Thursday, June 21, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 3, Eden - What We Once Knew

As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. I'm in the process of moving into a new home in North Carolina and have had limited Internet access - so my posting has not been too frequent in the past couple of weeks, and will probably be sporadic for the next couple of weeks - but for now, here you'll find my notes for the first part of Chapter 3: Eden (What We Once Knew).

Chapter 3 marks the start of Prothero's historical investigation of religious literacy in America. One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was "Sola scriptura," "By Scripture alone," which was a defense of Bible-reading as a conduit for the grace of God: "So teaching reading became an act of nearly unparalleled piety, and acquiring basic literacy a religious duty." [60] Prothero provides quotations from both Catholic and Protestant decrees mandating the establishment of literacy education in the American colonies in the 16th and 17th centuries.

With the advent of the American Revolution in the 18th century, there was an added civic need for literacy: "Now children needed to read not only to be good Protestants but also to be good citizens - to free themselves from the tyranny of popes as well as kings." [60] He includes this fine quote by James Madison: "A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." [61] To a limited extent, the literacy drive was even promoted among African Americans and Native Americans.

One such example that Prothero cites is Cotton Mather's North Church in Boston which provided an evening school for Indians and blacks. That is definitely a scene that intrigues me greatly; it's one of those places and moments in history that I would love to be a "fly on the wall" just to see and hear what went on there.

Prothero notes that although the motto was "sola scriptura," there were many catechisms in use, with hundreds of different catechisms circulating in the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. Harry Stout, a church historian, concluded that an "average weekly church-goer in New England [...] listened to something like seven thousand sermons in a lifetime, totaling somewhere around fifteen thousand hours of concentrated listening" - which Prothero notes is about ten times the amount of lecturing that a college student hears during their career. [63] Outside of church, people were reading religious books at home: "as late as the early nineteenth century roughly two-fifths of the books in family libraries in rural New England were devoted to sacred subjects." [63]

Some of the titles which Prothero lists are Philip Doddridge's The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Richard Baxter's The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Lewis Bayly's The Practice of Piety and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Bunyan is an author with many works that you can find online, as listed here at the Penn Online Books page. One of the great things about these historical titles is that they are in the public domain, and thus increasingly likely to be found online so that we can explore them for ourselves! Of the three books that Prothero listed, I only recognized one - Pilgrim's Progress - and I will confess that I have never read it, although I probably should (I use the phrase "slough of despond" all the time, which I believe derives from that book...?)

The religious learning that was promoted in this time was strictly Protestant, as Prothero explains: "The religious literacy that early Americans possessed was Protestant literacy of a sectarian sort. What they knew were the basic teachings, core practices, key values and Bible stories of Protestant Christianity as their particular denominations understood it." [64]

In the 17th century, families were actually required by law to teach their children at home, and Prothero cites the laws of various colonies to the effect that both children and servants in a household should be taught to read and instructed in religion. Writing was a skill taught to boys only, as it would serve them in their future careers, but reading was taught for religious purposes, to both girls and boys. There were adaptations of the Bible for youngsters, such as Spiritual Milk for Babes: Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, Chiefly for the spiritual nourishment of Boston Babes in either England: But may be of like use for any Children, by John Cotton, publishing in 1646. I was also able to find this online at the University of Nebraska! It's heavy-duty stuff, with scriptural citations for each question-and-answer, such as: "What is your corrupt Nature? My corrupt Nature is empty of Grace, bent unto sinne, and onely unto sinne, and that continually."

Prothero puts special emphasis on the scriptural focus of sermons in these early New England churches: "preachers rarely colored their sermons with tales from their own lives or the lives of their parishioners. They did biblical exegesis in the plain style, often for as long as two hours at a stretch, typically from notes or a complete manuscript." [67]

The passage of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 did outlaw federal religious establishments, but the advent of religious freedom only strengthened church attendance: "the vast spiritual marketplace brought on by the First Amendment would provide virtually all Americans with a religious option they could call their own. So church attendance boomed, and religious congregation sbecame even more effective transmitters of religious knowledge." [68]

During the 17th century, the home education effort became a school-based effort. Throughout the 18th century, "children learned their ABCs from scripture-saturated schoolbooks or from the Good Book itself." Then, in the early 19th century, immigration, particularly of Roman Catholics, made the schools a focal point for "Americanizing" the population. This was a specific concern of Protestants, who were alarmed by the increasing numbers of Roman Catholics: "From their early-nineteenth-century beginnings, common schools were very much a part of an unofficial yet powerful Protestant establishment. [...] They were religious in their leadership, faculty, curricula, and aims. Their textbooks called the Bible the Word of God, and their teachers endeavored to turn out not just good citizens but good Protestants." [71]

Prothero provides a detailed description of the first textbook in the colonies: the "hornbook," a one-page lesson on a board covered with a laminate of animal horn. Here is a page on the Internet where you can see some examples of hornbooks for yourself! Prothero then moves on to a discussion of the New England Primer, the most important American schoolbook throughout the 18th century. The religious bent of the book is entirely clearly, as from the alphabet rhyme, which begins:

A In Adam's Fall / We sinned all.
B Heaven to find; / The Bible Mind.
C Christ crucify'd / For sinners dy'd.

It also contains this famous prayer for children: Now I lay me down to sleep / I pray the Lord my soul to keep / If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Thanks to the wonderful Sacred Texts website, you can read the New England Primer (1777 edition) online. You should really take a look - the whole thing is fabulous. It also includes "Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments," etc. etc.

In the 19th century, Noah Webster's The American Spelling Book dominated: "Aggregate sales estimates converge in the range of 70 million, making Webster's speller one of the best-selling books of all time, behind only the Bible and perhaps Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung." [74] Although it is a secular book, the speller is full of Bible quotations and religious material. The first reading lesson goes like this:

No man may put off the law of God.
My joy is in his law all the day.
O may I not go in the way of sin!
Let me not go in the way of ill men.

Do you see the trick? Each word has only one syllable and no more than three letters. Supposedly easy for beginning readers, but there's definitely nothing childish about the sentiments expressed here! I found a copy of Webster's spelling book online also, and it is also full of wonderful things. Given that I am a proverb-fanatic (see my Latin audio proverbs blog), I was delighted by the proverbs:

Soon hot soon cold.
A good cow may have a bad calf.
He is a fool that will not give an egg for an ox.
You cannot have more of the cat than her skin.
He that lies down with dogs, must rise up with fleas.

There are even Aesop's fables, too (another of my personal passions, for which see So I guess I was born in the wrong century. Noah Webster's speller is definitely the book for me: Bible passages, fables and proverbs. That is the kind of literacy that resonates with me, even though I was not taught any of that in the schools I went to in the early 70s. I really owe Prothero a debt for having alerted me to the existence of these books. I promise an essay on the Aesop's fables in Noah Webster very soon!

Those are just my notes for the first half of this chapter; I'll have to come back and do the second half of the chapter next time. This was, I'll admit, my favorite part of Prothero's book since it introduced me to a world of texts that I knew must have existed, but which I had not known much about. What a delight to find that they are available online for our perusal, to supplement Prothero's basic survey of each one. So, next time I will proceed on to McGuffey's Readers - assuming I can get some Internet access in the coming days. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.

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