A young student in New England stands up against a long held tradition in a public school for reasons of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. His example leads to a student uprising that is a model of non-violent civil disobedience. The actions of the student(s) polarizes the community, gains national attention and is used as an example of the encroachment of strange ideas infiltrating the American way of life by conservatives (and some liberals).
I’m not talking about my niece, 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist of Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, 2011, I’m taking about 10-year-old Thomas J. Whall of the Eliot School in Boston, Massachusetts, 1859. What Whall did in 1859 and the public reaction to it provides an interesting comparison not only to the prayer banner case, but also to the recent controversy over the demonstrators who shouted down Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in a polarizing example of civil disobedience.
John T. McGreevy gives an excellent distillation of what has come to be known as the Eliot School rebellion in his book, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (2003). Most of the information for this post come from McGreevy’s book, but a quick and dirty article on Wikipedia also has most of the salient details.
On March 7, 1859, Thomas Whall refused to recite the ten commandments because he was a Catholic, forbidden by his religion and his conscience to read aloud from a Protestant King James Bible. It should be noted that in Massachusetts at that time, such readings were required by law. At first, Whall’s father, the school principal and some school committee members attempted to work out some sort of compromise, but a school committee member, Micah Dyer, formerly of the anti-Catholic and appropriately named Know-Nothing Party, “insisted on adherence to the letter of the law.”
Poor Thomas Whall was in a terrible pickle. A priest, Father Bernardine Wiget, had warned the boy and several hundred of his classmates that reading aloud from the King James Bible brought the children into the damnable realm of “infidelity and heresy.” When called upon to read from the wrong book, Wiget insisted that the children instead bless themselves and recite the Catholic Bible versions from memory. Wiget even threatened to read aloud from the pulpit the names of any boys who failed in their Catholic duties.
Emboldened, and perhaps more fearful of being named in church as a sinner than actually suffering eternal damnation, Whall stuck to his guns in school, and for his troubles an assistant principal, McLaurin F. Cooke, beat the boy’s hands with a rattan stick for thirty minutes, “until they were cut and bleeding.”
Such was Whall’s punishment for his civil disobedience. In solidarity, first 100 and then 300 boys were sent home from the school for refusing to follow their lessons. Some even ripped the offending Protestant passages from their schoolbooks in a fit of wanton public vandalism.
Whall and his father sued Cooke for “excessive force.” Cooke’s defense attorney asked, during the trial, “Who is this priest who comes here from a foreign land to instruct us in our laws?” and added, “the real objection is to the Bible itself, for, while that is read daily in our schools, America can never be Catholic.”
Whall became a hero to the Catholic community throughout the United States. Just as Jessica Ahlquist received a scholarship from grateful atheists and humanists from all over the world, so did Whall receive tributes, such as “…a goblet from the Cathedral schools of Covington, Kentucky, and gold medals from nativity in New York City and St. Mary’s in Alexandria, Virginia.”
Conservative Republican newspapers were less impressed, comparing Catholicism to the “monster institution of human slavery.” A leading Boston abolitionist claimed that if Protestant Christianity is removed from our nation’s schools, “…we shall convert the schools of the Puritans into heathen temples…” In other words, chaos, and a complete collapse of everything we in America hold dear.
Given that there are large differences between the situation Whall found himself in and the Ray Kelly talk at Brown University, was Whall’s civil disobedience the correct response? Should Whall have, as so many people have said concerning the protesters at Brown University, simply advocated for change within the rules established by the school and the government?
Further, given the hard won history of Catholic religious freedom in the United States why do so many conservative and Catholic commentators so strenuously argue, even today, against the righteousness of Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit? Bloggers Justin Katz and Travis Rowley and radio show shock jock John DePetro, all Catholics, have come out against both Jessica Ahlquist and the protesters at Brown. I am sure they will see no resemblance between three cases I am citing, but that’s my point: Is it intellectually and morally honest to pick and choose what instances of conscience and protest are good and proper based only on our pre-established prejudices?
DePetro and others love to spread the lie that Jessica Ahlquist only did what she did for the money, as if the scholarship money was the ultimate goal. Would these people be as willing to claim that Thomas Whall protested and endured punishment simply to receive golden goblets and medals? Such a charge is ridiculous, yet prejudices we should all be familiar with from our history still cloud the perceptions of some.
How easily those opposed, for political and religious reasons, forget the lessons of our past. Compare, for instance, the term “Catholic aggression” to the oft used “atheist agitator.”
“We are opposed to Romanism, but not to Romanists,” said Reverend Fuller back in 1857, intimating that good Catholics, like silent atheists and Humanists today, knew their place. The lie back then was that America was a Protestant country, with no room for Catholics or other religious minorities, unless they were silent and willing to settle for second class citizenship. A similar lie is being perpetrated today, that America is a Christian country.
It is not.
America was founded by white people, but we are not a nation of white people.
America was founded by men, but we are not a nation of men.
America was founded by Christians and deists, but we are not a nation of Christians and deists.
10-year-old Thomas Whall is a classic American hero. He practiced non-violent civil disobedience, and fought for freedom of conscience. His sacrifice and his victories went a small way towards making our country more true to its essential ideals and his efforts should be remembered by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but more importantly, we should not be so quick to dismiss those who carry on the tradition of Thomas Whall today.
We need them now as much as we ever did.