Home > Essays > The Reading Wars of the Late 1800s Were BIBLE Wars… But the Goals of Bible Reading Advocates Match Mine

The Reading Wars of the Late 1800s Were BIBLE Wars… But the Goals of Bible Reading Advocates Match Mine

May 24, 2021

Yesterday’s Washington Post a profile of William Holmes McGuffey by Jess McHugh titled “The Man Who Taught Millions of Americans to Read Before Being Forgotten“. While McGuffey’s name might be unknown outside of education circles, his seminal textbook, “McGuffey’s Reader”, is familiar to anyone who had to take a History of Education course. Yet while I recognized his name and was aware that his book was the foundational text when the concept of a free public education swept the nation in the mid-1800s, Ms. McHugh’s article opened my eyes to the fact that our public education system was put in place by a cadre of reform minded ministers who wanted children to learn how to read the Bible and spread with missionary zeal by nonsectarian idealists like Horace Mann (and me, for that matter) who saw an informed electorate as essential to the strength of democracy.

What I neglected to appreciate was how widely distributed McGuffey’s Readers were and how the stories in his readers formed the culture of our country. Ms. McHugh writes:

The Readers could guide children from learning the alphabet all the way to high school materials, as each volume increased in skill level. Just as importantly, with their tales of self-made men, American revolutionaries and Pilgrims, they served as a conduit for White, Christian culture. In that way, McGuffey Readers were about much more than teaching spelling and grammar.

The public school was pressed into service as a new kind of national church, commissioned to create and carry the common culture and morality of the nation,” wrote James W. Fraser, a historian of U.S. education at New York University, in his book “Between Church and State.

Ms. McHugh also described the original “reading wars”, which were not based on phonics or whole language but on which version of the Bible would be used in schools!

The question was not whether the Bible would be in American schools, but rather which version would be used. The King James Bible, for instance, was seen as a Protestant translation. Debates over Bible translations were so fierce at this time that historians have since dubbed them “The Bible Wars.”

In Philadelphia, a disagreement over Bible translations in schools devolved into an all-out anti-Catholic riot that culminated in hand-to-hand combat with broken bottles and the exchange of cannon fire, with more than 30 fatalities.

And I thought the school board meetings in the mid-90s over Whole Language vs. phonics were fractious!

Absent the de facto universal agreement on the use of a primary reading text and absent any coherent national spiritual consensus, however, we find ourselves debating not only reading texts but also mathematics, science, and especially social studies. When we abandoned textbooks whose tales of “self-made men, American revolutionaries and Pilgrims, (that) served as a conduit for White, Christian culture” we did so without any agreement over the kinds of tales we needed to tell in their place. Consequently, as some critics on both the left and the right agree, children learned to read through the anodyne tales of “Dick and Jane” whose “adventures” in their suburban neighborhood were hardly as inspiring as those of Bible heroes or the “…self-made men, American revolutionaries and Pilgrims” that populated McGuffey’s readers.

In the 1950s, 80% of the children in America learned to read using “Dick and Jane” books but their dominance ended in the 1980s, a victim of the war over phonics (Dick and Jane were “look-say” word recognition) and the emerging battle over multiculturalism.

Bible thumping William McGuffey and progressive activist Horace Mann didn’t agree on much, but they did have common ground in one area: they both viewed public education as a place where communities could find common ground and debate and build a consensus on what they wanted for the future.

Despite years of wrangling over whole language vs. phonics (an increasingly bogus argument since one size does NOT fit all) and now over divisive topics in school, I share McGuffey’s belief about public schools as described in this article:

Johann Neem, a historian of public education, noted that despite McGuffey’s sectarian bent, there’s evidence that he was trying to create a text that would be widely accessible.

“Whether revering or rejecting his work, McGuffey’s fans and detractors both manage to miss the point of his original project: to find a middle ground, a place where diverse Americans could come together around shared values to participate in common public institutions,” Neem wrote.

Can I get an Amen?

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