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  • The Transatlantic Reach of the Catholic “False Translation” Argument in the School “Bible Wars”*
  • Ellie Gebarowski-Shafer

The U.S. school “Bible Wars” that emerged in the nineteenth century were rooted in earlier controversies in England and Ireland where Catholics attacked Protestant versions of the Bible, most famously the celebrated King James Bible. Although Catholic opposition was usually attributed to “sectarian” Protestant reading and interpretive practices, Catholics also objected to the translation itself. The “false translation” argument, a Catholic claim dating back to the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation,1 was revived and helped ignite what would become among the bitterest struggles in U.S. history: Bible reading in public schools.2 [End Page 47]

Since few accounts of the “Bible Wars” discuss European precedents, this essay points to the importance of Catholic opposition to Protestant Bibles during the Reformation period and the importance of Irish Americans’ experience in opposing Protestant Bibles in their homeland. The beliefs and practices of nineteenth-century U.S. Catholics, many of whom were immigrants, were closely linked to Europe, so we must look to both sides of the Atlantic and take into consideration Reformation and Counter-Reformation precedents as Counter-Reformation literature and polemical arguments were often redeployed in American contexts centuries later.

This article is divided into four parts: the first surveys the historiography of U.S. Catholic opposition to “sectarian” Bibles as connected to Biblical reading, interpretation, and translation. The second part discusses the Counter-Reformation roots of the Catholic critique of Protestant Bible translations as allegedly false and heretical. The third part analyzes the Irish precedent for reapplying the “false translation” argument in their nineteenth-century struggles against British imperialism and later U.S. Protestantism. The fourth part examines attacks on the King James Bible as a “sectarian” translation during the school Bible controversy in the U.S. (popularly called the “Bible Wars”) when Catholics denounced it as riddled with deliberate theological and textual errors corrupting the faith of Catholic children attending public schools.

The Historiography of the “Bible Wars” and “Sectarian” Bibles

Since the publication of Ray Billington’s classic work, The Protestant Crusade (1938), America’s school Bible controversy has been depicted as a conflict over methods of Bible reading and interpretation.3 Indeed, the public school’s manner of Bible reading—without note or comment—Catholics considered a “sectarian practice.” This view frustrated Protestants, who, guided by ideas of personal freedom and direct spiritual revelation, generally believed the Bible’s truth must be allowed to speak for itself, freed from the confines of doctrinal (i.e., papal) interpretation. The individual, Protestants thought, need only read the text, and the moral and spiritual messages that God wished to communicate would be clearly understood. Catholics had significantly different ideas about freedom and the source of religious truth and divine revelation, stemming from the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and the Counter-Reformation approach to the Scriptures. The Bible, according to Trent’s decrees, must have been read with ecclesiastically approved notes to protect the reader from misinterpretation and false doctrine. [End Page 48] Hence, Catholic priests and laity tended to affirm that Bible reading without such notes of approved interpreters of Scripture constituted a sectarian practice, reflecting an erroneous Protestant belief in sola scriptura, undermining the Catholic Church’s authority to interpret biblical truth.4

Studies of school Bible Wars have appeared intermittently since the late 1960s, describing the controversy as an example of assimilation and integration difficulties within the American educational system.5 While highlighting at times the controversy’s local and regional aspects, scholars have followed Billington’s analysis. Several studies have admirably described the conflict’s unfortunate anti-Catholic outcomes, including riots, whippings, and even the violent tarring and feathering of the Rev. John Bapst, a priest in Ellsworth, Maine.6 That Protestant nativists generally misunderstood Catholic opposition as an affront to the Bible and biblical Christianity is also widely recognized.7 As for its origins, Catholic resistance to sectarian Bible reading practices and offensive anti-Catholic textbooks in schools have been offered as the chief explanations.8 Only a few scholars have concluded that disagreements over Biblical translation or the disputed canon of Scripture fueled the confrontations...


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