839 and 1920. The Reader was packed with biblical imagery, stories, passages, and lessons.
During this time, other forces -- set in motion by the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment in Europe -- were at work. The Founding Fathers' humanist emphasis on science and reason in politics, the natural world, and learning, didn't take hold in schools until the 20th century. Yet scholars say their civic and religious ideas on such issues as slavery were found in public schools (in the North) as the nation approached the Civil War.
Following that war, what sociologist Robert Bellah terms ``civil religion'' began to appear in schools -- fueled by the triumph of the Union. Civil religion melded biblical and national traditions. President Lincoln, in his faith that America was Earth's ``last, best hope,'' embodied this duality. ``He was profoundly religious, yet nondenominational,'' Gaustad says. ``We had never had that before.''
Such statements by Lincoln as, ``Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust . . . our present difficulty,'' were widely reprinted in newspapers and found their way into schools.
Through the end of the century then, civil religion helped define America in the schools. The image of the the children of Israel in exodus from tyranny to the promised land was compared to Pilgrim journeys and the freeing of the slaves. The New World, or ``Canaan,'' was a dominant image in the 19th century. And children were taught implicitly, says Lundy, that ``America was a direct fulfillment of biblical principles and insights -- a place where liberty and religious freedom could reach its full est development.''
Gaustad notes that America's 19th-century expansionist policy -- manifest destiny -- became one of civil religion's ugly shadows, where the Bible was used to explain national policy, even in the classroom.
The South, however, never bought into civil religion, choosing instead to ``take refuge conservative Protestant heritage, Gaustad says. Meanwhile, in the burgeoning American West, no single religion held sway in the schools. ``There wasn't the tradition, the history, and the homogeneity to reinforce it,'' Gaustad says.
By 1900, Patricia Lines relates, powerful secularizing forces were gathering at the door of the little red schoolhouse. In 1899, John Dewey wrote ``The School and Society,'' a ``scientific'' appraisal of public education in which religion had almost no role.
Further, the focus of learning changed during the 1900s, scholars say, to accommodate a world that was becoming more specialized, more scientific. The Bible generally took on a more perfunctory role in the schools -- providing passages for opening ceremonies, a backdrop for religious holidays. During this time, what Lundy calls ``biblical illiteracy'' in the culture also crept into the schools. ``Neutrality in religion'' became the accepted mode in the classroom.
By the mid-1940s, scholars say, the influences of modernism, American pragmatism, cultural diversity, civil liberty, new science, new biblical criticism and interpretation, urbanization, technology, fallout from two world wars, and traditional Protestantism's inability to fully address these influences -- all helped inch the Bible and religion out of the public schools.
The most decisive blows were struck by the US Supreme Court in cases that were decided in the 1960s (see accompanying article).