hate in New England Primer: soil in which free speech grew

The most popular school textbook in colonial New England was the New-England Primer. It was in print by 1690 and almost surely sold more than two million copies in the eighteenth century. By 1830 it had gone through at least 360 editions, and it was still selling about 10,000 copies per year in the 1840s.[1] A modern reprint describes the New-England Primer thus:

The single most influential Christian textbook in history. Most scholars agree that most, if not all, of the Founding Fathers were taught to read and write using this volume which is unsurpassed to this day for its excellence of practical training and Christian worldview. First published in 1690, the goal of the Primer was to combine the study of the Bible with the alphabet, vocabulary, and the reading of prose and poetry. This is the book that introduced the children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and which made the “Shorter Catechism” a staple of education for American children. More than five million copies were sold in the nineteenth century alone.[1]

From its earliest versions, the New-England Primer included among its exercises for schoolchildren material about and from John Rogers. John Rogers was a Protestant minister martyred in England in 1554 under the Catholic Queen Mary I. The New-England Primer included a woodcut of Rogers’ being led to his execution fire, a brief account of his martyrdom, and a poem that Rogers purportedly wrote to exhort his ten small children a few days before he was immolated.[3] Some of the verses of the poem could pass as eternal pieties:

Give honor to your mother dear,
remember well her pain,

And recompence her in her age,
with the like love again.

But it also included sectarian invective:

Abhor that arrant whore of ROME,
and all her blasphemies,

And drink not of her cursed cup,
obey not her decrees.

Such instruction for schoolchildren would have been unimaginable north of New England in Catholic-dominated New France. When France ceded New France to Great Britain in 1763, the British establishes the Province of Quebec and forcibly repressed Catholicism. Nonetheless, even if they had sought to do so, the British colonial rulers probably could not have forced schoolteachers to teach these verses to Quebec schoolchildren.

Today, special human rights’ agencies in Canada suppress speech to an extent that almost surely would be unconstitutional in the U.S. In the U.S., bitter political debate and harsh religious polemic occurred in conjunction with the development of strong support for freedom of speech.

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[1] Ford, Paul Leicester (1897) The New-England Primer: A History of Its Origin and Development (Dodd, Mead and Co.) p. 6 states that an “over conservative” estimate is 20,000 copies sold per year across 150 years of publication and cites a source stating in 1849 that 100,000 copies had been circulated in the previous dozen years. Family Phonics provides an impressively well-researched history of the New-England Primer, along with many helpful links.

[2] The New-England Primer, 1777 edition (Vision Forum, 2003), book description from Amazon. The assertion of five million copies sold in the nineteenth century is more plausible if applied to the eighteenth century.

[3] An account of John Rogers’ martyrdom was included in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), but that work did not include a poem by Rogers. The 1690 edition of the New-England Primer included verses by Rogers to his children. See Loads, David M. (2004), John Foxe at Home and Abroad (Ashgate Publishing) p. 114. The woodcut, account, and poem can be seen in this facsimile of the 1727 edition of the New-England Primer.

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