Date of Award


Document Type




First Reader

Dr. Johnny Wink

Second Reader

Professor Bryan McKinney

Third Reader

Dr. Doug Sonheim


For centuries, society has debated the issue of book censorship. Before Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1455, the burning of hand-scribed books destroyed limited copies and guaranteed they would not be read. With the printing press, books could be produced in greater numbers; yet, printed speech was still a commodity that could be controlled. In 1517, Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther's Ninety Five Theses, an early example of religious censorship of materials deemed dangerous or subversive. Political censorship quickly followed when Emperor Charles V issued the Edict ofWorms, containing a "Law ofPrinting" which banned the printing, copying, sale, or reading of Luther's writings (Foerstel xi). Beginning in 1564, the Catholic papacy promulgated its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). Compiled by the Holy Inquisition in Rome, the Index listed the books and authors Catholics were prohibited from printing or reading. This censorship system was finally abandoned in 1966, the last list having been published in 1881 and last revised in 1900 (Karolides 156). Protestant censorship during this time relied more on the state as the source of censorship. In England, the crown issued censorship regulations that were then enforced by civil agencies. However, Europe's heterogeneity and lack of political cooperation allowed authors to have their books printed in other countries, thereby avoiding local censorship (Foestel xii).

In the nineteenth century, a social consensus on censorship emerged. Private virtues and propriety became grounds on which books were examined. Ann Alter claims, in her introduction to the 1984 New York Public Library exhibition on censorship, that there may have been more censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, during the nineteenth century in the United States and England than during all the preceding centuries (Foestel xii). In the twentieth century in America, book censorship debates continued, predominantly centered around the interpretation of the First Amendment. Today, the debate goes on.

Throughout history, books have been banned and suppressed due to the beliefs of the times. As society changes, many books that were once banned become acceptable and many even become classics such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird or Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Books that were once deemed inappropriate, such as James Joyce's Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, now appear on college courses' required reading lists (Karolides IX). While these books have not changed, the social environment has.

Huge strides have been made against book censorship; yet, twenty-first-century society continues to debate the issue of free speech versus book censorship. At the close of the twentieth century, several infamous book censorship incidents gained international media coverage. Many who are familiar with the title The Satanic Verses (1988) know of Salman Rushdie's novel not because they have read the book but because of the massive media coverage of the international controversy it spurred. The Satanic Verses led to public outcry, numerous bomb threats, violent demonstrations, a death edict against Rushdie issued by the Iranian government, and a three million-dollar reward for Rushdie's death. In the United States, J.K. Rawling's Harry Potter series ( 1997-2007) created controversy when religious fundamentalists claimed it promoted satanic worship, witchcraft, and occultism. Book burnings, church sermons, boycotts, and media coverage of the controversy reminded Americans that book censorship is still an active issue today.

Most censorship attempts in the United States today challenge books available in libraries and taught in the classroom. The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 3,869 book challenges in school or public libraries during the years of 2000 to 2007. Research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five which go unreported. If that is correct, the number of challenges made in the United States between 2000 and 2007 could easily be 19,000 (American Library Association).

As a Christian and English major at a Baptist university, I believe this issue is particularly relevant to my life. How has the history of book censorship impacted society today? What are the current United States Supreme Court rulings on book censorship? How does book censorship affect my education at a private Baptist university? Where should I draw the line between valuing literature as art and staying true to my faith? These are the questions I hope to answer.



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