Belief

The Pervasive Distribution of the Gideon Bible Finally Stopped at the Schoolhouse Door

How militant evangelism was thwarted.

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 Century insisted 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.

But before they could begin, a pair of parents filed for an injunc­tion. Bernard Tudor  and Ralph Lecoque, Jewish and Catholic, respec­tively, asserted that the Gideon Bible was a “sectarian work of peculiar religious value and significance to the Protestant faith.” Its embrace by the schools therefore amounted to an establishment of sectarian religion. Their complaints quickly drew national attention. The Catholic diocese and the American Jewish Committee rallied behind them. Notably, civil liberties organizations did as well. While they still held that religious invocations at the national level were relatively harmless, in such local manifestations civil libertarians identified individuals who felt personally wronged by new religious policies and, more important, who would serve as plaintiffs in lawsuits against them. In March 1953, a trial judge in Hackensack heard arguments in Tudor v. Board of Education of Ruther­ford and the Gideons International. Leo Pfeffer, a prominent advocate for the separation of church and state, represented the plaintiffs. Bringing forth an array of witnesses with expertise in religion, law, and even child psychology, Pfeffer argued that the school board displayed an “unconsti­tutional preference” for Protestantism by embracing the Gideons and, as a result, infringed on the religious liberties of Catholic and Jewish children. The trial judge disagreed, but the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed his opinion in December, issuing a unanimous decision condemning the school board’s actions as clear “favoritism” of one faith.

For the Gideons, it was a stunning blow. Bewildered by the objections to what they saw as a selfless act of kindness, they were doubly shocked that the New Jersey Supreme Court had sided against them. (Search­ing for an explanation forty years later, the head of the Gideons could only surmise that “Satan has been and still is vigorously opposed to this particular program.”) The organization’s leaders instructed local Gideon camps to hold prayer meetings to determine if they should appeal to the US Supreme Court. The Gideons’ leaders ultimately decided God wanted them to do so, but the justices refused to revisit the case in the fall of 1954. Though disheartened, the Gideons later realized the development had been a “blessing in disguise” because it meant the lower court’s ruling would be limited to New Jersey. And so they continued to distribute their edition of the New Testament in public schools across the country, discovering that legal and educational responses to their work varied considerably. In Pennsylvania, the attorney general ruled that the Gideons’ work was clearly unconstitutional; in Minnesota, his counterpart found nothing wrong. A suburban school board in Connecticut reported it had “successfully resisted” the Gideons’ efforts; in Dade County, Florida, officials believed there was nothing to resist.

By the late 1950s, the Gideons’ campaign provided vivid evidence of the varied legal landscape on issues of church and state. A survey of school systems across the forty-eight states showed that roughly 43 percent of districts allowed the distribution of Gideon Bibles. Small towns were most likely to accept the Gideons’ gifts, with 50 percent of communities with populations under twenty-five hundred doing so. In contrast, larger cities tended to reject the offer, with only 32 percent of districts in areas of twenty-five thousand people or more allowing it. There were regional differences as well. The more rural South and Midwest proved most amenable to the program, with 55 percent and 50 percent of school systems, respectively, allowing it. In the West, 40 percent of districts sanctioned the practice, while in the more urbanized Northeast, only 26 percent did so. Regardless of location, there was always some degree of protest. In districts in the Northeast, West, and Midwest that allowed the Gideons to distribute their literature at schools, 33 percent, 32 percent, and 25 percent, respectively, still reported some form of organized objection. Even in the overwhelmingly Protestant South, 8 percent of school districts with Gideons’ programs faced protests of some kind.

As the controversies made clear, public schools became a contentious site in the postwar rise of religious nationalism. In the eyes of those seeking to link piety and patriotism, schools were the obvious place to begin. Many already employed some type of traditional daily prayers or organized Bible readings, and often both. In the postwar era, new practices—such as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance recited by millions of schoolchildren each morning—had been adopted with little objection. But as the religious revival moved from the national level, where vaguely defined ceremonial deism held sway, to individual schools and districts, it necessarily took forms that were at once more concrete and more complicated. Educators at the state and local level required religious programs to be as detailed as the rest of their curricula, and as a result, they soon found themselves involved in controversies that national leaders had managed to avoid. While prominent voices in political and popular culture had encouraged a return to prayer in general, state-level administrators felt the need to choose or compose specific prayers for all schoolchildren to recite as one. Likewise, while religious leaders had urged Americans to turn to the Bible of their choosing, local educators had to pick a particular version, invariably offending one sect or another. And so, as they attempted to channel the “very vague religion” of the Eisenhower era into specific programs, school officials across the country sparked local controversies that, in turn, had national ramifications.The concept of “one nation under God” had seemed a simple, elegant way to bring together the citizens of a broadly religious country, but at the local level, as the Gideons had discovered, Americans were anything but united.

Excerpted with permission from “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America” by Kevin M. Kruse.  Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2015. This excerpt first appeared on Salon.com

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Kevin M. Kruse is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).