The Bible has been considered one of the Great Books of Western Literature, and “the Bible as Literature” is regularly found in the curriculum of English departments in American colleges and universities. An underlying assumption is that the Bible possesses great literary value and cultural assets, and therefore its general educational employment within public institutions, as opposed to its religious or liturgical use, causes no offense to anyone's freedom of conscience guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Confidence in this idea, however, set in only after a long series of litigation and legislation. This essay recounts a lawsuit that came before the Supreme Court of Maine in the mid-nineteenth century (Donahoe v. Richards) wherein the traditional practice of reading from the Bible in common schools was challenged and, perhaps for the first time, the idea of the Bible as literature was publicly articulated. At that time, the Bible — specifically, the King James Version (1611) favored by the majority Protestants, styled the “Common English Bible” — had been regularly used in the quotidian practice of piety, including in schools, as this practice was considered essential for the welfare of both the individual and the commonwealth. At the backdrop of the lawsuit was the emergence of the public school system and also a surge in the Catholic immigrant population, which began to challenge the de facto Protestant establishment of many American communities. The essay suggests that the hyperbolic estimation of the literary excellence of the King James Version, often voiced to this day, may be a reaction-formation, a symptom of the deeply troubling legacy of bitter quarrels yet unresolved.

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