What The Bible Riots Can Teach Us About Modern American Society

“They are trying to take the Bible out of our schools!”

While this might sound like a headline from any number of modern media outlets, this was a rallying cry of a series of riots that took place in Philadelphia in the summer of 1844.

These riots were a backlash against a growing anti-Catholic, anti-Irish sentiment that had been brewing for the preceding decade. However, a closer examination into this forgotten bit of American history gives us insight into many of our problems today.

Being Honest About Our History…

Throughout most of early American history, followers of Catholicism were treated very poorly.

During Colonial times, British anti-Catholic laws led to the forfeiture of many rights of Catholic subjects in colonies, with several colonies outright banning Catholics from settling.

In early America, up through the Revolutionary War, Catholics in some of the colonies did not have the right to vote and couldn’t hold office, bear arms, or join a militia.

While most of these rights were restored through the creation of various state constitutions, a fundamental distrust of Catholicism often remained.

Immigration has always been a hot-button issue in American history. From 1830-1850, almost one million Irish immigrants entered the United States, more than the total amount of the preceding century.

Pennsylvania had been founded as a Quaker colony, but was seen as a Catholic safe-haven throughout most of the colonial period.

William Penn, a Quaker, had suffered substantial harassment and enacted a broad grant of religious tolerance and civil rights to all believing in God, regardless of denomination.

The large influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1830s tested even the tolerance of the Quakers, and set into motion the roots of the Bible Riots (also called the Nativist Riots).

Using the Bible as the Weapon

The Bible, during this period, was extensively used in mostly Quaker public schools (and still is today in private Quaker schools worldwide).

The school day started with students reading from a Protestant version of the Bible, but Catholic students did not want to use the non-Catholic translations for the daily readings.

In 1842, the Bishop of Philadelphia asked the Board of Controllers of public schools to allow Catholics to use the Douai translation of the Bible, and to be excused from religious teachings at school.

The Board of Controllers agreed and ruled that students could use whatever translation of the Bible they wished, and that students could not be forced to engage in religious studies.

From this, wild rumors began to spread of a Catholic conspiracy to remove the Bible and religious teachings from schools.

While religion and the Bible was being used as the weapon, the battle had little to do with either.

A popular movement of the time, the “Know Nothing Movement” (also called the “Native American Party”) was a reaction to the growing immigration concerns, and the influx of new and different ideas into American society.

Compounding the problem was the willingness of the Irish immigrants to work at wages far below what the Nativists had come to expect, which gave the Irish an advantage in gaining employment.

The Riots

The rioting took place in May and July of 1844, substantially escalating in form during July. A fantastic account of the rioting from an 1844 source can be found here.

In modern money, almost $10 million in property damage was done, primarily from the destruction of Catholic churches and homes.

In an act of almost unheard of violence in the United States, both the mob and the militia sent to put down the rioting fired cannons into each other’s positions.

Amazingly, only 30 people were killed during the rioting, with hundreds more injured.

Three different newspaper editors were arrested and charged with inciting a riot. Dozens others were charged with crimes ranging from breach of peace to murder.

The Aftermath

Two significant developments came from the aftermath of the rioting, both affecting modern society.

The first was the development of a professional, para-military police force in Philadelphia — one of the first of its kind in the United States.

The community-based policing model was insufficient to put down the riots; a professional para-military police force was seen as the only way to ensure that this kind of rioting would not become common place.

The second was the widespread adoption of private Catholic schools in Pennsylvania, spreading elsewhere throughout the United States. By 1860, there were at least 17 operational Catholic schools in Philadelphia.

This was a recognition of the fact that the only way to ensure an education that is completely faithful to a particular brand of belief is to create a private system of education, and not rely on the public system that must cater to all faiths and practices.

21st Century America

Like America in 1844, the United States is facing the strains of immigration — both past and present.

The current immigration system is one of rules and quotas, not a system of showing up at the nation’s borders for admission. Even with this, America is a diverse country, with considerable changes in the religious and ethnic makeup of the country.

While Protestantism is still the predominate religion of America, even the nature of that has changed by shifting to Evangelicalism as opposed to traditional Protestantism.

But a greater change has happened in America, one we see in the 21st century equivalent to “they are taking our Bibles out of our schools.”

Various media outlets trying to gain a following by producing outrage against the so-called “War on Christianity” have fueled a mistrust against people practicing diverse faiths, all while blaming the “Liberal agenda” for the offense.

In many ways, the modern tea party movement has become the 21st century equivalent of the Know Nothings. The desperate clinging to “traditional values” is a reaction to a changing America, not a reaction to a deliberate assault on their ideology or religious views.

Claiming some form of majority rule is hardly possible considering that even within Protestantism there are over 33,000 separate denominations and sects. The “Protestant America” is not a cohesive group with identical faith and practices — contrary to what is portrayed by conservative and religious media outlets.

Children should have the right to an education that is free from religious bullying and proselytization, regardless of the source.

Political discussion in 21st century America should not mirror the events of a 19th century riot, but unfortunately there are those who would like to see us go down that path.

Maximum liberty comes with a cost, often seen in having to live in peace with others who don’t have your own beliefs. We need to learn the lessons of the Bible Riots and not turn the diversification of America into a holy war.