The Hunter’s Point Bible War

A history of an instructive episode in the American debate about whether or not public, secular education can be truly “neutral"

On Friday morning, November 24, 1871, nine-year-old Catherine Ann Dennen entered her public school building and sat down in the school’s main room with her fellow students. The school’s principal entered the room and began leading the children in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. As he did, little Katie jumped up and exclaimed, “Don’t believe in that!” The principal took her by the arm to take her out of the room, but before he could, he was confronted by three older boys—one of whom was Katie’s brother John—who tried to interfere. One of them took the tobacco quid out of his mouth and flung it at the principal, who left and called for the police. They took the boys to jail for “rioting.” Katie was expelled. Over the next few days and weeks, her outburst was reported in the New York, and then the national, newspapers as a live opening salvo in a “Bible War” that Catholics wished to wage.

The Catholics of Hunter’s Point

A group of villages in Queens—including Hunter’s Point—had been incorporated the previous year into a single municipality, Long Island City. They did not all have the same character. Astoria, for example, was a long-established bedroom community for rich lawyers and merchants who worked in New York City and commuted out to Long Island at the end of the day. They had little in common with the inhabitants of Hunter’s Point, which was their transfer point from the East River ferry to Manhattan, via the Long Island Railroad. Hunter’s Point was mostly low-lying marshy land, whose inhabitants were generally poor Irish Catholic immigrants subject to malaria, typhoid, and the workplace dangers of the shops and factories that were crowded along the “Point.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn had established St. Mary’s parish in 1868, to serve the growing number of Catholics of Hunter’s Point, and had placed Fr. John Crimmin there as pastor. Fr. Crimmin was born in 1834 County Cork, Ireland, and emigrated to upstate New York with his parents when he was five years old. He entered Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland, and received a B.A. and an M.A. there. He then traveled to France where he entered the seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, and had been ordained there in 1867, before returning to New York.

Not only did Fr. Crimmin undertake the building of the parish church at St. Mary’s, but he laid plans for developing and improving Hunter’s Point as a whole, and even the entirety of Long Island. He collected thousands of names on a petition to the state legislature to incorporate the villages into Long Island City, and negotiated with the wealthy proprietors of the real estate in Hunter’s Point to buy into a municipal improvement plan that would fill in marshy low lands and bring an abundance of clean water to the inhabitants. He had to travel to Albany to coax reluctant legislators into supporting the incorporation plan, but he succeeded. He was optimistic about the future of Hunter’s Point because of the increasing commuter and vacation travel through it out to the rest of Long Island.“’don’t believe in that.’ what irish roman catholic children will be told to do next. ‘kick it out peaceably!’” cartoon by thomas nast, harper’s weekly, december 23, 1871.

There was a hitch. Fr. Crimmin was asked to draw up regulations for the public schools for the new Long Island City, which he did, and he explicitly wrote into them that there were to be no religious services as part of the curriculum. This was disputed at public meetings, but it was sent to Albany, where “someone” struck out that language. Fr. Crimmin still did not oppose the adoption of the regulations, because they did not specify that religious readings or services were required. Previously, as a matter of local accommodation, and because the Hunter’s Point school was essentially run on its own terms by local Catholics, they had been able, with cover given by some local Tammany Hall Irish politicians, to ignore the New York State Board of Education’s requirement that public school instruction begin each day with a brief reading of Scripture or with prayer, and he hoped that that could continue.

Now that Hunter’s Point was only a part of Long Island City, however—which included the gentry-filled town of Astoria—it found itself with a public school, a Union school, under the watchful eye of a newly appointed local Board of Education that was apparently determined to enforce the State requirements to the letter. The first result, at Hunter’s Point, just before the 1871 school year opened, was the replacement of the school principal and the teachers, as the New York Tribune described:

Furthermore, according to the new arrangements, teachers were to be appointed by the Superintendent, and the new Board informed those then employed that they must be examined. … The Hunter’s Point teachers, headed by P.J. O’Grady, the principal, refused examination. On the night appointed they appeared before the Board, and O’Grady threw down a tin box on their table, which contained, as he claimed, a diploma written in Latin, which he had obtained at some foreign college. This, he said, was sufficient proof of his fitness. The Board of course pushed this aside, and asked if he was ready for examination. He said that he was not, and left the room followed by the other teachers. The entire corps was then dismissed, and an uninterrupted fight has continued since then.

The Catholic community assumed that the new regime’s dismissal of the staff was a political house cleaning. So now there was a new School Board, self-consciously bringing the order of the State onto Hunter’s Point and appointing a new principal and entire staff of teachers to the school in order to do it.

The Larger World around Katie Dennen

The newly installed principal at the Hunter’s Point School, who led the children at the beginning of day in either the reading of the King James Bible or in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, was William H. J. Sieberg, a bright young Prussian immigrant and graduate of City College of New York. We may note that the Franco-Prussian War had ended in May, 1871. The Prussians’ success in the war was credited to Prussia’s superior military technology, but also to the discipline and training of its officer corps, whose methods and aims were being offered as a model for the pedagogy of the Prussian government’s “common schools.” Immediately after the war, the victor, Otto von Bismarck, backed by the self-avowed secular liberals who formed the large portion of his coalition, immediately began his Kulturkampf, to marginalize the Catholic Church. In an early skirmish of that culture war, Bismarck’s government insisted that it had to “inspect” religious schools and that religious teachers were banned from the government’s “common schools.” Schooling, in Bismarck’s Prussia, was also made compulsory, because as one American admirer of the system put it, “it was soon discovered by the German legislators that there could be no general education without compulsion, that nations must be treated as negligent and truant pupils by their governments, and a whole people be sent to school; that to neglect knowledge is a crime, and brutal ignorance an offense against society.”

It is not surprising that the Catholic parents of Hunter’s Point would come to find Mr. Sieberg, “whose accent was almost unnoticeable,” according to a sympathetic New York Sun reporter, rather inflexible, if not downright hostile, in accommodating their religious sensibilities. After all, as he and his supporters explained, he was just following orders from the School Board on high.

Yet it was not just Prussia that was in a culture war with the Catholic Church. France’s Third Republic would soon set into law a series of anti-clerical measures intent on separating the Church completely from the civil government. And in Italy, Victor Emmanuel’s army the previous year had marched into Rome and forced the Pope to relinquish the Papal States. There had been a number of American Catholic volunteers who had fought on the Pope’s side. The battling there had interrupted the First Vatican Council in October, 1870, but not before it had approved the doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility on matters of faith and doctrine, and this had been overwhelmingly met by the non-Catholic American press as an attempt at a political power grab by the Church.“the good-for-nothing, in miss columbia’s public school. dame britannia: ‘yes; the very same boy that has given me so much trouble in my school. well, miss columbia, ‘now you know how it is yourself!’” cartoon by thomas nast, harper’s weekly, november 4, 1871.

There was also looming over the Hunter’s Point dispute the long history of Irish Catholic grievances against their English overlords, especially their use of the King James Bible to test for loyalty and the consequent disfranchisement and dispossession of those who refused it. For Catholics, it was a hated book, a heretical, mistranslated, and mutilated mockery of the Bible. Without question, the English viewed common schools as a tool for the assimilation of colonized people, for turning their children into loyal British citizens, along the lines that the Roman Empire did with the children of the peoples she conquered. The Irish were acutely aware of this. And the people in Hunter’s Point were either immigrants themselves or the sons and daughters of immigrants, who practically had “No King James Bible” etched in their hearts.

The issue of a central government dictating to local populations as an overlord was only exacerbated by the recent events of the American Civil War and the ongoing Reconstruction measures being put into place by Radical Republicans. During and after the War, Northerners feared that Catholic Mexico would either aid or harbor the Confederates, and they were aroused to suspect that the Vatican itself favored the South.

In truth, Pius IX probably did, just marginally, but not through any material aid, and not because he favored slavery, but rather because the South’s rallying principle of States Rights and its culture of hierarchical authority—as opposed to the Northern enthusiasm for radical democracy and capitalism—resonated with the Catholic Church, especially with what we today would call the principle of subsidiarity. In addition, the War, regarded either as a negation of States Rights and a radical weakening of the principle of federalism, or as a unifying crusade against slavery, was a Northern success. Consequently, Northern reformers in all aspects of life were encouraged to replace or “reconstruct” the recalcitrant members of the Union in any way they could devise and use the instrument of the central government as the means to force it. Such reform included, among other things, the education and care of the young, who could be “Americanized” to a true appreciation of Liberty. All this tended to drive Catholics to the Democratic Party, and to oppose, generally speaking, the Republican Party, because of the Democrats’ then-role of opposing the consolidation of power in the reforming government and because the Democrats offered themselves as the protectors of local interests.

One telling detail reported by the New York newspapers was the unattributed claim that Tammany Hall politicians angling for larger gains by inciting ethnic and religious grievances were using Fr. Crimmin as their tool. The papers even deigned to pull little Kate Dennen into the intrigue because her father, James Dennen, was a successful builder and architect who had worked on city projects and who, it was claimed, was contemplating a run for mayor. In truth, the fact that Kate’s father was successful and fairly well-off only meant that the Dennen children felt strong enough to stand up to their principal and to assume the role of class leaders—or “ringleaders,” depending on who was doing the estimation of their character.

Religion in the Public Schools

From the earliest European settlements in America, schools had thoroughly incorporated religious instruction into their curricula. The New England Congregationalists had been particularly concerned with providing “common schools” for their children, and these were “free” in the sense that they were funded by local taxes. The community’s minister served as the de facto—if not the formal—administrator of the school, hiring the teachers and dictating the curriculum. Even the beginning reading books and books on mathematics were infused with moral and religious lessons. There was no attempt at all to exclude religion from the instruction, quite the contrary. As “common schools” spread, they found non-Congregationalist children among the pupils: after all, their parents also paid for the schools through their taxes. But the situation then become fraught with tension because the children were being catechized along with learning to read and to cipher, and even in geography lessons, to say nothing of the lessons in history and science.

The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore just five years before, in 1866, had spent a lot of time on education (it would come up again in the next council, too, which commissioned the Baltimore Catechism, partly as a sort of boot camp drill for preparing the rank and file to meet challenges). The bishops asked themselves how was it possible in America to keep children Catholic and not be assimilated into a society that was largely indifferent or hostile to Catholicism? The bishops struggled among themselves with whether even to permit Catholic parents to send their children to public schools and under what conditions they might do so. (They also struggled with whether Catholics could join with Protestants in religious services or even attend any sort of non-Catholic worship services at all. No, they answered.) The Council finally allowed Catholic attendance at public schools—where there were no Catholic school alternatives—but cautioned parents to monitor the public schools, with an eye to preventing the introduction of Protestant or anti-Catholic textbooks or ideas into the curriculum. (Their debate on this would extend further, into the Third Plenary Council in 1884 and beyond into the 1890s, with the anti-public-schools-for-Catholics group rallying behind Archbishop Corrigan and the pro-public-schools-for-Catholics group following Cardinal Gibbons, who eventually prevailed.)“common school: free to all, all hands round. no sect. no caste. union is strength. [2] distribution of the sectarian fund: death to us. fun for them. [3] sectarian bitterness. our common schools as they are and as they may be.” cartoon by thomas nast, harper’s weekly, february 26, 1870.

The effect of a tension between growing religious divisions within the student bodies and the public school curricula was that schools hit on the expedient of “secularizing” the curriculum. But soon, for some Protestants, the public, common schools, which had been started as a concession to the minority Catholics could now be used to “check the spread of Catholicism” by teaching all children “Republican values.” But, Catholics, like postmodernists of today, could see that a supposedly “secular” curriculum was actually impossible, that religious assumptions would still always be evident, even if they were simply assumptions that an education could be had by comprehending the world devoid of religious categories, as “neutral” or “secular.” Or, to put it another way, that large swaths of the universe were comprehensible without reference to God, that religion was just what existed inside the church or in catechism class. This was essentially incompatible with a Catholic view. A writer in the Paris-based Revue Catholique noted:

It is enough to open a beginning reader from American schools to notice upon each page that the author was a Protestant, generally a fairly liberal dissident trying to offend as little as possible, yet unwittingly striking at each step the sensitivities of the Catholic faith. If the author, on the contrary, were a sincere Catholic, he would, in return, injure the opinions of Protestants, Jews, unbelievers, and atheists.

Indeed, this Catholic writer, like many others, actually saw the gravest harm to the faith of Catholic students from the Liberal, “indifferentist,” and “secular” curriculum plan, which did not admit its godless assumptions, and not from overt Protestant catechizing in their schools (which could be easily countered at home and at church): “The evil lies elsewhere. This is the indifferentist education when it is not Protestant, which is the wooden horse by which heresy and unbelief want to break into the citadel of the Church, and it is against that, therefore, that the true friends of religion will direct their efforts.”

The 1866 Plenary Council, in fact, had listed as errors, the following opinions:

“The whole governance of public schools, wherein the youth of any Christian State is educated … may and should be given to the civil power; and in such sense be given, that no right be recognized in any other authority of mixing itself up in the management of the schools, the direction of studies, the conferring of degrees, the choice or approbation of teachers.”

“The best constitution of civil society requires that popular schools which are open to children of every class, and that public institutions generally which are devoted to teaching literature and science, and providing for the education of youth, be exempted from all authority of the Church, from all her moderating influence and interference, and subjected to the absolute will of the civil and political authority (so as to be conducted) in accordance with the tenets of civil rulers, and the standard of the common opinions of the age.”

“That method of instructing youth can be approved by Catholic men, which is disjoined from the Catholic faith and the Church’s power, and which regards exclusively, or at least principally, knowledge of the natural order alone, and the ends of social life on earth.”

Nevertheless, some Catholics could see some good in sending their children to public schools (they were generally well-funded and staffed, for one thing), as long as the effort was made to keep overt religious instruction out of them, and as long as their children did not have to participate in a non-Catholic religious service there. The matter seemed a rather fundamental case of justice to them because they were in fact being taxed to support the public schools. The Catholic hierarchy agitated for the idea of allocating the portion of school taxes paid by Catholics back to them in order to support Catholic schools, but that idea never seemed equitable or practicable to non-Catholics. Given the situation, then, that some number of Catholic children would be attending public schools, many of the clergy and the parents concluded that it would be acceptable, as long as their children were not required to participate in religious instruction.

And So, the Bible War Commences

This is what Fr. Crimmin was aiming for, and when the new Board of Education made it clear that they would be enforcing the requirement for Bible reading or prayers at the beginning of the day, he advised the parents that they should have the children enter the school only after the religious exercises were finished (they usually lasted ten to fifteen minutes). But when they did that, the children were expelled for non-attendance. So he then told them to send the children in at the opening of school, but to object to the principal.“Compulsory Education—The Safeguard of Free Institutions.” Cartoon from an etching by John Henry Walsh, Harper’s Weekly, January 16, 1875.

One of the school trustees, a Catholic, came to school one morning and loudly protested against the reading of the Bible, or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, or the singing of hymns during school. The principal turned to the assembled restive students and asked if any of them objected to the religious exercises, and 42 of the 45 students stood up, some of them non-Catholics. He then expelled the lot of them, which brought a crowd of furious parents to the school almost immediately.

The remaining Catholic children who confronted Principal Seiberg each morning became rowdier and more obstreperous each morning during the prayers, until the day when Kate Dennen fired off her fusillade, followed by her brother’s launching of his quid. The following days, the confrontation escalated, as John Mitchel, the Irish Nationalist (yet non-Catholic) editor of the New York Irish Citizen explained:

Since the day of the expulsion several efforts have been made by children, unwilling to lose their places in their classes, to try whether they might not be permitted, during the short time of these religious readings, to keep their fingers in their ears. But to do this, they had to ‘elevate their elbows,’ a thing clean contrary to the discipline. We read the result of this maneuvre in Saturday’s Tribune:

Among other improprieties indulged in by the malcontents during the religious service is the elevation of their elbows and putting their fingers in their ears. For such acts they are whipped. Katie Dennan, the girl who has been the leader in the disturbances, and who was expelled, presented herself yesterday morning, but was refused admission.

In fact, as the same paper informs us, ‘Hereafter the principal will only admit those known to be orderly.’ Seiberg will have no squaring of popish elbows at him.

Seiberg was accosted on the street and had rocks thrown at him a few times. Some of the windows and sashes at the school were broken. Crowds of boys greeted Seiberg on the street outside the school each day, chanting “Don’t believe that.” A squad of four policemen took up stations outside the school.

The Board offered a “compromise”: The principal would omit hymn-singing and reciting the Psalms, and would only read the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, without comment. Fr. Crimmin would not accept this because Catholics could not take part in a non-Catholic ceremony. Well, then, the Board proposed, how about if the principal read from the Catholic Bible? No, said Fr. Crimmin, the school board could not legally require any of that, and besides, why would he be willing to “inflict a grievance” on his Protestant neighbors “of which he himself had complained”? So the board backed off from its offer to compromise and ordered the principal to proceed as before.

The Outcome

A great public meeting was then held, where it was concluded to petition the New York State Board of Education to void the requirement for Bible reading or religious services. Fr. Crimmin penned the petition; it was duly signed by the mass of people at the meeting, and was forwarded to Albany, along with forty affidavits from aggrieved parents.

Fr. Crimmin urged his parishioners to protest, but peaceably. In addition, he invited the popular and well-known Manhattan priest, Fr. Edward McGlynn, to come to St. Mary’s and address the issue. Fr. McGlynn was in fact not in favor of parochial schools and was thoroughly at ease with “cross-denominational” civic-betterment projects and had many dealings with Protestant professionals. Some who opposed the Catholics in this matter appear to have expected him to urge compromise because he favored sending Catholic children to public schools. If they expected that, however, they were disappointed: precisely because he favored sending Catholics to public schools, he was adamant that Bible reading and prayers must not have a place there.

While awaiting a response from the State Board of Education, Fr. Crimmin, Kate Dennen, Irish immigrants, and the Catholic Church in general all took a beating in the press. Most of the coverage was unfavorable, if not actually vicious. Perhaps the worst of it was published in Harper’s Weekly, where cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Catholics as stupid baboons in clodhoppers kicking “The Bible,” watched over by gloating priests out the window, or as puppets worked by Papal fingers, and where writer Eugene Lawrence decried the Papist threat to the “palladium of American liberties” in this Protestant-by-God Republic.

Nevertheless, in June of 1872, Abram B. Weaver, the (Dutch Reformed) Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of New York ruled in favor of the petitioners, and ordered that, throughout New York State, no prayers, Bible readings, or religious exercises were to be included as part of the curriculum of the public schools. William Seiberg soon transferred his duties as principal to another school in Manhattan, and the school children of New York proceeded with their now-secularized education. (Katie Dennen would finish school, marry at age 19, and have several children with her husband, the warden of the Westchester County Jail in Dobb’s Ferry.)

The Bible War was over, or at least a ceasefire was put into effect, but the issues lingered on, particularly that of whether a public, secular education can be truly “neutral,” and they still remain today.

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About John B. Buescher 14 Articles
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. From 1991 to 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service. His books include The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004), The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), and The President's Medium: John Conklin, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Richard W. Couper Press, 2019).