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Of Bibles and Bennetts: Battles over language and religion in the 1890's

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

By the late 1800s the German immigrants who poured into Wisconsin after statehood outnumbered the Yankees who had first settled the state. One of the major friction points between Yankees and Germans was religious instruction and use of German in the schools.

These disputes led the Wisconsin Supreme Court to issue one of the nation's earliest decisions affirming the basic American principle of separation of church and state. In 1890 Bible instruction was common in the public schools. Most schools used the King James Bible, the Yankees' preferred version. German Catholics preferred the Douai version and felt they were discriminated against.

That year, a Milwaukee lawyer named Humphrey Desmond challenged the use of the King James Bible. He argued that the preference of one version of the Bible over all others constituted "sectarian instruction," which was prohibited by the Wisconsin Constitution. The Court agreed. It emphasized Wisconsin's policy had always been to make children of all faiths welcome in its schools, and said that would not be changed now:

Most of these immigrants to Wisconsin came from countries in which a state religion was maintained and enforced. What more tempting inducement to cast their lot with us could have been held out to them than the assurance that, in addition to the guaranties of the right of conscience and of worship in their own way, the free district schools in which their children were to be educated, were absolute common ground, where the pupils were equal, and where sectarian intolerance could never enter?

The Court's decision angered many Yankees, but it soon attracted favorable attention in legal circles and became recognized throughout the United States as a landmark case.

Many immigrant groups set up their own parochial schools in order to preserve the culture of the old country in the new land they had adopted. This was particularly true of the Germans, who were often criticized by temperance forces for their love of beer drinking and Sunday recreation and continued use of their native tongue. In the late 1880s a call arose for new laws holding parochial schools more accountable to state government and requiring them to teach in English.

In 1888 William Hoard made this call the successful theme of his campaign for governor. The next Legislature passed a law introduced by Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville. The law required all schools to teach in English and allowed children to attend only parochial schools located in their district. The local attendance provision was devastating to areas which were too poor or thinly populated to support local parochial schools.

When the Germans realized the full implications of the Bennett Law, they rebelled. They denounced the law as a nativist assault on their culture and as an attempt by the Yankees to foist their language and values on all Wisconsinites, willing or not. Some supporters of the Bennett Law praised it as a victory in "the war against bigotry, ignorance and ... exclusive and pestilent foreignism." But the immigrants carried the day. In the 1890 election Governor Hoard and his supporters were swept out of office and the new Legislature quickly repealed the law.

Ironically, the defeat of the Bennett Law turned out to the be first step toward the final assimilation of Germans into mainstream Wisconsin culture. Though the immigrants won, they were struck by how strongly many Wisconsinites supported English and assimilation. In order to prove to their opponents that Bennett-type laws were unnecessary, the Germans began to increase their use of English voluntarily. In 1899 the Legislature passed a new law limiting use of foreign languages in schools. Twenty years later, after a wave of anti-German hysteria in World War I, foreign language schools virtually disappeared from the state.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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