Jewish Response to School Prayer

A controversy in San Francisco in 1875 concerned a proposal by a Protestant minister to restore religion to the “Godless” schools by having the students recite the Lord’s Prayer. Joseph R. Brandon, a prominent San Francisco Jew, responded forcefully to this proposal.

Letter of Joseph R. Brandon in Response to the Reverend Mr. Hemphill:

Mr. Hemphill, in his cry about Godless schools, evidently represents that class of men who must see the name of God stamped upon everything; who are uneasy because it does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, and are continually agitating to get it there, as the first step to sectarianizing the Government. What doctrine is this? Cannot things speak of God to the soul of man without the letters of His name being graven upon them? Do flowers speak to us of Him? Yet we find not His name on them. Do we see the lightning assume the form of the letters of His name, or hear the thunder pronounce the sound? Yet, they  speak to us of Him. Does the wind shriek His name to us in the tempest, or whisper it in the zephyr? Yet they speak to us of Him. Do the heavens declare His glory, and the earth His handiwork:  “There is no speech, there is no language, yet their voice is heard.” And if the name of God does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, surely to him who has God in his heart His hand is seen therein, and he may exclaim with the magicians of Egypt, “The finger of God is here.” . . .

The hope of all thinking men as the means to this end is education—education of the highest order—the cultivation of science, the exercise of reason, unlimited  in its objects; but to this end it must be UNSECTARIAN. None must be shut out from that light, which is to dissipate the clouds of bigotry and prejudice, and hasten the appearance of the cloudless sky of which we have spoken, and whence the heavenly dew distills.

Education—unsectarian education is the hope and salvation of the Jew, as of all who have passed through religious persecution; for it is from the deep, dark clouds of ignorance, which bespeak its absence among men, that the direst shafts of bigotry and persecution which have fallen upon our people and others have proceeded. Well, indeed, and earnestly may we labor for its diffusion, and seek not to drive children from, but to persuade and invite them to the common schools by removing all obstacles in the way.

Let our education be of the widest kind. Let reason and religion, too long divorced, too long at enmity, be reconciled. Let all of us, with free thought and free, unsectarian education, seek to lift ourselves and our fellows above the clouds of ignorance, sectarianism and prejudice, until these clouds can be dissipated.  .  .  .

No, reader; because sectarian prayer has not been permitted in the schools, the friend of true education and true religion need not wail with Mr. Hemphill—that a battle has been lost—that Rome has conquered. He may rather rejoice that free thought, free education, free religion has gained a victory over the churchmen of all denominations; that the great principle has at last been enunciated, that the State, which should be the common parent and protector of all its children—majority or minority, few or many—will not lend its aid to dispense the particolored light of any particular sect, but only that colorless, illuminating principle which is common to all; and let us fervently hope, and at the same time be vigilant, that sectarianism, whether in the garb of Catholic priest, or Protestant minister, rob us not of the victory.

[From L.P. Gartner, ed., Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History (New York: Teachers College Press, 1969), 91-93. © 1969 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.]