Author’s Note: This article, like the previous one, was written in connection with the 50-year commencement reunion of the UNC Class of 1965. A slightly different version was published in the May/June 2015 issue of the “Carolina Alumni Review.”
Did you get your Commencement Bible?
Do you still have it? (We won’t ask if you have read it.)
Beginning with the commencement of 1842, UNC presented members of the graduating class with Bibles. According to John Sanders, former director of the Institute of Government, “The practice continued until the closing of the University in 1868, apparently was not resumed upon the reopening of the University in 1875, and was terminated formally by action of the faculty on June 1, 1877.” On the motion of the Reverend A.D. Betts, a Methodist minister and UNC trustee, the Board of Trustees ordered the practice resumed in 1880, and it was still the order of the day when we graduated 50 years ago. At our commencement everyone receiving a B.A. or B.S. degree was offered a choice of three bibles: the one version (the “King James”) for Protestants, another for Catholics, and an Old Testament edition for Jewish students. If you received one of the approximately 3,000 bibles distributed in connection with our commencement, you found in it signed by the Chancellor saying, “This Holy Bible is presented to you by your Alma Mater on the occasion of your graduation.”
Commencement bibles were free to the graduates. In 1971, Chancellor Ferebee Taylor responded to questions about the practice by appointing a “Subcommittee of Inquiry on the Distribution of Bibles to Graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” chaired by Professor Sanders. The subcommittee was asked to review the history of the practice; to determine whether State funds were used to defray the cost of buying and distributing the bibles, which was then around $18,000 a year; and make a recommendation as to whether their distribution should be continued. The subcommittee’s report that was submitted in March of 1972 concluded that
The way the University’s books are kept, one cannot trace the payment for the purchase pf Bibles or their distribution back to any particular fee or other University receipt. The collections from the general academic fee, state general fund appropriations, and other receipt all go into a fund from which the Bible purchases are made.
Based on the subcommittee’s conclusion that the practice, if challenged, would likely be found to violate the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” the report urged the University not wait until some citizen sued and forced an end to the practice but instead should discontinue it voluntarily as legally insupportable. Legal considerations aside, the report also included this cogent observation:
However fitting the practice of giving Bibles to graduates in 1842 in the cultural setting of the time and place, we deem it not to be nearly so meaningful in this University today. We . . . do not conceive that a discontinuation of the practice would in any discernable way impair the moral and spiritual development of the graduates of the University. To the extent that the stimulation of such development is the University’s responsibility, our obligation must be met in the span of two to four years that the student spends on this campus; unmet then, it cannot be redeemed by mailing a five dollar Bible to his last known address.
The report recommended that the practice of giving Bibles to graduates at commencement be discontinued without fanfare, and it was.