Local History: Parents Uneasy About Religious Instruction At Abingtons Public School Took Their Case To Court In 1895
Nearly 125 years ago, students at Waverly’s public school began their day with religion.
The children participated in “religious exercises fashioned somewhat after those of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” The Scranton Republican reported on March 21, 1895. “First, a psalm is read, teachers and pupils reading alternate verses.”
Then the school’s principal, F.C. Hanyon, “would have each pupil arise and repeat a psalm or a portion of one which has been assigned to him or her,” and then the students would sing a song from an “evangelical gospel hymn book,” the newspaper reported.
Some parents raised concerns about the school’s morning tradition, but the final straw came during an assembly at Waverly school, where a traveling missionary asked students to raise their hand if they “loved the Lord,” the same article said. “There were a few who kept their hands down and they were stingingly rebuked.”
A group of parents, led by school Director George E. Stephenson, filed paperwork in county court to stop Hanyon from “reading the Bible and holding religious exercises in the school.” He was represented by John P. Kelly and E.C. Newcombe.
A court hearing began two days later, with a large number of Waverly residents attending the proceedings. Stephenson took the stand first and described what he saw when he visited the three-classroom school on March 1, 1895.
He said pupils gathered in Hanyon’s office at the start of the day and sang a hymn that began, “We shall never say goodbye in Heaven,” according to the March 24, 1895, Scranton Republican about the previous day’s hearing. “A reading from the King James version of the Bible followed, and then the 32nd Psalm was read in a responsive way.”
Students sang another song and recited another psalm with their teachers, Stephenson said.
Several students also testified at that hearing, saying the school’s opening exercises followed much the same pattern each day. Parents took the stand and said they shared the view that school was not the proper place for religious exercises.
School board’s duty
Lawyers for Hanyon and the school argued that the court case was an effort to “control the school through the Court of Common Pleas,” according to a March 25, 1895, Scranton Republican article. “He contended that the matter was in the hands of the school directors (and) if Mr. Hanyon was violating the law or the constitution, the board of directors are neglecting their duties in not stopping him.”
It seems the school board was split as to whether to bar the religious exercises at the school — Stephenson and the Rev. D.N. Vail tried to have them discontinued but school directors N.C. Mackey, J.L. Stone, John Hall and Lester Stone “would not permit them to be discontinued,” according to the March 25, 1895, article.
That article also reported that Stephenson, which was sometimes spelled Stevenson in news stories about the case, did not have the support of most of the community regarding the court case.
At a community meeting several days before, Stephenson “was ... declared by resolution to be at variance with the community and it was the sense of the meeting that he should desist in his war upon the Bible in the schools or resign his position as a school director,” The Scranton Republican article reported.
Somewhere along the way, though, a judge ruled that Stephenson’s filings had no legal standing. The case was amended and the names of four Waverly school board members added as defendants, according to newspaper articles outlining the history of the case.
The new case wound its way through the court system, eventually concluding two months later with arguments by H.M. Hannah, who represented Hanyon and the school. He said the principal did not “grate upon the conscience of any of the pupils,” and that “if it was the purpose of the constitution to exclude the Bible from school they would have said so plainly,” according to the May 25, 1895, article.
Newcombe countered that the Supreme Court in Wisconsin had ruled on several relevant cases, including one that deemed reading the Bible — even without comment — a form of worship “and the place where it is read necessarily becomes a place of worship,” according to that article.
Exactly how Judge Frederick William Gunster ruled is unclear. The case was appealed and, more than three years later, Judge H.M. Edwards issued a ruling in the case that stated he agreed with Gunster’s earlier ruling, “except that the injunction might have been modified so far as to allow the Bible to be read” without comment, according to a Sept. 8, 1898, Scranton Times article.
“The reading of the Holy Scriptures ... as part of the opening exercises in our public schools does not violate any constitutional provision,” he wrote. “The injunction in this case should be denied and the bill dismissed.”
Erin L. Nissley is an assistant metro editor at The Times-
Tribune. She’s lived in the area for more than a decade.
Contact the writer: localhisto