The “Laudable Undertaking of Mr. Aitken”
In the first letter Robert Aitken wrote to Congress, he named the place his Bible should be used. During that era, among the most common places for a Bible, the first might have been a church, the second might have been a home, and the third might have been a hospital. However, Aitken did not name any of these locations.
Rather, in designating only one place for his Bible, Aitken told our Founders his Bible should be used in schools. In his letter to Congress dated January 21, 1781, Aitken wrote, “... your Memorialist begs leave to, inform your Honours That he both begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools….”
Furthermore, when Congress responded to Aitken, they offered no objection to his intention. Per the Journals of Congress, September 12, 1782, “That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country…." Our Founders concluded, “they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States….”
Today, many may wonder how we are able to put the Aitken Bible into schools. After all, how could Congress have recommended the Aitken Bible and then written the First Amendment which prohibits the government establishment of religion? In part, the question is asked because of a misunderstanding of the “separation between Church and State” as it pertains to the First Amendment.
“Church and State”
In 1802, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson. The Baptist Association was seeking to confirm the government would not interfere with their religious practices. In reassuring the Baptist Association, Jefferson cited the First Amendment of the Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
In his reply, Jefferson used a well-turned phrase destined for fame when he invoked “a wall of separation between Church and State.” As Jefferson wrote: “… I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
To reiterate, within the context of the exchange, the Danbury Baptist Association was worried about government intrusion into church practices, and President Jefferson assured them the government would not intrude into church practices. Thus, Jefferson was stating his belief that the church should be free from the influence of the government. However, today the phrase is often used to mean something nearly the opposite: the government should limit the influence of religion in public institutions.
While that last sentiment may be valid, the point here is Jefferson did not mean that. In addition, there is further confusion over the fact “separation between Church and State” is not found in the Constitution. Rather, as cited above, the phrase refers to the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Still, the actual wording of the First Amendment contains a more nuanced meaning than the blanket statement “separation between Church and State.”
Insofar as “separation between Church and State” refers to the First Amendment, it is worth noting that the two religion clauses place two limitations on the government, not the people. To repeat the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Congress cannot establish a religion. And Congress cannot stop others from practicing a religion. These two restrictions are what Jefferson meant by the phrase “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Congress should remain neutral on religion. The government should show neither disapproval nor approval toward religion.
Bibles and Schools
Following constitutional guidelines, a school can remain neutral on religion while using the Bible in the classroom. The use of the Bible in school must not be a part of religious worship but rather a part of a secular program of education, which focuses on the literary and historic qualities of the Bible.
Regarding the use of the Bible in school, perhaps the best indication of what could be done is what has already been done. According to the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, their curriculum, which details the literary and historic qualities of the Bible, has been taught in over 3,500 high schools to 650,000 students in 41 states.
As indicated above, it is legal to use the Bible in public schools in all 50 states. Concerning the use of the Aitken Bible in school, our position is that the Aitken Bible illustrates topics addressed in state academic standards for Social Studies regarding the American Revolution. As educators teach about the American Revolution, the Aitken Bible can be used to illustrate the following five topics: Congress, culture, economics, embargo, and immigration. Indeed, in American history, no book better illustrates the literary and historic qualities of the Bible than the Aitken Bible.
Therefore, the "separation between Church and State" does not apply to our use of the Aitken Bible in school. Rather, as we donate Aitken Bibles and lesson plans to schools, we promote historic preservation through education. In addition, we should remember that Robert Aitken published his Bible for a specific purpose. He intended it to be made “for the use of schools.” Thus, with your support, the intention first stated to our Founding Fathers will be fulfilled in our time.