By Tom Collins

It was June 1875 and the Arizona Territory was in an uproar.  Why?  Because public schools were under attack.   Edmund Francis Dunne, recently appointed Chief Justice of the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court, was urging Catholics to stop paying taxes that supported public schools.  Public schools were too secular, in his view. Administrators were holding fast to their belief that pupils should not be required to start the school day with prayer.  Dunne denounced the Common School system and condemned the action of the Territorial Legislature in defeating a bill to give the Catholic Schools a part of the money raised for Common Schools.  A staunch Catholic and believer in religious education, he proposed the abolishment of public schools.

 In a resounding speech delivered on February 20, 1875, in the hall of the House of Representatives, Dunne argued, “Can we maintain our social organization without a high standard of morality, and do you think we shall get it from a system of Godless education?”  He further maintained that the State had no right to teach religion, no right to teach irreligion, and, in fact, had no right to teach at all.  (Arizona Citizen, May 29, 1875).

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Chief Justice Edmund Francis Dunne, pictured on the left, favored Catholic schools over public schools. Thomas J. Butler, on the right, fought Dunne by arguing that secular schools were not necessarily “godless” (Dunne photo courtesy of book “Arizona Territorial Officials I: The Supreme Court Justices 1863-1912,” by John S. Goff, p. 68 & Butler photo courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum Library and Archives Call Number: PO-1882pc).

In Prescott, the new editor and part owner of the Arizona Weekly Miner, Thomas J. Butler, spearheaded the opposition to Dunne’s propositions.  Born in Indiana circa 1824, Butler had distinguished himself from 1877 to 1884 as the Territory Treasurer, then served as Secretary of the Republican County Central Committee and Vice President of the First National Bank of Prescott in 1884.  In a brilliantly composed editorial (June 18, 1875), Butler countered, “May we not as well claim that Judge Dunne’s court in Tucson is a godless court because the Judge does not open it with prayer?  It is not reported that the attorneys sing hymns or chant psalms as a part of the daily exercises, nor does U.S. District Attorney McCaffry pronounce a benediction when it closed, yet it is not considered godless or wicked simply because it is secular.  Neither officers nor litigants are supposed to go to court for the purposes of worship, but to perform a secular duty and do justice between man and man.”

Quoting the New York Times, Butler went on posit that it was vain to call a school “godless” because it is secular.  “A school-master is not ‘godless’ who teaches arithmetic, reading, and the other branches accurately, and deals with his pupils in a truthful and kind spirit.”  Judges, lawyers, bankers, and shoemakers, he argued, “may all be good Christians and exemplary church members, yet, if they devote all their time to the church and none to secular affairs, they will soon become a burden upon the church as well as upon society; they will accomplish nothing for themselves or the church, of a temporal character, and will, of course, become useless to the church and to the world.  So with the child whose whole school life is devoted to religious training.”

Butler argued that pupils are supposed to go to school to prepare for a life of usefulness in the world, “and unless its whole after existence is to be consecrated and devoted exclusively to religious observances it is folly to appropriate the week day schools to religious training.”  He pointed out that Christianity sets apart a day for religious worship, “. . . and if one in seven is enough for the devotional exercises of the church after arrival at adult age, surely one should be enough in which to teach it in childhood.”  Butler’s editorial concluded, “If no immorality or irreligion is taught in the day schools we fail to see any good cause for terming them “Godless.”

In the end, the public schools survived.  At the urging of Governor Safford and other legislators, and in the wake of negative attention on the both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, President Ulysses S. Grant, who had originally appointed Dunne to his position in the Arizona Territory, resolved to remove him in December 1875.   Grant appointed Col. Charles G.W. French of Sacramento in his stead.   Butler, cautiously optimistic and exhibiting his Protestant bias, warned that the Senate could “. . . not afford to ignore the issue, which the Pope of Rome has chosen to force upon our government through his votaries in this country” (Arizona Weekly Miner, December 17, 1875).

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com.