Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Mar 10, 2007 at 11:19:37 AM EST
Prompted by Don Byrd's post here on Thursday, Religious Literacy: An Argument for Religion in Public Schools Even Liberals Can Love?, I decided to take a look at the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools website. Not surprisingly, I found a bit of historical revisionism on their "Founding Fathers" page, including the following about Thomas Jefferson.

"I have always said, and will always say, that studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens." Thomas Jefferson
While President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was elected the first president of the Washington, D.C. public school board, which used the Bible as a reading text in the classroom.

This same quote and lie appeared in David Barton's 1988 book The Myth of Separation, but were removed in his current book, Original Intent, in which he refined many of the lies found in his earlier book. The above Jefferson quote is now listed on Barton's own website as "unconfirmed," yet it appears on the website of the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools, an organization whose advisory board includes...ummmm...David Barton.
Barton doesn't admit that his use of any of the quotes on his "Unconfirmed Quotations" list was deliberately deceptive, or that his decision to stop using them had anything to do with the questioning of his work by legitimate historians. He just suddenly, for no particular reason, decided to raise his academic standards.

It is only in using this much higher standard that we call the following quotes "unconfirmed": that is, while the quotes below have been documented in a completely acceptable fashion for academic works, they are currently "unconfirmed" if relying solely on original sources or sources contemporaneous to the life of the actual individual Founder. These original sources for these quotes may still surface...

In The Myth of Separation, Barton cites The 1969 book The Last Words of Saints and Sinners by Herbert Lockyer as his source for the Jefferson quote used by the National Council On Bible Curriculum. In his "Unconfirmed Quotations" list he cites an earlier source, saying, "This quote can be found attributed to Thomas Jefferson in an 1869 work by Samuel W. Bailey, but as yet we have not found it in a primary source." The quote does appear in Homage of Eminent Persons to The Book by Samuel W. Bailey, as Barton says, but can also easily be traced to its original source. It took me less than an hour to do this. You'd think a cracker-jack historian like Barton would have been able to find it too, and would be thrilled to be able to post on his website that he had discovered the original source...unless, of course, there was something in this original source that he didn't want his flock to see.

The original source of the quote is actually a letter from Daniel Webster, an ardent supporter of Sunday schools, to a Professor Pease, dated June 15, 1852. The quote was not written by Jefferson, but appears in Webster's account of a conversation he had with Jefferson over twenty-five years earlier, around the time that the American Sunday School Union was being organized to establish schools modeled on the Sabbath schools founded by Robert Raikes in Great Britain. But, it's not the fact that the existence of Webster's letter means that there isn't a primary source for the Jefferson quote that would bother someone like Barton. It's Webster's recollection of Jefferson saying that Sunday schools were "the only legitimate means, under the constitution" for teaching religion, and Webster's failure to disagree with this opinion, making this letter, whether the other quotes in it were accurately recalled by Webster or not, a much better argument against the public school Bible curriculum than for it.

The following is the relevant part of Webster's letter:

Many years ago I spent a Sabbath with Thomas Jefferson, at his residence in Virginia. It was in the month of June, and the weather was delightful. While engaged in discussing the beauties of the Bible, the sound of the bell broke upon our ears, when, turning to the sage of Monticello, I remarked, "How sweetly, how very sweetly sounds that Sabbath bell!" The distinguished statesman for a moment seemed lost in thought, and then replied: "Yes, my dear Webster; yes, it melts the heart, it calms the passions, and makes us boys again." Here I observed that man was only an animal formed for a religious worship, and that notwithstanding all the sophistry of Epicurus, Lucretius and Voltaire, the Scriptures stood upon a rock as firm, as unmovable as truth itself; that man, in his purer, loftier breathings, turned the mental eyes towards immortality, and that the poet only echoed the general sentiment of our nature in saying that, "The soul secure in her existence, smiles At the drawn dagger, and defies its point." Mr. Jefferson fully concurred in this opinion, and observed that the tendency of the American mind was in a different direction; and that Sunday Schools (he did not use our more correct term, Sabbath) presented the only legitimate means, under the constitution, of avoiding the rock on which the French republic was wrecked. "Burke," said he, "never uttered a more important truth than when he exclaimed that a "religious education was the cheap defence of nations." "Raikes," said Mr. Jefferson, "has done more for our country than the present generation will acknowledge; perhaps when I am cold he will obtain his reward; I hope so, earnestly hope so; I am considered by many, Mr. Webster, to have little religion, but now is not the time to correct errors of this sort. I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands....(1)

As for the other claim, the Washington D.C. school board story is probably the single most popular religious right lie about Thomas Jefferson and public education, with various versions appearing on countless Christian American history websites and in almost every religious right American history book.

According to William J. Federer, in his book America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations:

"Thomas Jefferson, while president (1801-1809), chaired the school board for the District of Columbia, where he authored the first plan of education adopted by the city of Washington. This plan used the Bible and Isaac Watts' Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707, as the principle books for teaching reading to the students."

D. James Kennedy, in What If America Were a Christian Nation Again?, claims that Jefferson:

"Used the Bible and nondenominational religious instruction in the public schools. He was involved in three different school districts, and the plan in each required Bible reading."

Kennedy's version, although not mentioning the city of Washington by name, is found a list of claims about Jefferson that he borrowed from Mark Beliles's introduction to his version of the Jefferson Bible, which cites two books about the history of Washington D.C. as the sources for the claim. Kennedy improved upon Beliles's lie, adding two other unnamed school districts, and upgrading Bible reading from simply occurring to being "required."

This myth about Jefferson and the Washington D.C. schools was created by combining two things. One is that, in 1805, Jefferson was elected president of the Washington City school board. The other is an 1813 report by the teacher of one of the city's early public schools, showing that the Bible and Watts's Hymns were used as reading texts in that school. The problem with the story is that the school that these books were used in didn't exist until several years after Jefferson left Washington and the school board.

Between the years of 1806 and 1811, the Washington City school board attempted to establish and maintain two public schools in the city. Classes were held in rented buildings until enough money was raised through private donations to build two schoolhouses in 1807. But, by 1809, the City Council had cut the public funding for these schools nearly in half, and one of the two was closed. These first two schools were the only schools that existed at the time that Jefferson was president of the school board. Neither of these schools, however, is the school referred to in the lie about Jefferson requiring Bible reading. The school in this lie is a Lancasterian school that opened in 1812, three years after Jefferson retired to Virginia.

In 1811, the teacher of a Lancasterian school in Georgetown wrote a letter to the Washington City school board suggesting that they might have more success with this method of education, developed in England by Joseph Lancaster as an economical way to educate large numbers of poor children. By using the older students to teach the younger ones, Lancaster's system allowed one teacher to oversee the education of hundreds of children. One of the board's biggest problems had been that they couldn't afford to pay high enough salaries to get and keep qualified teachers. In 1812, they decided to open a Lancasterian school, and Henry Ould, a teacher trained by Lancaster in England, was brought over to run it. The use of Lancaster's system, of course, disproves the part of the religious right claim that Thomas Jefferson authored the school's plan of education.

Among the books used for reading lessons in Lancaster's schools in England were the Bible and Watts's Hymns for Children. These were also used in the Lancasterian school in Washington. Ould's progress report to the school board in 1813 showed the number of children who were able to read from the Bible and Watts's Hymns to demonstrate the school's success in teaching reading. An interesting thing about this report is that the Bible and Watts's Hymns are the only books mentioned, although Lancaster's curriculum called for a variety of other reading texts. The most likely explanation for this, however, is the War of 1812. Virtually all children's books at this time had to be imported from England. The few textbooks that had been printed in America, such as the first edition of Noah Webster's Blue Back Speller, did not contain enough reading passages to be useful as a reading text. Because import duties had been doubled in 1812 to fund the war, importing books would have been far too expensive for this school. The Bible and Watts's Hymns, however, were being printed in America, and printed in large enough editions to make them affordable. The progress reports from this same school after the War of 1812 do not mention either of these books, indicating that they may only have been used out of necessity.

Further evidence that there was no religious instruction in the early public schools of Washington D.C. are the repeated requests of the city's mayor, Samuel Smallwood, to add non-denominational Christian instruction to the curriculum. Obviously, if there had already been religious instruction in these schools, there would have been no reason for Smallwood to request that it be added. Smallwood's first request appeared in an 1819 message to the school board.

The schools for the poor need the fostering hand of the Council. Let us not forget that as this is the Metropolis of a great and rising nation, and ought to be the source from which correct principles should emanate, so ought it to be distinguished for the correct deportment of its inhabitants, and afford an example for imitation. This, then, cannot be aided in a better manner than by teaching the poor and indigent the principles of morality, and the knowledge of the goodness of our holy religion.(2)

Five years later he tried again, requesting that, if religious education couldn't be part of the regular school day, a Sunday school be added to the curriculum.(3) Both of Smallwood's requests were ignored by both the school board and the City Council.

As already mentioned, D. James Kennedy upgrades the Washington D.C. schools claim of Mark Beliles to include "three different school districts." Given that Beliles ends his tale of Jefferson including the Bible in a plan he "drafted" for Washington's schools with a claim that his "educational proposals for Virginia were based on a similar plan," one of these is certainly Jefferson's 1778 plan for public schools in Virginia. No plan of education written by Thomas Jefferson ever included, let alone required, Bible reading. In fact, in his proposed plan for public schools in Virginia in 1778, he deliberately excluded the Bible when specifying the types of books to be used as reading texts in his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.

At every of these schools shall be taught reading, writing, and common arithmetick, and the books which shall be used therein for instructing the children to read shall be such as will at the time make them acquainted with Graecian, Roman, English, and American history.(4)

Describing this bill in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson made it clear that this was not an oversight, but a deliberate exclusion of the Bible.

Instead therefore, of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious inquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European, and American history.(5)

1. The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster, vol. 16, (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1903), 656-657.
2. Samuel Yorke At Lee, History of the Public Schools of Washington City, D.C., from August, 1805, to August, 1875, written at request and published by order of the Board of Trustees of Public Schools, for the National Centennial Year, 1876, (Washington D.C.: McGill & Witherow, 1876), 17.
3. ibid.
4. Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950), 528.
5. Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2, (Washington D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), 204.

Other pieces in this series:
More Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools
Barton Revises History to Promote the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools
Historical Revisionism in the NCBCPS Curriculum
More Historical Revisionism in the NCBCPS Curriculum
The Influence of the Ten Commandments on American Law - According to the NCBCPS
Chuck Norris Helps the NCBCPS Spread David Barton's Lies
Even More Historical Revisionism in the NCBCPS Curriculum

Chris, thank you for exposing the faux-historical right-wing bias of The National Council for Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools

I had a "bad feeling" about this group when Don Byrd remarked in his earlier story: caution: for aesthetic reasons unknown to me, annoying triumphant music heralds the loading of their homepage.

From your small beginning here, one can only guess at the number of factual pitfalls to be found in the 300-page curriculum which the group's founder and President calls "essentially a lesson in America's heritage."  She adds, "it is has never been legally challenged," and we immediately wonder about the possibility of academic challenges

According to the website, 185,000 students are already filled up with whatever it is they're selling as factual bible study and US history.  That would be 355 U.S. school districts in 37 states.

Elizabeth Ridenour, current President, started NCBCPS single-handedly in 1993.

The website mentions her "team of lawyers and high-profile endorsers."  That would be the 9 North Carolina state senators and other lawmakers on her board of advisors - which includes arch-conservatives D. James Kennedy and Howard Phillips.  Chris, I note also the name David Barton - could this be the faux-historian Barton (hailing from  Texas) who you have criticized?

Ridenour sells her wares on venues such as American Family Radio Network, Truths That Transform, Focus on the Family, USA Radio Network, Concerned Women Today, The 700 Club, and Dr. D. James Kennedy's Sunday telecast.

Ridenour is also a member of the Council For National Policy. Enough said?

God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Sat Mar 10, 2007 at 02:56:27 PM EST

In addition to the curriculum's distorted portrait of American history, it also distorts (or ignores) reputable biblical scholarship in countless ways.  

Mark Chancey, a biblical scholar and faculty member at Southern Methodist University, has done extremely important work in analyzing the curriculum very carefully and detailing its failings in relation to the standards of academic biblical studies.  His reports may be found on the website of the Texas Freedom Network at:

Elizabeth A. Castelli
Associate Professor of Religion
Barnard College at Columbia University

by Elizabeth Castelli on Sun Mar 11, 2007 at 09:42:55 AM EST

Thank you for the link to Texas Freedom.

They're at ground zero, after all.  I don't believe in Armageddon myths, but if I did, I'd be preaching for a Texas location.  : )

Anyway, it's certainly a state where today's "freedom riders" ought to schedule at least one stop.

God bless the whole world - - No Exceptions
by John Anngeister on Sun Mar 11, 2007 at 01:05:35 PM EST

I think one of my next little projects needs to be obtaining a copy of the book for this curriculum and seeing what historical inaccuracies are lurking in it. I just checked on Amazon, and the only version available there is a homeschool version, which seems to differ significantly from the public school version. On the National Council on Bible Curriculum website, there is a "Bookstore" link, but all it gives you is a phone number, so there doesn't seem to be any way to anonymously order a copy of the book, which I find interesting.

by Chris Rodda on Sun Mar 11, 2007 at 09:48:23 PM EST
As in : "So, why can't I order a copy of your book. Is it a secret ? It's supposed to be a public curriculm, right ? So, why can't I order a copy ?""

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Mar 11, 2007 at 10:37:49 PM EST
I want to see what sort of information they ask for, and if someone not connected to a school system can order it for the purpose of reviewing it.

by Chris Rodda on Sun Mar 11, 2007 at 11:25:36 PM EST
The number on their website has been disconnected.  It appears from the info elswhere on their website that the only way to get a copy of the curriculum is to first contact the National Council on Bible Curriculum for an information packet (for which they request a donation) that gives instructions on how to get the curriculum implemented in your school district, and then call them when you receive this packet to get further information.

So, in order for me to see this thing and expose the historical lies that I'm sure it contains, I may need some help.  If anyone knows someone who has access to a copy and might be able to help me out, please email me at LiarsForJesus@aol.com

by Chris Rodda on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 03:05:05 PM EST

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