Bible Study

During the early part of the twentieth century, British Columbia witnessed significant changes in the educational system and its curricula. Under Dr. G. M. Weir, the advocate of progressivism in education in British Columbia, the public school system incorporated a variety of new programs into the curricula � including a Bible study option. Although "religion" had been a controversial and passionately debated subject, a Bible study syllabus was eventually accepted and approved in accordance with the provincial Public School Act. In 1941, the subject was introduced into the curriculum on an extra-mural basis in public schools, with the objective of advancing the moral, religious and academic aspirations and attributes of British Columbian students.

The first initiative to examine the need for the Bible study option in public schools, as detailed in the 1925 Survey of the School System, was jointly undertaken by H. J. Putman and G. M. Weir. In their survey, Putman and Weir reported that it was 'commonly asserted' there was a desire for the implementation of some form of religious and character training in public schools because Sunday School programs and agendas were proving to be 'wholly insufficient' in this regard.1 Even though it appeared that various groups and individuals sought to somehow incorporate Bible instruction in the schools there had been, up until the time of the survey, no flexibility or agreement among the various denominations for a common curriculum to achieve this objective.2 Putman and Weir resolutely decried the degree of discord exhibited by the citizens of British Columbian, in that they could not attain a "stage of social enlightenment and toleration" which would allow them to finally "sink all petty differences" and coalesce in a crusade to promote moral and religious education in their public schools.3 According to Putman and Weir, it became obvious that although there appeared to be a considerable groundswell of support to teach the Bible in public schools, there were clearly intractable barriers preventing the curriculum changes.

This Bible study proposal challenged Christian denominations to compromise on dogma in order to procure a common doctrine suitable for teaching in British Columbian schools. Putman and Weir made it unequivocally clear in their 1925 survey report that 'sectarian or denominational character' had no place in the classroom.4 Certain groups and individuals, such as Monsignor F. Challoner from the Roman Catholic Church, balked at this aspect of the curriculum proposal, in that he desired to have sectarian influences present in the schools. Challoner insisted that it was the prerogative of his Church to 'inculcate its own form of religious education' in the public school system. This sort of philosophical intransigence concerned many British Columbian citizens. A majority of the opponents to Bible study in schools did not object to the moral and spiritual teachings involved but feared that such fundamental changes might culminate in separate school systems in British Columbia.5 To avoid conflict while adhering to the explicit Public School Act policy, which precluded sectarian teaching, Weir invited representatives of various Christian denominations to meet and approve an imitative prescribing that each group present compile and submit a report detailing desired Bible course content from their perspective. The meeting was convened in May 1940.6

Although many clergy, parents and teachers favoured the introduction of non-sectarian Bible teaching in public schools there were, nevertheless, strident voices of opposition. Some British Columbians, such as T. H. Staverman, expressed their disapproval in newspapers. In a letter to the Vancouver Sun, Staverman contended that children did not need a religious book to teach them right from wrong and to build good character, but rather their consciences should provide them with the essential guidance needed to achieve this end.7 In another letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun, "A Christian" stated it was only equitable to leave religion "entirely out of public schools" and that there was no evidence that children from Christian homes possessed more commendable character attributes than those who chose not to read the Bible.8

Despite a minor chorus of opposition, the public seemed to be in favour of the Bible Studies initiative. Not only did Parent-Teacher Associations and school boards support Weir in establishing Bible study in a "suitable presentation to children," but a majority of the general public also reacted favourably.9 Indeed, some people believed that studying the Bible was so essential that the Public School Act should be amended so that "all children would be required to participate in the classes, rather than only those students who elected to do so."10 Because the Second World War was such an anxious time, many people turned to the Bible for assurance.11 The Reverend Andrew Rodan declared that the "high ideals and principles for which men are dying on the battlefields" could not be well established in the future unless these truths are instilled in the minds of the emerging generation.12

Finally, in 1941, fifteen years after Putman and Weir advocated the incorporation of Bible study in the public school system, the first curriculum was introduced to British Columbia's public schools. The various churches and denominations had finally reached agreement on the specific non-sectarian Biblical literature which could be taught in the schools. As the Putman-Weir survey had established, students in grades nine to twelve could take this new course and receive academic credit for successfully completing it. The course was divided into four parts, each part comprising one full credit which could be used to complete the fifteen high school elective credits required to meet the university entrance prerequisite.13 The Minister of Education assured the general public that the Bible instruction was not compulsory or 'ordered in the classroom,' but was being offered "extra-murally" to provide a broader scholastic exposure for children who expressed interest in the religious discipline of study.14

After confirming the public's partiality for a potential Bible study course, Weir, based on the advice of other stakeholders, recommended that regular teachers not be used to teach the course but that instructors from outside the public school system be utilized, much like the extra-mural music programs for the pianoforte and violin. The first Bible study course curriculum of September 1941 specified that the course was to be taught by "Accredited representatives of the Church," rather than in normal classroom settings by regular teachers.15 The Minister of Education also created a standard examination format for Bible study students to write in order to obtain the elective credits necessary for high school graduation.16

To ensure the desired results were achieved in this initiative, five primary Bible study objectives were emphasised in the new Bible study curriculum. The first objective was intended to furnish an 'adequate historical and geographical background for an intelligent reading of the Bible'. This provision coupled the Biblical lessons to course material presented in Social Studies. The curriculum suggested that a variety of academic texts such as the Historical Geography of the Holy Land by George Adam Smith and the History of the Hebrew Commonwealth by Bailey and Kent � accompany the Bible.17 To this end, an entire unit in the curriculum was devoted to studying and outlining maps as well as identifying the geographical locales at which Bible events actually occurred.18

The second objective of the Bible study curriculum related somewhat to the first, in that it was designed 'to explain what the Bible is and how it came into being'. Several supplementary textbooks - such as How We Got Our Bible and How Came the Bible by J. Patterson Smyth - were specified for Bible study instructions here, too.19 The unit devoted to this study dwelt on the genres of authors and books of the Bible, as well as an examination of the indigenous languages and writing methods used in the original manuscripts.20

The third stated objective meant to ensure that students gained an "appreciation of the English Bible as literature." In their survey, Putman and Weir reported that several respondents expressed a desire for the Bible's introduction into high school classrooms as a work of literature and that it be numbered among the 'English classics.21 The curriculum also stipulated that a unit of memorization be added to ensure students were cognizant of and learned to appreciate the intrinsic value of the Bible as a profound literature source. The Bible students were thus required to memorize passages such as "The Ten Commandments," "David's Lament," "Two Ancient Hymns," "Remember now thy Creator" and "What the Lord requires."22 These scripture selections reflected requests that parents and teachers had submitted for passages which confirmed the Bible to be "one of the greatest literary achievements of all time."23

The fourth objective detailed for the Bible study curriculum was designed to establish the Bible as an "essential element in the culture of every educated man and woman," in that no other book written has exerted such an enlightening "influence upon the English race."24 A woman identified only as '" A Housewife" in the Vancouver Sun letters section, said the Bible was the "national book," the foundation of "Canadian ways" and so was essential to maintain a sense of the nation's commendable character and reputation.25 The Bible study curriculum quoted Dover Wilson's thought-provoking statement that "apart from all questions of religion, when the English people ceased to take an interest in the English Bible they lost the traditional basis of their national culture and no substitute has since been found."26

The fifth and final objective of the Bible study curriculum may be most important in enhancing academic studies, in that it was intended to provide pupils with a greater understanding of the "fundamental truths of religion and their bearing on human life and thought." To further promote this objective the curriculum went on to state that through their lessons, the students should gain a more intimate knowledge of "Christ as a living personality immediately present in life'" as well as "His teaching as a body of precepts is no way remote from life but immediately related to it in all its aspects." The students were thus expected to learn how to live by the precepts presented in the Bible in order to enhance personal character development and to bolster the moral code. Putman and Weir concluded in their survey that the problem with society was not that individuals lacked the ability to render moral and prudent decisions, but rather that they failed to generate the 'motivation' needed to use their intuition and conscience in a rational manner.27 This last objective encompasses one of the primary motives of these two men, wherein they professed the desire not only for each student to develop to his or her maximum potential, but where they also stressed the students' duty to harmoniously strive for their goals and develop an acute sense of 'social ends and obligations'.28

This final objective was also strongly voiced among the general public with considerable acclaim. For example, on discovering Weir's efforts to introduce the Bible study curriculum in schools, the Reverend Hugh Dobson proclaimed that it was a "valuable step" in teaching the future generation the inherent benefits of "Christian morality."29 W. T. Straith, a leading figure in the coalition government in Victoria, affirmed that the Bible is unequivocally the "basis of Christian civilization."30 One Vancouver Sun editorial ventured that it is the "highest form of good citizenship" to understand the fundamentals of the Bible, and that it is essential for students to learn how to apply its vital lessons to all aspects of life, consistent with the "universality of all Christian doctrine and practice."31 The curriculum succinctly concluded by emphasizing the great importance of this objective and by encouraging pupils to aspire to grasp the precepts exhorted in the Book of Micah, that being "in all activities�to love mercy, to do justly, and walk humbly."32

When J.H. Putman and G.M. Weir conducted their survey on the state of the British Columbia educational system, they acknowledged the whole-hearted desire expressed for some form of Biblical study in the public school system. These men realized that such a program would be difficult to implement because, up to this juncture, the various churches and denominations had been unable to agree on a curriculum which would serve and satisfy the common doctrinal ground of all religious stakeholders involved. However, rather than continuing to insist on the teaching of sectarian doctrines the participants graciously answered the challenge and worked with G. M. Weir to create a common Bible study curriculum acceptable for British Columbia's pupils.

As parents, teachers and those involved in the education ministry moved toward implementing Bible instruction in the public school system, accolades and support were received from the public. By 1941, Education Minister G. M. Weir had successfully navigated through many of the obstacles and managed to assuage public concerns, particularly where apprehension regarding the potential prospect of separate sectarian schools was expressed. This initiative was finally consummated by pooling input from the various churches involved and then devising a suitable program to present Biblical instruction extra-murally to high school students. In this way, students were exposed to a broader, more fruitful understanding of Bible fundamentals, while adroitly circumventing the sensitive issue of dogma and the problems which could potentially arise from competing and conflicting creeds.

Contributed by Moriah Shaw, History 349, Malaspina University-College, September 2003.

1 J. Harold Putman and George Moir Weir, Survey of the School System (Victoria: Printed by C. F. Banfield, 1925), p. 53.
2 Putman and Weir, Survey of the School System, p. 54.
3 Ibid., p. 55.
4 Ibid., p. 53.
5 Vancouver Sun, 17 October 1940: 21.
6 Ibid, 14 May 1940: 20.
7 T. H. Staverman, 'Bible in Schools,' Vancouver Sun, 14 November 1940: 4.
8 Vancouver Sun, 7 March 1944: 9.
9 Vancouver Sun, 17 September 1940: 20.
10 Vancouver Sun, 20 June 1941: 5.
11 Emilie L. Montgomery, "The war was a very vivid part of my life: The Second World War and the Lives of British Columbian Children," Children, Teachers & Schools in the History of British Columbia, ed. Jean Barman, Neil Sutherland and J. Donald Wilson (Calgary: Detselig, 1995): 174.
12 Vancouver Sun, 14 May 1940: 20.
13 British Columbia, Department of Education, Bible Study I (Victoria 1941): 1.
14 Vancouver Sun, 14 May 1941: 20.
15 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 1.
16 Henry Evans. Interview by the author. Phone conversation (1March 2003).
17 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 6.
18 Ibid., I, 7.
19 Ibid., I, 5.
20 Ibid., I, 7.
21 Survey of the School System, p. 54.
22 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 10.
23 Survey of the School System, p. 54.
24 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 3.
25 Vancouver Sun, 22 October 1940: 4.
26 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 3.
27 Donald Wilson and David C. Jones, Schooling and Society in Twentieth Century British Columbia (Calgary: Detselig, 1980), 94.
28 Ibid., p. 95.
29 Vancouver Sun, 20 June 1941: 5.
30 James Dyer, 'Controversy Feared from Bible Reading,' Vancouver Sun (7 March 1944), p. 9.
31 The Vancouver Sun, 25 February 1944: 6.
32 British Columbia, Bible Study I, 4.