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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg October 24, 2016

Clinton: School boards' anti-Catholic scare tactics in 1928 election

A warning to political junkies: This has very little to do with the burning issues of the presidential campaign. Sometimes, we just like to fact-check claims about history.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton dropped an intriguing nugget in our laps when she spoke at the Alfred E. Smith memorial dinner in New York on Oct. 20, 2016. After making joke after joke at Donald Trump’s expense, Clinton turned serious and reminded her audience of the anti-Catholic bigotry Al Smith faced when he ran for president in 1928. Most of the arguments against Smith stemmed from the belief that Smith would be a puppet for Rome and the pope. One conspiracy theory was that the pope and Smith would ban protestant versions of the Bible.

"It is important to just reflect how groundbreaking it was for him, a Catholic, to be my party's nominee for president," she said. "Don't forget, school boards sent home letters with children saying that if Al Smith is elected president, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible."

We wondered if that was so.

The Clinton campaign pointed us to a New York Times article from 2011. In the article, historian Robert Slayton at Chapman University described the hysteria stirred up by Smith’s candidacy. 

"Feelings were so strong that they swirled into a hurricane of abuse, a crescendo of fear and hate blasting through eight weeks," Slayton wrote. "The school board of Daytona Beach, Fla., sent a note home with every student. It read simply: ‘We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is elected President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.’ "

Clinton made the school boards plural; Slayton only mentioned one.

We asked Slayton if he had an image of the note. He didn’t, although he said the anecdote might have come from a 1932 book The Shadow of the Pope by Michael Williams.

We tracked down the book in the stacks at the Georgetown University library. Williams described something appreciably different from what Clinton and Slayton had said.

Williams wrote about a Sunday school -- a class held on Sundays to teach about religion --, not a public school board.

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"On September 16, 1928, a Sunday school in Daytona Beach, Fla., (said the Daytona Times), was reported as acquiescing in a plan whereby the children were handed cards and told to pass them on the their mothers.

"It is stated that the cards declared: ‘We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the Presidency. If he is chosen President, you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.’ "


Williams went on to write that this plan "is reported to have originated in St. Paul, Minn., and to have been used in other places." So it’s possible that other Sunday schools did this, but we don’t really know.

We’ve tried without luck to find the Daytona Times report. If anyone reading this is able to find the article, or find an example from St. Paul, we welcome the help.

Our ruling

Clinton said that in 1928, school boards sent kids home with a note warning that if Al Smith were elected president, they would not be allowed to own or read a Bible.

It appears that reference tracks back to a 1932 book, and a newspaper article before that, that spoke of a Sunday school in Daytona Beach passing out a note. There is a chance that other Sunday schools in other states did likewise, but we don’t have proof of that. There is a big difference between a Sunday school and a public school. 

The anti-Catholic sentiment Clinton talked about was real and there’s credible evidence that the note she described went home with some children. But her statement is only partially accurate.

We rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

C-SPAN, Hillary Clinton at Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, Oct. 20, 2016

New York Times, When a Catholic Terrified the Heartland, Dec. 10, 2011

Robert Slayton, Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, The Free Press, 2001

Michael Williams, The Shadow of the Pope, McGraw-Hill, 1932

Michael Pasquier, Religion in America: The basics, 2016

Joseph Cummins, Anything for a vote: Dirty tricks, cheap shots and October surprises in U.S. presidential campaigns, 2007

St. John Fisher College, Anti-Catholicism v. Al Smith: An Analysis of Anti-Catholicism in the 1928 Presidential Election, December 2011

George Mason University, Should a Catholic Be President?: A Contemporary View of the 1928 Election, accessed Oct. 21, 2016, Ahead of Al Smith Dinner, Cardinal Dolan says Hillary owes Catholics an apology, Oct. 19, 2016

Email interview, Robert Slayton, professor of history, Chapman University

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Clinton: School boards' anti-Catholic scare tactics in 1928 election

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