A young student in New England stood up against a long held tradition in a public school for reasons of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The student’s example led to a student uprising that was a model of non-violent civil disobedience. The actions of the student(s) polarized the community and gained national attention. Critics see the students’ actions as an encroachment of strange religious ideas infiltrating the American way of life.
I’m not talking about my niece, Jessica Ahlquist of Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, 2011, I’m taking about 10-year-old Thomas 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 my niece’s prayer banner case, but also to the controversy over the demonstrators who shouted down Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and even the walk-out organized by the Providence Student Union (PSU) when Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. Each of these student led actions were polarizing displays 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 attempted to work out some sort of compromise with the school principal and some school committee members, but 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.”
Thomas Whall was now in a moral conundrum. Whall’s 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.” Wiget insisted that the children, when called upon to read from the wrong book, 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 and read aloud from the Protestant bible.
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 1859. 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.
Having entered the realm of property damage, many today would declare that Whall’s rebellion was no violent in nature.
Whall and his father sued assistant-principal 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 for pursuing a lawsuit that successfully removed a Christian prayer banner from the wall of her public school auditorium, 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 with Whall’s rebellion, 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.
Today we must ask ourselves: Was Whall’s civil disobedience the correct response? Should Whall have simply advocated for change within the rules established by the school and the government?
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 non-violent student protests? If Whall’s actions were right and good then so were the actions of Jessica Ahlquist, the Brown University students shouting down Ray Kelly and the Providence Student Union walk-out. We must ask ourselves: 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?
How easily those opposed to protest forget the lessons of our past and sacrifices made on their behalf. Those whose ancestors were attacked with the term “Catholic aggression” easily use the words “atheist agitator.”
“We are opposed to Romanism, but not to Romanists,” said a Reverend Fuller back in 1857, intimating that good Catholics, like silent atheists and Humanists today, know their proper 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 Protestants and deists, but we are not a nation of Protestants 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 enlightenment 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.