Riots over the Bible? Yes. In Philadelphia.

Image above: “Riot in Philadelphia, June [i.e. July] 7th 1844.” By H. Bucholzer. From the Library of Congress, in the public domain.


When we think of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, we think of the wars following the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. The United States, we assume, has followed a policy of free expression of religion, as promised in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]

Sad to say, that is not true. I would like to share with you (briefly) the story of the “Philadelphia Riots of 1844.” In two episodes in May and July of 1844, pitched battles occurred between two groups: Protestant “nativists” (people, including clergy, who feared foreigners, especially Catholics and their “popery”) and Catholic newcomers, most of them Irish immigrants. As many as 58 people were killed—Protestants, Catholics, and members of the militia that was belatedly sent out to quell the riot. [2]

Historians tend to blame the “nativists” for starting and perpetuating the riots and the Irish crowd for bringing out guns and killing the first victim, setting the stage  for retaliation.

Background of the Bible Riots

Clearly, a lot of events—and years—preceded these deadly outbreaks. The increasing number of Irish Catholics and their supposed threat to American  Protestant culture were key. Add to that a depressed economy in the 1840s.

But the immediate cause of the riots was an escalating conflict over the use of the Protestant Bible (the King James version) in public schools.[3]

Universal public schools (also called common schools) were a new phenomenon in the United States.  In Pennsylvania there had been publicly financed schools for the “indigent,” but in 1834 the state legislature adopted the Free School Act, which authorized state-financed public schools for all.  By 1837, Philadelphia had a system of public schools.

Because Americans thought religion to be the prime way to teach morals, the school day usually began with a reading from the Bible. The vast majority of school leaders were Protestant, so that meant reading from the King James version. This conflicted with the Catholic Church’s teachings. Catholics had their own Bible, called the Douay (or Douay-Reims) Bible, which was first translated in 1582 from the Latin Vulgate Bible. The Vulgate had been written by St. Jerome in the fourth century.

The 1619 version authorized by King James I, a Protestant, was based on Greek and Hebrew sources, presumably, but not exactly, the sources Jerome relied on. The Douay Bible (revised substantially in 1750) was like the King James version in many ways. However, it included annotations (“notes and comments”), some of which disputed King James’ passages and Protestant theology.

Reading the Bible each morning was only one way to bring religion into the classroom. Even though the school board’s regulations and the Pennsylvania state constitution both forbade “sectarian” teaching, children sang hymns from the Sunday School Union Hymn Book, compiled by Protestants.  Religious texts were used in class and available in the library.

In 1842, a Catholic teacher was fired for refusing to read the Protestant Bible in her school. This led the Philadelphia bishop, Francis Patrick Kenrick, to write to the Philadelphia school board. Not only did he express sympathy for the teacher, but, more important, he laid out the issues for Catholics.[4]

    • Requiring the King James version would lead Catholic children “to view as authoritative a version which is rejected by the Church.” (He explained that “several books of Divine Scripture are wanting in that version and that the meaning of the original text is not faithfully expressed.” But he didn’t elaborate further, he said,  because he was not asking that the KJV be removed but that the Catholic Bible be allowed.)
    • Children also took part in “religious exercises” including hymn-singing. He pointed out that to do so was “not consistent with the laws and discipline of the Catholic Church for her members to unite in religious exercises with those who are not of their communion.”
    • More generally, he wrote, “It is but just to expect that the books used in the schools shall contain no offensive matter, and that books decided hostile to our faith shall not under any pretext be placed in the hands of Catholic children.” 

The Philadelphia School Board Responds

In January 1843, in response to the bishop’s petition, the board restated its policy of having no sectarian books in the library or sectarian teaching. But the board also said;

RESOLVED, that those children whose parents conscientiously prefer and desire any particular version of the Bible, without note or comment, be furnished with the same. [5]

This was clever, to say the least. As Diethorn says, “Besides the King James version, other versions included the Mormon, Abner Kneeland’s, Alexander Campbell’s, the Baptist, and the Unitarian . . . . None of these had notes or comments, but the Catholic Bible did.”[6]  So the Douay Bible was still excluded.

The grounds for anger remained and worsened. Bishop Kenrick was verbally attacked for trying to oust the  King James version from schools—clearly untrue. The anger exploded in the deadly riots in parts of Philadelphia (Kensington and Southwark) in May and July 1844. In addition to the deaths, two churches were burned down and many houses ransacked.

The riot ended, but the conflict continued. It led to the creation of a Catholic school system whose enrollment reached 5.2 million in 1960. [7] Enrollment has fallen precipitously since then—as reading of the Bible in public school has all but disappeared. [8]


Notes (Comments follow the notes.)

[1] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . . “

[2] Lloyd P. Jorgensen, The State and the Non-Public School, 1825–1925 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 83.

[3] The late Bernard Diethorn discussed the riots in the 380 pages of his Ph.D. dissertation, “City of Brotherly Hatred: The Philadelphia School Controversy.” Order No. 6704605, Case Western Reserve University, 1966.

A shorter source is: Vincent P.  Lannie  and Bernard C. Diethorn. “For the Honor and Glory of God: The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1840.” History of Education Quarterly 8, no. 1 (1968): 44–106.

[4] Quoted in Diethorn, 130–132.

[5] Quoted in Diethorn, 134.

[6] Diethorn, 135.

[7] Table 205.70. Enrollment and Instructional Staff in Catholic Elementary and Secondary schools, Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Educational Statistics,

[8] Louisiana is about to require display of the The Ten Commandments.


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John C. Goodman is President of the Goodman Institute and Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute. His books include the soon-to-be-published updated edition of Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, the widely acclaimed A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America, and New Way to Care: Social Protections that Put Families First. The Wall Street Journal and National Journal, among other media, have called him the “Father of Health Savings Accounts.”


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