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The National Reform Association spearheaded an attempt to amend Christianity into the Constitution using an amazingly effective strategy for the first time: that of circulating many copies of the same petition or memorial and urging people to use them for contacting their legislators.
In 1861, members of a Covenanter synod met in Allegheny, Pennsylvania to write a petition deploring the absence of Christ and his laws in the Constitution.(1)
The Covenanters were a relatively small religious group. Founded in 1809 through a schism in the Presbyterian Church, the denomination was centered in western Pennsylvania and had less than 15,000 members in 1870. Unlike most Protestant denominations, the Covenanters failed to see the evangelical explosion during the first half of the 19th century as evidence of the chosen status of the nation. They were too orthodox to be truly evangelical and too Calvinist to be optimistic about the future. The inroads of Arminianism on Calvinist theology in the early 19th century had passed by the Covenanters. Therefore, they saw the Civil War as God's retribution for the nation's failings and as a confirmation of the correctness of their belief in the Westminister Confession. Whereas in the past the Covenanters' demand for an affirmation of God in the Constitution had fallen on deaf ears, their call began to receive more attention as the Civil War progressed.(2)
. . . The petition received initial support from Senator CHARLES SUMNER, and in 1862 two Covenanter ministers presented the document to President Lincoln. Lincoln was noncommittal. . . (3)
In February, 1863, members of the Allegheny, PA group of Covenanters met to discuss the state (i.e., American) religion, the Civil War, etc.
The Xenia conference ran from February 3 to 5, and was attended by representatives of eleven Protestant denominations from seven northern states, On the second day of the conference John Alexander, a local attorney, delivered a paper on the topic "Religion in the Nation." Alexander spoke of the sins that had led to war and of the need for national repentance. As a means of regaining God's favor, Alexander proposed:
We regard the neglect of God and His law, by omitting all acknowledgment of them in our Constitution, as the crowning, original sin of the nation, and slavery as one of its natural outgrowths. Therefore, the most important step remains to yet to be taken - to amend the Constitution so as to acknowledge God and the authority of His law; and the object of this paper is to suggest to this Convention the propriety of considering this subject, and of preparing such an amendment to the Constitution as they may think proper to propose in accordance with its provisions.
Prepared for the occasion, Alexander read the draft of a proposed amendment to the Preamble to the United States Constitution (amendment in brackets):
We, the People of the United States [recognizing the being and attributes of Almighty God, the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures, the law of God as the paramount rule, and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all], in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.(4)
Unknown to the Xenia delegates, a similar convention of representatives from various Protestant denominations met in Sparta, Illinois the day after the first group had adjourned.
The Sparta group also expressed concerns about the need for national repentance. The convention passed several resolutions, including one that called for the "faithful administration of the government according to the principles of the Word of God" and acknowledging Christ's authority in the political realm. Recognizing the need for immediate action, the Sparta convention formed an association to carry out its goals.
Representatives from both conventions met in Allegheny, Pennsylvania the following January to organize the Christian Amendment Movement, soon to be called the National Reform Association. The Association elected John Alexander its first president, and in 1864 set out to obtain an amendment to the United States Constitution to acknowledge God's divine authority and, in doing so, establish a Christian basis for popular government in America.(5)
Believing that Almighty God is the source of all power and authority in civil government, that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Ruler of Nations, and that the revealed Will of God is of Supreme authority in civil affairs;
Remembering that this country was settled by Christian men, with Christian ends in view, and that they gave a distinctly Christian character to the institutions which they established;
Perceiving the subtle and persevering attempts which are made to prohibit the reading of the Bible in our Public Schools, to overthrow our Sabbath laws, to corrupt .the Family, to abolish the Oath, Prayer in our National and State Legislatures, Days of Fasting and Thanksgiving and other Christian features of our institutions, and so to divorce the American Government from all connection with the Christian religion;
Viewing with grave apprehension the corruption of our politics, the legal sanction of the Liquor Traffic, and the disregard of .moral and religious character in those who are exalted to high places in the nation;
Believing that a written Constitution ought to contain explicit evidence of the Christian character and purpose of the nation which frames it, and perceiving that the silence of the Constitution of the United States in this respect is used as an argument against all that is Christian in the usage and administration of our Government;
We, citizens of the United States, do associate ourselves under the following ARTICLES, and pledge ourselves to God and .to one another, to labor, through wise and lawful means, for the ends herein set forth:
This Society shall be called the ‘NATIONAL REFORM ASSOCIATION'
The object of this Society shall be to maintain existing Christian features in the American Government, to promote needed reforms in the action of the government touching the Sabbath, the institution of the Family, the religious element in Education, the Oath, and Public Morality as affected by the liquor traffic and other kindred evils; and to secure such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will declare the nation's allegiance to Jesus Christ and its acceptance of the moral laws of .the Christian religion, and so indicate that this is a Christian nation, and place all the Christian laws, institutions and usages of our government on an undeniable legal basis in the fundamental law of the land.(6)
The Allegheny convention formally adopted John Alexander's proposed amendment in the form of a memorial to Congress.
NATIONAL REFORM ASSOCIATION
MEMORIAL TO CONGRESS
ALLEGHENY, PENNSYLVANIA, JANUARY 27, 1864
To the Honorable, the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled:
We, citizens of the United States, respectfully ask your honorable bodies to adopt measures for amending the Constitution of the United States, so as to read, in substance, as follows:
We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.(7)
Senators Charles Sumner, B. Gatz Brown and John Sherman supported the measure.
The war and then the assassination of Lincoln kept the amendment on the back burner, but the NRA felt there was no real opposition to the passage of such an amendment. Some influential people supported the amendment in theory but wouldn't "go on record" as supporting it in practice
Politicians became a bit wishy washy at times as well: Senator Charles Sumner, for example, in late 1864 and early 1865 lessened his stance for support. He was worried about possible dissatisfaction among his Jewish constituents.
In spite of the sudden loss of support, the Association was able to get the proposed amendment submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 1864. On March 2, 1865, the committee reported the memorial back to the full Senate with a request that it be discharged from further consideration of the matter.(8)
As Mr. Trumbull, chair of the Committee on the Judiciary reported to the floor:
Mr. TRUMBULL. The Committee on the Judiciary, to whom was referred a petition of citizens of the United States praying for an amendment of the Constitution more fully recognizing the obligations of the Christian religion, have directed me to report it back, and ask to be discharged from its further consideration.
In making this report I desire to state that the committee instructed me to make a report a few days ago in reference to some petitions both for and against this amendment to the Constitution, and I observe that it is reported in the newspapers that the Committee on the Judiciary reported against the recognition of God in the Constitution. The Committee on the Judiciary reported no such thing. The committee simply asked to be discharged from the consideration of the memorials both for and against the amendment of the Constitution as proposed, they being of the opinion that it was unnecessary and injudicious, at this time, at any rate, to make such an amendment. The committee believe that the Constitution of the United States does recognize the existence of a Supreme Being. It requires every officer to take an oath and what is an oath but a Promise corroborated or confirmed by an appeal to the Supreme being? It also contains a clause providing that Congress shall make no law prohibiting a free exercise of religion, thereby recognizing the right of religion. The committee considered that such an amendment of the constitution as was prayed for by those memorialists was unnecessary; and it is for that reason the committee ask to be discharged from the further consideration of this memorial.
The motion to discharge the committee was agreed to.(9)
This was a major setback for the NRA and the organization and movement floundered for a couple years. With the end of the Civil War, concerns of the American people, and of Congress, turned in other directions. There wasn't the belief in a wayward America that had existed in the time before and during the war. The beliefs that had helped foster the creation of the NRA and the energy for a Christian Amendment that was to correct the lack of a Christian base for this nation and government had ebbed.
The organization underwent a major restructuring and in 1867 began publishing The Christian Statesman. The result was that
The movement which emerged in the late 1860's was different in that it was less sectarian and more political.(10)
"(T)he Religious Amendment of the Constitution is not, in itself, the end we seek," wrote The Christian Statesman. "It is but a means to an end, and that end is the arousing and combining of the Christian people of America in a compact, enthusiastic, determined movement to carry out the religious idea of government in all its practical applications." (11)
The movement began picking up new members, and by 1867 a new leadership essentially began to take over the NRA. New members were attracted, members such as William Strong, a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court who was appointed to the US Supreme Court by President U S Grant in 1870.
Strong became president of the NRA and remained president of that organization while serving on the United States Supreme Court. A position that would have required him to interpret the Christian Amendment had it ever been ratified.
In late 1866, the Association printed a new version of its Memorial, containing the text of the amendment with supporting arguments. The N.R.A. distributed the Memorial to conservative churches and local organizations, calling on people to form "auxiliary associations in your county or district; Sign the memorial of that association, or any that is near you, that in due time it may be forwarded to Congress through your Representative." The Memorial carried the endorsement of William Strong, Senator B. Gatz Brown, and the faculties of Princeton and Western theological seminaries.(12)
The move to get the amendment passed began to pick up steam. The NRA sponsored meetings and gatherings in an effort to get the word out, to drum up support. Ministers who attended such gatherings were urged to tell their congregations to write Congress. In 1868, The Christian Statesmen informed its readers that they could apply for "forms of petitions" and urged that such be filled out and sent in duplicate, one to be sent to the Senate, the other to the House, before Congress adjourned in March 1869. The number of petitions arriving at the offices of Representatives and Senators increased dramatically:
Various issues of the Congressional Globe reported many introductions of these petitions:
Mr SUMNER . . . He also presented a petition of citizens of the United States residing in Illinois, praying for such an amendment of the Constitution as will more fully recognize the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on Judiciary.(13)
Mr. YATES presented a petition of citizens of Illinois, praying for such an amendment of the Constitution as will more fully recognize the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on Judiciary.(14)
Mr. EDMUNDS presented a petition of citizens of Vermont, praying for such an amendment of the Constitution as will more fully recognize the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on Judiciary.
Mr. SHERMAN. I present the petition of over eleven hundred citizens of the state of Ohio, residing at Utica and Oxford, of a character similar to that presented a moment ago by the Senator from Vermont, praying for an amendment of the Constitution. acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all power and authority in civil government. These are only a portion of n great many similar petitions that I leave presented from my constituents. It is evident from these petitions that they come from a common movement of the religious people of this country, looking to some recognition in the Constitution of a Supreme Being. It has always Seemed to me, in viewing the recent events and the wonderful providences, I may say, that have transpired in the history of our country in the last few years, that it would be well, now that we are amending the Constitution and recognizing, the logical consequences of those events, for us to place in that instrument some recognition of the Providence of Almighty God, and a recognition of the further fact that this nation and its institutions have been built upon Christian civilization. It seems to me, therefore, the movement of those religious people might now hell be considered by the Committee oil the Judiciary. It is rather remarkable that the Constitution of the United States contains no such reference, when all the documents framed by the men who formed the Constitution, including the Declaration of Independence and all the documents of that period, bad such recognition in various forms. I can see, myself, no reason why the proposed amendment should not be placed in our fundamental law. I move the reference of this petition to the Committee oil the Judiciary.
The motion was agreed to.(15)
Mr. YATES presented a petition of citizens of Illinois, praying for such an amendment of the Constitution as will more fully recognize the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on Judiciary.(16)
Mr. BINGHAM: The memorial of Rev. I. A. Thompson of Londonderry, Ohio, and 3000 others, Christian citizens of the sixteenth congressional district in the State of Ohio, praying such an alteration in the Constitution of the United States as shall acknowledge Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among the nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority in order to constitute a Christian government.
Also, the memorial of Samuel Galbreath and 100 others, citizens of Harrison county, Ohio, to the same tenor and effect.
Mr. COVODE: A petition of over 400 citizens of western Pennsylvania, in favor of an amendment to the Constitution so as to acknowledge the Supreme Being.
Mr. DELANO: The memorial of R. I. Wallace, of Otsego, Ohio, and 100 others, praying such an alteration in the Constitution of the United States as shall acknowledge Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among the nations, and His revealed will as of supreme authority in order to constitute a Christian government.
Mr. KOONTZ: The petition of Lt. Cr. McCreary and 42 others, citizens of Gettysburg, Adams county, Pennsylvania, asking for an amendment of the Constitution of the United States so as to acknowledge Almighty God its the source of all authority and power in civil government.
Mr. NIBLACK: The memorial of W. L. Dorsey and 105 others, citizens of Gibson county, Indiana, praying that the Constitution of the United States may be so amended as to recognize the Christian religion as of supreme authority in the affairs of the Government.
Mr. WILLIAMS : The petition of W. J. Dowesty and 353 others, citizens of Allegheny county, Pennsylvania. praying for such an, amendment of the Constitution as will recognize Almighty God as tire source of all authority in civil government.
Also a like petition of Robert Dodd and 111 others. citizens of Armstrong arid Cutler counties. Pennsylvania.
Also, a like petition of James Aiken and 40 others. citizens of Weston. Pennsylvania.
Also a like petition of A. H. Aiken and 40 others, citizens of Butler county, Pennsylvania.
Also, a like petition of Robert Black an, 148 others, citizens of Butler county, Pennsylvania
Also a like petition of J. McPherson and 35 others. citizens of Butler county, Pennsylvania.
Mr. HARLAN presented two petitions of citizens of the United States, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary,
Mr. VICKERS presented a petition of citizens of Washington comity, Maryland, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. CHANDLER presented three petitions of citizens of Michigan, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. MORRELL: The petition of J. M. Adair and 80 others, citizens of Huntington county, Pennsylvania, asking for such amendments to the Constitution of the United States as will fully provide for the recognition of the authority and power of the Supreme Being in the government of nations.
Mr. PETTIS: A petition of citizens, Crawford county, Pennsylvania, for the adoption of measures for amending the Constitution of the United States so as to incorporate therein an acknowledgment of Almighty God as the source of all authority, &c.
Mr. THOMAS: A petition from numerous citizens of Williamsport, Washington county, Maryland, asking Congress to propose an amendment to the preamble to the Constitution of the United States humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority in civil government and the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations.
Mr. WILLIAMS, of Pennsylvania: the memorial of Rev. P. G. Edwards and 123 others, citizens of Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, praying for such an amendment of the Constitution as shall recognize Almighty God as the source of all authority in civil government.(17)
IN THE SENATE:
The PRESIDENT pro tempore presented two petitions of citizens of Ohio, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. MORRILL, of Vermont, presented petition of citizens of Vermont, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. HOWARD presented a petition of citizens of Michigan praying for such an amendment to the constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. SHERMAN: presented four petitions of citizens of Ohio, praying for such an amendment to the Constitution of the United States as will fully acknowledge the obligations of the Christian religion; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.(18)
Because of the debates over the 15th Amendment, neither the House nor the Senate acted on the Christian Amendment. A great deal of wind had been removed from the sails of the NRA and the 41st Congress shows nothing of significance regarding the Christian Amendment. This left some of its supporters in Congress upset:
Mr. YATES. I present a petition signed by a large number of citizens of Illinois, praying an amendment to the Constitution which shall recognize the supreme authority of God and Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations. And, Mr. President. before I make the motion for the reference of this petition, I wish to make a remark on the subject-matter of it.
I believe, for some five or six sessions, petitions to this effect have been presented by Senators; and I am notified that a large number of petitions to the same effect will be sent to me soon. I desire that the Committee of the Judiciary, to whom these petitions have been referred, should make a report; and if there is anything in the subject-matter prayed for inconsistent with the Constitution, as it at present exists, then it should be so stated. If there is any attempt in this movement, or any tendency to a church establishment in carrying out the object of these petitioners, or any suppression of the rights of individuals, let it be stated by the committee when their report is made.
Now, sir, nine tenths of the people of the State of Illinois believe that there should be in the Constitution of the United States, or at least in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, a recognition of the supreme authority of God and of the Christian religion; and, sir, they do not intend to be put off by the inaction of Congress, by the negligence of Congress. If there is anything in conflict with the Constitution in this, let it so report. Stacks of petitions almost mountain high must be in the rooms of that committee. If it is to deprive a certain class of persons who do not believe in the Christian religion of their rights, and thus conflict with the Constitution of the United States, or with the amendment; to the Constitution of the United States, let the committee so report, and let the people understand this question..
So far as I am concerned. I must say that this nation is too much indebted to the Christian religion for its national superiority for it to ignore Christianity. This is the religion which aroused our fathers in the old country and caused them to migrate to this continent and to lay here the foundations of religion and freedom. It crossed the ocean with our Pilgrim fathers; it has carried our institutions to the distant frontier; it has erected temples dedicated to the true God. The spirit of its philanthropy has filled our land with colleges and school. Its benevolence has established institutions for the relief of the disabled and the diseased, and for the amelioration of our race. And now, sir, nine-tenths of the people of my State demand that there shall be an amendment to the Constitution by which the supremacy of God shall be acknowledged by this great nation to that Being to whom we are indebted for all that we are — for our successes in many wars, and for the establishment of equal rights and liberty throughout the land.
I will not say now what course I shall pursue upon this question but I do say that this subject-matter has been brought before Congress long enough, and that it is time that some report should be made upon the subject.
Mr. President, I move the reference of this petition to the Committee on the judiciary.
The motion was agreed to.(19)
But not everything was moving in the direction of adding religion to the Constitution.
Mr. WARNER: I present a petition numerously signed by citizens of Boxly Town, Indiana which says,
Believing that all just government is founded on civil and religious liberty, and that it is unjust to tax for the support of any sectarian or religious institutions those who are conscientiously opposed therein, we pray your honorable body to adopt a resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution to be ratified by the states, that neither the United States, nor any state, Territory, or other civil jurisdiction therein, shall appropriate any money or property for any purpose, direct, or indirectly, to any religious body or sect.
I move the reference of this petition to the committee on the Judiciary.
The motion was agreed to.(20)
Mr. STEWART. I desire unanimous consent to offer it resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and I ask that it be read for information, and if there be no objection, that it be printed and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
Mr. BLAIR. I object.
Mr. STEWART. Let it be read for information.
The PRESIDENT pro tempore. Does the Senator from Missouri object to its being read for information?
Mr. BLAIR. I object to it coming in.
Mr. HILL. I ask that the Senate take up the bill for the registry of the brig Michael and Anna. It is a House bill which I explained this morning. There is no objection to the bill, and it is a matter of form, I take it.
Mr. CONKLING. Without intending .to interrupt the honorable Senator from Georgia, if the honorable Senator from Nevada is not accorded the courtesy of having a resolution read for information, I think hardly any other Senator will ask to have business done.
Mr. STEWART. No more business will be done this session.
Mr. CONKLING I hope nobody will object to the Senator having his resolution read for information.
Mr. HILL. I certainly would not.
Mr. CONKLING. No; I did not understand the Senator to object, and I do not know who did, but some one objected.
Mr. BLAIR. I objected to its consideration.
The PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection to reading the resolution? The Chair bears none, and the resolution will be read for information.
The Chief Clerk read as follows:
A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress as assembled, (two thirds of both Houses concurring therein), That the following article be submitted to the Legislatures of the several States, and when adopted by three-fourths of the States shall become a part of the Constitution of the United States, and known as article sixteen of amendments to said Constitution.
Section 1. There shall be maintained in each State and Territory a system of free common schools, but neither the United States nor any State, Territory, county or municipal corporation shall aid in the support of any school wherein the peculiar tenets of any religious denomination are taught.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The PRESIDENT pro tempore. Is there objection to the introduction of the resolution ?
Mr. BLAIR I object.(21)
Mr. STEWART: asked and by unanimous consent obtained, leave to introduce a joint resolution (S.R. No. 3) proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States; which was read twice as follows:
Be it resolved &c. That the following article be submitted to the Legislatures of the several States, and when adopted by three-fourths of the States shall become a part of the Constitution of the United States, and known as article sixteen of amendments to said Constitution.
Section 1. There shall be maintained in each State and Territory a system of' free common schools, but neither the United States nor any State, Territory, county or municipal corporation shall aid in the support of any school wherein the peculiar tenets of any religious denomination are taught.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The joint resolution was referred to the Committee on the judiciary and ordered to be printed.(22)
Mr. SCHURZ. I present numerous petitions from various parts of the United States, the signatures to which number in the aggregate ten thousand four hundred and seven, transmitted from the city of Boston, asking Congress to preserve inviolate the great guarantees of religious liberty, and protesting against an amendment to the Constitution establishing religious tests. I move the reference of these various petitions to the Committee on the Judiciary.
The motion was agreed to.(23)
Petitions continued to arrive but Congress took no action on the Amendment in 1871 or 1872.
One reason suggested for the lack of action was that some Congressmen were concerned about possible Free Exercise of religion implications that might arise with regards to a Christian Amendment to the Constitution.
In 1867 the Free Religious Association (FRA) was founded. Its leader was Octavius Froghingham. It was a organization that was deeply concerned about religious freedom and it began almost at once to rally support to oppose the Christian Amendment.
That, in turn attracted Francis E. Abbot and together Froghingham and Abbot created a publication called The Index in 1870 to counter the NRA's Publication, The Christian Statesman and promote their own causes.
The FRA adopted most of the organizing and PR tactics that the NRA had been using.
Abbot took on the role of the editor of The Index and worked tirelessly using The Index to defeat the Christian Amendment. He also used it as a forum to promote his own liberal philosophy.
In January 1893 he published his "Nine Demands of Liberalism" in The Index and two years later founded the Liberal League.
In the meantime a crisis had materialized in Cincinnati, Ohio. Approximately 12,000 to 15,000 students were being educated in parochial schools. In an effort to attract some of those students back to public schools, a group of school board members had two resolutions prohibiting religious instruction and ‘reading of religious books, including the Holy Bible,' in the common schools."(24)
That action created a huge backlash from the Protestant community in Cincinnati. Eventually, in late November 1869 the matter was heard in a local Superior court. The plaintiffs' (Protestants and supporters of Bible reading in public schools) attorneys tried to argue:
(1) that the state constitution required religious practices in public schools--falling back on the famous sentence from Article III of the Northwest Ordinance which also appeared in the Ohio Constitution, i.e. "Religion, Morality and Knowledge being necessary to good government Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." Thus the school board had no authority to pass and enforce any such resolutions.
(2) that the word "religion" meant Christianity (Protestantism)
(3) that Ohio was a Christian state within a Christian nation
(4) Christianity was part of the common law
In February 1870, the Superior court (with a 2-1 split) ruled in favor of the Protestant-supporters and Bible reading groups. The two majority opinions side-stepped the issue of the school board's authority and instead accepted the Christian state argument and agreed with it.
The case was appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court (Board of Education of Cincinnati v Minor, et al., (23 Ohio State Rep 211) (1872). On June 24, 1873, that court announced its decision. Justice Welsh wrote the opinion. He stated that the school board did, in fact have the authority to prohibit Bible reading in its schools. He stopped just short of declaring Bible reading unconstitutional.
. . . the implications of Welch's decision were clear to all who read it: Bible reading favored Christianity, which was inconsistent with the constitution's command of religious neutrality. Even clearer, however, was the Ohio court's rejection of the Christian nation maxim. Neutrality was to be the controlling principle of church-state relations, not religious preference, even when "religion" was broadly defined.
. . . The state constitution did not require religious instruction, and the failure of schools to so provide did not evince hostility toward religion.
Considering the level of attention given the case at trial, the public reaction to the Ohio Supreme Court's decision was decidedly mild. . .
The subdued response to Minor could not mask the significance of the holding. For the first time, Protestant Bible reading and its sponsor, the Christian nation maxim, had been declared to be inconsistent with constitutional principles of government neutrality and religious equality. The Ohio court had also rejected nonsectarianism as a workable theory and in the process had cast serious doubt on the constitutionality of Bible reading in the public schools. For these reasons, Minor was a watershed decision, the repercussions of which would be felt throughout the remainder of the century and into the next. In future disputes, state courts would split almost evenly over the legality of prayer and Bible reading in the schools. Advocates of Bible reading would point to the decision as a harbinger of the moral decline of the nation while secularists would celebrate the decision as a turning point in the transformation of church-state law.
No less significantly, Minor indicated that the Christian nation maxim was dead as a justification for religious practices in the public schools. With the exception of two lower court decisions from Pennsylvania, no future Bible reading case would rely on the maxim. The principle of nonsectarianism, developed to preserve Protestant hegemony over the public schools while accommodating an increasingly diverse religious population, provided a sufficient legal theory for future cases, thereby rendering the maxim obsolete.
After Minor, the area of controversy was not over whether the maxim represented an appropriate legal theory, but over the cogency of nonsectarianism and whether Bible reading itself was constitutional.(25)
The Court acknowledged that since the Ohio Constitution recognized that "religion, morality and knowledge are essential to good government," the state legislature could pass laws to protect the practice of every religion. But, said the Court, it could not agree with those who argued that "religion" must mean Christianity or that Christianity was part of the common law of the country. "Those who make this assertion can hardly be serious, and intend the real import of their language. If Christianity is the law of the State, like every other law, it must have a sanction. Adequate penalties must be provided to enforce obedience to all its requirements and precepts. No one seriously contends for any such doctrine in this country, or, I might almost say, in this age of the world.
"Religion is not," continued the Court in a reference to the Christian Amendment, "much less Christianity or any other particular system of religion - named in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States as one of the declared objects of government; nor is it mentioned in the clause in question, in our own Constitution, as being essential to anything beyond mere human government. . . (U)nited with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows us that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better it is for both."
Not only was the Cincinnati decision a loss for the pro-Bible reading faction throughout the nation, it also was a slap in the face of those who supported the Christian Amendment.(26)
The NRA stepped up its efforts to pass the Christian Amendment, pointing to this, and other examples of law suits being brought or decisions being made in various communities that were effectively ending Protestant domination of the public school systems as a sign of the sorry state and direction that the country was moving in, using these things as examples why the Christian Amendment was needed to save it.
The Association [NRA] referred to these threats in announcing its 9th annual convention. "The question of the Bible in the Public Schools, of Sabbath Laws, and of many similar questions are now demanding attention and decisive settlement. Shall the Nation preserve the Christian features of its life? This is rapidly becoming the issue of our day." The question demanded an immediate answer. "Shall we obliterate every Christian feature from existing institutions? Or, shall we make the Constitution explicitly Christian? Shall we thrust the Bible from our schools to make them conform to the Constitution? Patriotism and true Statesmanship answer, No!" The convention was well publicized and the Association hoped for a large turnout of support.(27)
The convention was held in New York February 26–27, 1873. In a speech at that convention Jonathan Edwards, D. D., said:
We want State and religion, and we are going to have it. It shall be that so far as the affairs of State require religion, it shall be religion -- the religion of Jesus Christ. The Christian oath and Christian morality shall have in this land "an undeniable legal basis." We use the word religion in its proper sense, as meaning a man's personal relation of faith and obedience to God.
Now, we are warned that to ingraft this doctrine upon the Constitution will be oppressive; that it will infringe the rights of conscience; and we are told that there are atheists, deists, Jews, and Seventh-day Baptists who would be sufferers under it.
These all are, for the occasion, and so far as our amendment is concerned, one class. They use the same arguments and the same tactics against us. They must be counted together, which we very much regret, but which we cannot help. The first-named is the leader in the discontent and in the outcry—the atheist, to whom nothing is higher or more sacred than man, and nothing survives the tomb. It is his class. Its labors are almost wholly in his interest; its success would be almost wholly his triumph. The rest are adjuncts to him in this contest. They must be named from him; they must be treated as, for this question, one party.
What are the rights of the atheist? I would tolerate him as I would tolerate a poor lunatic; for in my view his mind is scarcely sound. So long as he does not rave, so long as he is not dangerous, I would tolerate him. I would tolerate him as I would a conspirator. The atheist is a dangerous man. Yes, to this extent I will tolerate the atheist; but no more. Why should I? The atheist does not tolerate me. He does not smile either in pity or in scorn upon my faith. He hates my faith, and he hates me for my faith. I can tolerate difference and discussion; I can tolerate heresy and false religion; I can debate the use of the Bible in our common schools, the taxation of church property, the propriety of chaplaincies and the like, but there are some questions past debate. Tolerate atheism, sir? There is nothing out of hell that I would not tolerate as soon! The atheist may live, as I have said; but, God helping us, the taint of his destructive creed shall not defile any of the civil institutions of all this fair land! Let us repeat, atheism and Christianity are contradictory terms. They are incompatible systems. They cannot dwell together on the same continent! (28)
The Methodist Christian Advocate reported favorably on the convention calling it "no small affair." The Advocate recommended its readers support the amendment.(29)
In relation to the renewed and increasing efforts by the NRA, the FRA, and similar organizations stepped up their efforts in countering the NRA:
Support of the Advocate, however, was not sufficient to obtain passage of the amendment. During the previous year, petitions to Congress against the amendment had begun to equal the number of petitions in favor. The example of good organization that the Association had shown so well in 1869 was being copied by The Index. On February 28, 1872, Senator Carl Schurz presented petitions with over 10,000 signatures from throughout the nation "asking Congress to preserve inviolate the great guarantees of religious liberty, and protesting against an amendment to the Constitution establishing religious tests." Two months later, Charles Sumner introduced a similar petition from 6300 citizens of Boston. The petition war, however, remained a draw throughout most of 1873.(30)
In an effort to break the deadlock and gain the upper hand the NRA looked to an opportunity in Pennsylvania. In March, 1873 a constitutional convention gathered in Philadelphia to consider possible changes to the Pennsylvania.
The original state constitution did not contain any acknowledgment to any authority of or from God. Since Pennsylvania was an NRA stronghold, it was decided by that organization to lobby the convention for such an acknowledgment. It was believed that success in that undertaking would serve to ignite a fire under Congress on the matter of the Christian Amendment to the national constitution.
The NRA achieved limited success in Pennsylvania. The new constitution did not contain the type of acknowledgment that the NRA wanted. While the preamble to that constitution was rewritten, it only gave a watered down thanks to God and a seeking of his guidance. A far cry from that which the NRA was seeking.
The NRA, while disappointed and a bit hesitant to claim outright victory, did play it up as much as they dared.
The FRA and other similar groups, on the other hand, were not totally sure how much damage might have been done by the weak victory for the NRA in Pennsylvania, nor how much it might aid towards passing the Christian Amendment but decided not to take any chances.
The success of the Christian Amendment, however, was still an open question. Francis Abbot feared the N.R.A. would use their victory in Pennsylvania as a springboard for the amendment. He knew the time had come to give the movement a quick knock-out punch. For over a year, The Index had been collecting signatures on its counter-petition to Congress. As early as March 1873, Abbot attempted to send the petition to Charles Sumner, who had agreed to present it to Congress. Sumner, however, had been unable to submit the petition before the end of that session. Now, the counter-petition seemed all the more important. On January 7, 1874, Sumner finally presented the petition, which contained 35,179 names and was over 953 feet long. The event captured significant media attention. The petition was so large, reported the newspapers, that it would have been more than a quarter mile long if it hadn't contained two names per line. "It is seldom that 35,000 people can be found to sign an appeal against a wise measure," stated an editorial in the Boston Globe, "and the 953 feet of the petition certainly go a great way in demonstrating the absurdity of the proposed constitutional plan of salvation." Abbot had accomplished a public relations coup.
It is unfortunate the debates of the judiciary committees are not recorded. There is little doubt, however, that the counter-petition had a great affect on Congressmen. More likely than not, the counter-petition provided wavering representatives with a convenient way to vote against the amendment. Whatever the case, Congress did not take-long to act. On February 18, the House Judiciary Committee issued a long awaited report on the Christian Amendment. Benjamin Butler read the report of the Committee requesting that the Amendment be tabled indefinitely:
That, upon examination even of the meager debates by the fathers of the Republic in the convention which framed the Constitution, they (the committee) find that the subject of this memorial was most fully and carefully considered, and then, in that convention, decided, after grave deliberation that it was inexpedient to put anything into the constitution or frame a government which might be construed to be a reference to any religious creed or doctrine.
And they further find that this decision was accepted by our Christian fathers with such great unanimity that in the amendments which were afterward proposed in order to make the Constitution most acceptable to the nation, none has ever been proposed to the States by which this wise determination of the fathers has been attempted to be changed. Wherefore, your committee report that it is inexpedient to legislate upon the subject of the above memorial, and ask that they be discharged from further consideration thereof, and that this report, together with the petition, be laid upon the table.(31)
Thus ended that particular round for the Christian Amendment. However, over the next 20 years or so, there were attempts to pass a Religious Freedom Amendment (sponsored by Francis Abbot), the Blaine Amendment, Blair Educational Amendment, a couple of additional efforts either to pass the Christian Amendment again or to pass other "God-in-the-Constitution" Amendments, In addition, there were a host of attempts to pass laws designed protect Sunday as the "Lord's Day, a day of rest and worship" under various direct and indirect titles and wordings.
For a look at some of those attempts, please see:
The American Idea of Religious Freedom
Religious Measures in Congress 1888 - 1949
(1) The National Reform Association and the Religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864-1876, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Masters thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1987) p. 14
(2) Ibid., p. 13-14
(3) Ibid., p. 14
(4) Ibid., p. 1-2
(5) Ibid., p.2&3
(6) American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation.[1st Edition] Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Of the Chicago Bar. (1890). Revised and Enlarged Edition, [ 2nd Edition] Edited by Willard Colcord, and published by The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. (1911) pp 342-343.
(7) American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation.[1st Edition] Compiled and Annotated by William Addison Blakely, Of the Chicago Bar. (1890). Revised and Enlarged Edition, [ 2nd Edition] Edited by Willard Colcord, and published by The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. (1911) pp 341-343.
(8) The National Reform Association and the religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864-1876, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Masters thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1987) p. 17
(9) The Congressional Globe, 38th Congress, 2nd Session, March 2, 1865, 1272.
(10) The National Reform Association and the religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864-1876, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Masters thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1987) p. 19
(11) Ibid., p. 20
(12) Ibid., p. 30
(13) The Congressional Globe, 39th Congress, 2nd Session, February 15, 1867, 1358
(14) The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 2nd Session (Part I), May 28, 1868, 2623
(15) The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 3rd Session (Part I), February 8, 1869, 974
(16) Ibid., February 9, 1869, 1028
(17) Ibid., February 13, 1869, 1158, 1200-01
(18) The Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 3rd Session (Part I), February 15, 1869, 1201
(19) The Congressional Globe, 41st Congress, 3rd Session, January 10, 1871, 391-92
(20) Ibid., January 19, 1871. 592
(21) The Congressional Globe, 42nd Congress, 1st Session, April 17, 1871, 730
(22) The Congressional Globe, 42nd Congress, 2nd Session, December 19, 1871, 206
(23) Ibid., February 28, 1782, 1254
(24)The Rhetoric and Reality of the "Christian Nation" Maxim In American Law-1810-1920, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1997) p.292
(25) Ibid., pp. 306-09
(26) The National Reform Association and the religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864-1876, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Masters thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1987) Pages 45-47
(27) Ibid., p. 48-49
(28) Civil Government and Religion, or Christianity and the American Constitution, by Alonzo T. Jones. American Sentinel, 26 & 28 College Place, Chicago, Ill. 1059 Castro St. Oakland, Cal.; 43 Bond St. N Y Atlanta, Georgia. 1889. Facsimile Reproduction Printed 1973 by Atlantic Printers & Publishers Sherrington, P. Q. pp. 53-56
(29) The National Reform Association and the religious Amendments to the Constitution, 1864-1876, by Steven Keith Green, An unpublished Masters thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (1987) p. 49
(30) Ibid., p. 50
(31) Ibid., p. 53-55.