Schools and religion have long been a volatile combination, sometimes a focus of violent hostility. In 1853, a Swiss-born Jesuit priest objected to the town of Ellsworth’s requirement that Catholic public school students read the Protestant (King James) version of the Bible in class.

Father John Bapst presented a petition of 100 Catholics requesting the option to read the Catholic (Douay-Rheims) translation or none at all. The School Committee rejected the request as, among other things, instigated by “a Catholic Priest, of the order of Jesuit … a foreigner by birth, education and allegiance.” One committee member said, “We are determined to Protestantise the Catholic children – they shall read the Protestant Bible or be dismissed from the schools.” In November, the committee did expel 16 Catholic students for refusing to read the Protestant version. “Know Nothings,” members of a nativist political party, stirred up sentiment against Father Bapst and Catholics generally; the local newspaper, the Ellsworth Herald, exacerbated the controversy with vitriolic editorials and cartoons.

In April 1854, the dispute moved to Ellsworth’s Hancock County courthouse. Fifteen-year-old Bridget Donahoe and her father sued school officials for expelling her over her refusal to read the Protestant Bible in class. Bangor lawyer James S. Rowe represented the Donahoes; Ellsworth native John A. Peters was defense counsel. Justice Joshua Hathaway accepted Rowe’s offer of proof of what the Donahoes’ evidence would show concerning the expulsion, and reported the case to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to decide whether those facts, if proven, could support the Donahoes’ requested relief.

But violence was afoot. On June 3, an Ellsworth mob broke Father Bapst’s house windows; on June 6, the new Catholic church windows were broken; a week later, gunpowder blew up the old church the Catholic school used for classes; on July 6, a mob set fire to Bath’s Catholic church about 85 miles away. On July 8, the Ellsworth Town Meeting authorized $600 in town funds to defend against the Bible-reading lawsuit. Blaming Bapst, it voted that if he should again step foot in Ellsworth, “we manifest our gratitude for his kindly interference with our free schools, and attempts to banish the Bible therefrom by procuring for him and trying on an entire suit of new clothes; such as cannot be found at the shop of any tailor; and that when thus appareled he be presented with a free ticket to leave Ellsworth upon the first rail road operation that may go into effect.” Unsurprisingly, the Bishop of Boston ordered Bapst to stay out of Ellsworth.

The Ellsworth School Committee engaged Richard Henry Dana Jr., Boston’s famous author (“Two Years Before the Mast”) and abolitionist lawyer, to handle the case. (Dana recently had courageously but unsuccessfully defended Anthony Burns in the infamous Fugitive Slave Act trial in Boston and had been mugged walking home to Cambridge after the decision on June 1.) Dana traveled by steamboat from Boston to Portland, railroad from Portland to Waterville, and stagecoach from Waterville to Bangor (10 hours for the last 50 miles). He and Rowe argued the case before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on July 22, 1854.

Dana argued Ellsworth schools used the King James version simply as a reading text, and expostulated:


“It is not a ‘Protestant Bible.’ … As a well of pure English, undefiled, as a fountain of pure idiomatic English, it has not its equal in the world. It was fortunately – may we not, without presumption, say providentially – translated at a time when the English language was in its purest state. It has done more to anchor the English language in the state it then was, than all other books together. The fact that so many millions of each succeeding generation, in all parts of the world where the English language is used, read the same great lessons in the same words, not only keeps the language anchored where it was in its best state, but it preserves its universality, and frees it from all material provincialisms and patois, so that the same words, phrases and idioms are used in London, New York, San Francisco, Australia, China and India. To preserve this unity and steadfastness, the Book of Common Prayer has done much, Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan have done much, but the English Bible has done tenfold more than they all!”

Eloquent, but there was also prejudice. Dana asserted the School Committee “did not introduce – they only continued in use, in the schools in Ellsworth, the old English Bible, the only Bible the English tongue recognizes and owns. And now they are accused not of introducing a new book, but of refusing, at the demand of a few recently arrived naturalized citizens, to subvert the customs of their fathers.” In other words, immigrants were to blame.

Rowe, on the other hand, contended: “Our whole case proceeds upon the ground that the reading of the scriptures was required as a religious exercise. The Bible is the religious book of Christians.” Rowe argued that if the School Committee contended they were not using the Protestant Bible for religious purposes, then “the jury should be allowed to pass upon the question for what purpose it was used.”

While the parties awaited a decision, Bapst turned up in Ellsworth on Oct. 14. When news of his presence spread, a mob implemented the July 8 Town Meeting resolution by violently seizing and stripping the 39-year-old priest, tarring and feathering him and riding him through town on a rail. Newspapers throughout the country decried the horrific event. Bangor called a public meeting to denounce the occurrence and awarded Bapst a gold watch to replace his stolen watch. On Dec. 8, a bottle containing a small part of his torn clothing was placed under the cornerstone of St. John’s Catholic Church then being built (and still standing) in Bangor. But criminal prosecution of the perpetrators was unsuccessful. The Bangor Journal reported: “The Attorney General Mr. Evans states that the evidence against the persons charged with the crime, clearly identifying them, was stronger than he ever presented to a similar body. There were 16 on the (grand) jury. In each of the 12 or 15 cases presented, the vote was seven for (indictment) and nine against. The nine are understood to be members of a secret organization. Our worst fears are realized.”

On May 30, 1855, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court finally decided Ellsworth’s Bible-reading dispute. Justice John Appleton wrote for a unanimous court vindicating the School Committee. He trivialized the religious issue by reducing the dispute to the question who could choose the translation of a school text, the School Committee or a student. Maine statutes gave School Committees the power to decide what books should be used in public schools. Appleton reasoned, “If they may select a book they may require the use of the book selected,” and “the use of the Bible as a reading book is not prohibited by any express language of the (state) constitution.” Moreover, “the instruction here given is not in fact, and is not alleged to have been, in articles of faith. No theological doctrine here was taught. … The Bible was used merely as a book in which instruction in reading was given, … and for the information contained in it, as the Koran might be.”

Appleton made short shrift of the Donahoes’ arguments based on the Maine Constitution. Their strongest argument invoked Maine’s constitutional demand “that no subordination nor preference of any sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.” Appleton ruled this clause limited the power of only the Legislature, not the School Committee, and “the selection of a school book is no preference within this clause.” Likewise, two other prohibitions (no religious test; no penalty for religious sentiments) simply did not apply to Bible-reading.


In short, Maine public schools could compel Catholic students to read the Protestant version of the Bible.

The next year (1856), Swiss Father Bapst became a United States citizen. That same year a mob burned down Ellsworth’s Jesuit-built church. In 1863, Bapst became the first president of Boston College. Bapst died in 1887, age 71, and is buried in the Jesuit Cemetery at Woodstock, Maryland. At life’s end, he experienced nightmares of his tarring and feathering.

Dana became United States Attorney in Boston during the Civil War; argued a case before the United States Supreme Court regarding the United States’ right to blockade Confederate ports; participated in prosecuting Confederate President Jefferson Davis for treason in 1867 and the 1868 decision to terminate the prosecution, and was nominated ambassador to the United Kingdom. Accusations of plagiarism in revising a legal text prevented Dana’s confirmation as ambassador. Deeply offended, he moved abroad in 1876 and died in Rome in 1882, age 67. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there.

No more is known about the Donahoes or lawyer Rowe. Defense counsel Peters went on to become chief justice of Maine, probably the only judge with a pudding named after him (“Judge Peters Pudding,” featured in a Marjorie Standish cookbook).

Over one hundred years later and after the post-Civil War 14th Amendment made the First Amendment religion clauses applicable to each state, a Pennsylvania high school student challenged compulsory Bible reading and Lord’s Prayer recitation. He did so by silently reading the Quran during his class’ mandatory reading of 10 Bible verses. His case went to the United States Supreme Court. In Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities and that “such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education” is permissible. But vindicating Rowe’s argument for the Donahoes and contrary to Justice Appleton’s 1855 reasoning, the Supreme Court held that the public school exercise of Bible readings even without comment amounts to a religious ceremony and is therefore impermissible under the United States Constitution.

Abington School District v. Schempp is now the law of the land. But the public debate on religion in connection with schools continues. For example, this June, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Montana could not exclude religious schools from a program of tuition assistance for parents who send their children to private schools. Additionally, several states have recently considered, and some have enacted, legislation to provide courses on the Bible in public schools. The intersection of religion and schools remains a fraught topic in this country.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.