Ronald Reagan? Ashley Cooper? Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr.? David Condon? The Farmer’s Daughter? Norine Carman? Sam Levenson? Charles Rose? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The topic of prayers in schools in the U.S. has been controversial for many years. Humorists have reacted with quips such as:
- As long as algebra is taught in school, there will be prayer in school.
- As long as there are final exams, there will be prayers in our schools.
Apparently, U.S. President Ronald Reagan employed this joke. Would you please explore this remark?
Quote Investigator: In 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court delivered landmark decisions concerning school prayer. The judges restricted compulsory prayers in school.
Versions of the jest under analysis began to circulate after these key events; however, the quip can be expressed in many ways which makes it difficult to trace. The earliest instance known to QI appeared in a column by Ashley Cooper in the “The News and Courier” of Charleston, South Carolina in May 1964. The scribe referred to himself comically as “Lord Ashley”. Ashley Cooper was a pseudonym for the bestselling author Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The Supreme Court may try to ban prayers in school, but there’s no way to ban the silent ones. Lord Ashley predicts that as long as there are final examinations in school, there will be prayers.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A couple weeks later “The Akron Beacon Journal” published an anonymous instance: 2
“As long as there are final exams in schools, there always will be prayers in schools.”
In September 1964 the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois printed an instance within the long-running column “In the Wake of the News” by David Condon, but the attribution was largely anonymous: 3
You can rest assured there will be prayers in our schools as long as there are final exams. — The Farmer’s Daughter.
In November 1964 an instance appeared within a column titled “The Things I Hear” published by “The Indianapolis Star” of Indiana: 4
There’s no real reason to worry about the ban on prayers in school, says Mrs. Norine Carman. As long as there are exams, there will be prayers in school.
In 1965 “The New York Times” printed a short item titled “A Final Amen” from the Associated Press news service which reported that the joke appeared on a sign in Florida: 5
Sign spotted today on a Fort Lauderdale drive-in restaurant marquee: “As long as there are final exams, there will be prayers in our schools.”
After humorist Sam Levenson died in 1980 a syndicated column printed a collection of his jokes which included the following: 6
Sam on religion: “We should not permit prayer to be taken out of the schools. That’s the only way most of us got through.”
In the 1980s legislation about school prayer was formulated by U.S. politicians, and the topic returned to newspaper pages. In May 1982 “The Sunday Pantagraph” of Bloomington, Illinois published this thematic humor: 7
THE ISSUE — If prayer makes school comeback, would supplication for good algebra test grade be allowed?
In May 1982 the “Trenton Times” of New Jersey printed the following: 8
The Court never said children can’t pray in school. It said a teacher can’t stand up in front of the class and make them pray.
Well do we remember Miss Picky’s algebra tests. You’d better believe we prayed before, during and after them, without Miss Picky suggesting it.
In March 1983 a newspaper in Arlington Heights, Illinois printed a version of the quip: 9
Some educators like to joke that as long as there are surprise math tests, there will always be prayer in the public schools.
In 1984 a U.S. President employed the joke during a Cabinet meeting as described in “The Boston Globe” of Massachusetts: 10
… President Ronald Reagan chose a brief discussion of a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in public schools to break the tension.
“As long as there are final exams,” he reportedly said, “there will always be prayer in the schools.”
Also, in March 1984 a similar joke was spoken by a Congressman as reported in the “Washington Post”: 11
“As long as there are math tests, students will pray in the schools,” Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.) said.
In April 1984 a newspaper in Garden City, Kansas ascribed an instance to an unnamed U.S. Senator: 12
As one senator put it, “so long as we have algebra tests, we’ll have children praying in school.”
In 2001 syndicated columnist Molly Ivins mentioned prayer in school: 13
Prayer in school is quite perfectly legal, and is especially common before algebra exams.
In conclusion, the earliest instance of the joke known to QI was penned by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. under the pen name Ashley Cooper for a column in a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper in May 1964. He is currently the leading candidate for originator; however, future researchers may antedate this citation. This, the ascription is tentative. Ronald Reagan told the joke after it had been in circulation for multiple years. Ronald Reagan told the joke after it had been in circulation for multiple years.
(Great thanks to Gerald Williams whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located germane citations beginning in 1983. Further thanks to Popik who conducted additional research after QI posted this article and located some fine citations such as the ones dated May 6, 1964 and May 28, 1964. Additional thanks to Dan Goncharoff who determined that Ashley Cooper was the pen name of Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr.)
Update History: On August 15, 2018 citations dated May 6, 1964 and May 28, 1964 were added. In addition, the fact that Ashley Cooper was a pen name of Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. was added. On August 27, 2018 the 2001 citation was added.
- 1964 May 6, The News and Courier, Doing the Charleston by Ashley Cooper, Quote Page 8A, Column 4, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1964 May 28, The Akron Beacon Journal, Facts and Fads: Overheard by Earl Vicariu, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964 September 22, Chicago Tribune, In the Wake of the News by David Condon, Quote Page D1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1964 November 30, The Indianapolis Star, The Things I Hear: Irate Housewife Gets Action by Lowell Nussbaum, Quote Page 21, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) link ↩
- 1965 January 7, New York Times, A Final Amen (Associated Press), Quote Page 16, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1980 October 5, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Levenson’s quips spiced with philosophy by Marilyn and Hy Gardner (Field New Service), Quote Page 13, Column 2, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1982 May 9, The Sunday Pantagraph, Faith of fathers needs no school-prayer crutch, Quote Page A10, Column 1, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1982 May 10, Trenton Times, Forced Prayer, Quote Page A6, Column 1, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1983 March 21, The Daily Herald (Daily Herald Suburban), New fight prepared for school prayer by Paul Gores (Herald Staff Writer), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Arlington Heights, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1984 March 4, Boston Globe, Escalating tension–and stakes–in Gulf: Critical new stage in Iran-Iraq war worries US analysts by William Beecher (Globe Staff), Quote Page A25, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1984 March 4, Washington Post, Push-and-Pull On School Prayer Comes to Senate: (continuation title: Push-and-Pull on Prayer In School Reaches Senate) by T.R. Reid (Washington Post Staff Writer), Start Page A1, Quote Page A7, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1984 April 11, The Garden City Telegram, Funeral without prayer by Stuart Awbrey, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Garden City, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2001 October 25, Chicago Tribune, Prayer and taxes, 2 things that just confound pols by Molly Ivins (syndicated), Quote Page 23, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩