Study It, Swear on It: They Gave Bibles With Diplomas

Do you still have your Commencement Bible? (We won’t ask whether you’ve read it.) If you graduated before 1972, it might be among your memorabilia.

From 1842 until the University closed during Reconstruction, UNC presented members of the graduating class with Bibles.

Bible given at Commencement 1970On the motion of the Rev. A.D. Betts (class of 1855), 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 until Carolina got cold feet about the public perception of taxpayers buying Bibles for students at a public university.

Hugh Stevens ’65 recalled: “At our Commencement, everyone receiving a BA or BS degree was offered a choice of three Bibles: the King James for Protestants, another for Catholics and an Old Testament edition for Jewish students.” Stevens, who also earned his law degree from UNC in 1968, is a member of the committee that helped organize his class’s 50th reunion this spring.

Commencement Bibles were free to the graduates. In 1971, Chancellor Ferebee Taylor ’42 responded to questions about the practice by appointing a committee, which was asked to determine whether state funds were used to defray the cost of buying and distributing the Bibles; and to make a recommendation as to whether their distribution should be continued. The cost then was about $18,000.

The committee’s report, submitted in March 1972, concluded that the way the University’s books were kept, one could not trace the purchase of Bibles back to any particular fee or other University receipt. The collections from the general academic fee, state general fund appropriations and other receipts all went into a fund from which the purchases of the Bibles were made.

To the question of whether the practice was appropriate, the committee concluded that, if challenged, it likely would be found to violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause concerning the separation of church and state. The report urged UNC not to wait until a citizen sued and forced an end to it. 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.”

A news report said, “UNC has a large supply of Bibles in stock and will continue to furnish them with diplomas upon request as long as they last.”

This article was adapted from one written by Hugh Stevens for the class of 1965’s  50th Anniversary Yackety Yack, a regular feature of Carolina’s 50th reunions. You can see the book at Stevens says he kept his Bible in his law  office for many years, but it disappeared.  He can’t say it wasn’t useful. “My best guess,” he writes, “is that someone borrowed it to swear in a deposition witness and it never got returned to me.”

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