In all the early American schools, including colleges, teaching was restricted mostly to religious instruction. The schools assumed little responsibility for teaching subjects like science, secular literature, or art. The Bible, used for teaching both reading and religion, was the chief textbook in the lower grades, and homes or churches were the classrooms. Other textbooks were hornbooks, the New England Primer, and the Bay Psalm Book
A hornbook consisted of a sheet of parchment pasted to a flat piece of wood with a handle, laminated with animal horn. Hornbooks featured the alphabet and also referenced the Trinity and the text of the Lord's Prayer. In 1690, the New England Primer, an explicitly Christian book, became a central textbook for the Puritans, replacing the hornbook as the chief beginner's textbook. The Primer contained the names of all the books of the Bible, the Lord's Prayer, "An Alphabet of Lessons for Youth," the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Westminster Catechism, and "Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments for their Soul's Nourishment," by the Reverend John Cotton.
The Primer's Christian emphasis can also be seen in its illustrated rhyming verses for each letter of the alphabet, beginning with "In Adam's fall We sinned all," and ending with "Zaccheus he Did Climb a tree His Lord to see." The Primer was a staple of school instruction for more than one hundred years, and was second only to the Bible in popularity, with five million copies reportedly in existence for a population of around four million people. It was commonly said that the primer "taught millions to read, and not one to sin." The Bay Psalm Book rendered the
Psalms in verse and was the New England colonists' hymnal. Webster's Blue-Backed Speller, which was based on "God's Word" and originally published in 1783, was used for about one hundred years. Reportedly, through the years more than one hundred million copies of the Speller were sold .
Not only were textbooks explicitly Christian, but ministers commonly doubled as schoolteachers. George Washington firmly believed in the indispensability of Christian training for good government. "True religion," he said, "affords government its surest support. The future of this nation depends on the Christian training of our youth. It is impossible to govern without the Bible." Noah Webster, renowned American educator and founder of the famous dictionary bearing his name, was equally convinced that Christianity and education were mutually dependent. "In my view," said Webster, "the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children under a free government ought to be instructed No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people."
Fifty years after the Constitution was ratified, the Christian influence remained dominant in schools, as evidenced by the presence of the Christian-oriented McGuffey's Readers, compiled by minister and professor William Holmes McGuffey, in schoolhouses throughout the land. It is estimated that between eighty and ninety million of these books were sold over the course of their history and at one point more than half of all American schoolchildren used them.
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