H is for Hornbook, M is for Moses, N is for New England Primer


This was a mini-essay I wrote for one of my classes on the history of education in the United States.

New England has a tradition of valuing education, sometimes for reasons that wouldn’t be as socially acceptable to hear from administrators today. The early settlers believed that they were doing something important, and following God’s will, an ethos that influenced many of their policies for centuries. (Woodward) This meant that they kept careful records, a boon to contemporary historians, which also meant that they prized literacy and bookkeeping. A combination of the religious beliefs that the unexplored parts of the American frontier were Satan’s home, and that the devil tries to trick the ignorant into sinning, were also important. This led to the passage of the “Old Deluder Satan” act, mandating reading and writing teachers as well as Latin teachers in every town with enough families. In a New England town school, children learned from two types of texts. The younger children would memorize a sheet of parchment called a hornbook, which would teach words, syllables, sentences and the alphabet. Older students read the New England Primer.

The hornbook and the New England primer were early version of standards, as this was material every student had to learn. There weren’t grades the way we have now, as some towns couldn’t afford teachers for every age group. So it was hornbooks for the youngest students, and the primer for the older ones. A specific curriculum was difficult because of the understanding that students would have irregular schedules, due to family obligations (IE- helping out in the farm) or weather. Travelling through rural Massachusetts is difficult enough after a blizzard in the days of snowplows.


The Primer was the book, after the Bible, most studied and read in New England during a pivotal time in American history. This was a shared frame of reference for several generations of New Englanders, many of whom would rarely interact with anyone who wasn’t familiar with the primer. It is believed that two million were published, although only fifty copies remain intact, in 40 different editions. The differences between the editions are often relatively small (a 1727 and 1762 edition might have a slightly different version of a prayer about Adam’s fall.) A typo (“I pray the lord” instead of “I pray thee lord”) that appears in a 1738 edition is not corrected in a 1775 reissue.

A sample New England primer from 1777 provides prayers for children to memorize, and teaches the alphabet with biblical characters and concepts (D is for deluge, V is for Vashter, etc.) As children in different ages read the material, there are portions of increasing difficulty. There is a sense of moral certainty, with religious rationale, and clear instructions, such as “love your neighbor as yourself,” “fear God all day,” “Be you to others kind and true” and “Abhor that arrant whore of ROME, and all her blasphemies,”- a reference to Catholicism. This isn’t a document about grey areas, questioning authority, or advocating multiculturalism and tolerance of other belief systems. It was very Calvinist.

Columbia’s Teacher’s College published an edition of the New England Primer in 1962 as part of their Classics of Education series (Polishook). It had been the first printing of the pivotal work in fifty years, coming just after the Supreme Court came to a modern understanding of the separation of church and state as it applies to public schools, in contrast to a previous view where it “has never encompassed a strict cleavage between education and religion.” (74) The mix of moral and academic teaching can be efficient, as multiple lessons are reinforced at the same time, a variation of today’s interdisciplinary learning.

The hornbook and the primer have to be understood in the context of their time. Religion dominated the understanding of what children should be taught, as “Education in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a pathway to godliness, not a search for truths and convictions which the Puritans believed were already known and established.” (73) The idea that every student should learn represents significant progress over earlier historic eras, even though we now understand the need to be more accommodating of different faiths and creeds. There was a sense of moral clarity, lost in the current era, although we would all be horrified at proposals to teach someone else’s specific beliefs on controversial topics like religion to every child in today’s society.

This does raise some interesting questions.  How do we teach morals in a skeptical and multicultural era? If the people of New England did the right thing (the emphasis on education) for the wrong reasons (the belief that the Devil has a preference for the area) can we and should we take advantage of similar misunderstandings today? While there have been many gains with the greater appreciation for diverse worldviews, what’s been lost? To consider whether something has been lost is not to claim that the tradeoff was detrimental.

Works Cited:

THE NEW ENGLAND PRIMER. (1777). Retrieved November 14, 2015, from http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/nep/1777/

The New England Primer. Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710-1775. Trent and Wells, eds. 1901. Colonial Prose and Poetry. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2015, fromhttp://www.bartleby.com/163/304.html

Polishook, I. (1964). The New England Primer: Classics in Education, No. 13. History of Education Quarterly, 4(1), 72-74.

Woodard, C. (2011). American nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America. New York: Viking.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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