The New England Primer was the first textbook printed for use by children in the American colonies. For more than a century it was the text used more than any other (besides the Bible) to give children a foundation for life and learning. Here are five lessons we should learn from America’s first textbook:
1. True education has God at its center.
Romans 11:36 says that all things are from God, through God, and for God. He is why all things exist. If we learn about any subject but fail to connect that subject to God, we’ve missed the point.
The Puritans who compiled The New England Primer understood this well, and centered the text on God from beginning to end. The book begins with a hymn, “A Divine Song of Praise to God, for a Child” written by Isaac Watts. It continues with a morning and evening prayer for children, uses Scriptural content pervasively throughout, and ends with these final words of counsel:
“GOOD children should remember daily, God their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; to believe in, love and serve him; their parents to obey them in the LORD; their bible and catechism; their baptism; the LORD’s day; the LORD’s death and resurrection; their own death and resurrection; and the day of judgment, when all that are not fit for heaven must be sent to hell. And they Should pray to GOD in the name of CHRIST, for saving grace.”
2. Children should be taught from an early age that their most valuable earthly possession is their own soul.
What good is it to gain the whole world if we lose our soul? The NEP focuses on the soul of the child throughout, perhaps most intensely in a mini-drama entitled “A Dialogue Between Christ, Youth, and the Devil.”
The Devil speaks to the child, saying:
Think not on God, nor sigh nor pray Nor be thou such a silly fool,
To mind thy book or go to school;
But play the truant; fear not I
Will straitway help you to a lie,
Which will excuse thee from the same,
From being whipp’d and from all blame;
Come bow to me, uphold my crown,
And I’ll thee raise to high renown.
Would’st thou live long and good days see
Refrain from all iniquity:
True good alone doth from me flow,
lt can’t be had in things below.
Are not my ways, O youth ! for thee,
Then thou shalt never happy be;
Nor ever shall thy soul obtain,
True good, whilst thou doth here remain.
Children working through the Primer were led to see that there was a battle taking place in their lives – a battle for their soul. The Primer did not stoop to a child’s silliness or trivialities, but sought to encourage the child towards sober-mindedness and maturity as quickly as possible. In a day when children had a much higher risk of dying before reaching adulthood, encouraging them to think upon matters of the soul was viewed as a matter of urgency.
3. Character matters more than intellect.
The NEP was used to help children learn their alphabet, how to sound-out words, important vocabulary, and ultimately how to read. Yet the lines used for these purposes were almost always about issues of character. The Puritans rightly saw that knowledge apart from godly character puffs up, and that children must be consistently taught to reflect on what is truly good behavior.
An example of this is “An Alphabet of Lessons for Youth”, included in the Primer:
An Alphabet of Lessons for Youth.
A Wise son maketh a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother.
B Etter is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure & trouble therewith.
C Ome unto Christ all ye that labor and are heavy laden and he will give you rest.
D O not the abominable thing which I hate saith the Lord.
E Xcept a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
F Oolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.
G ODLINESS is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and that which is to come.
H OLINESS becomes GOD’s house for ever.
I T is good for me to draw near unto GOD.
|K EEP thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.
L IARS shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone.
M ANY are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivereth them out of them all.
N OW is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.
O UT of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
P RAY to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which sees in secret shall reward thee openly.
Q UIT you like men, be strong, stand fast in the faith.
R EMEMBER thy Creator in the days of thy youth.
S Eest thou a man wise in his own conceit, there is more hope of a fool than of him.
T RUST in God at all times, ye people, pour out your hearts before him.
U PON the wicked, God shall rain an horrible tempest.
W O to the wicked, it shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.
|eX HORT one another daily while it is called to day, lest any of you be hardened thro’ the deceitfulness of sin.
Y OUNG men ye have overcome the wicked one.
Z Eal hath consumed me, because thy enemies have forgotten the word of God.
4. Memorization is crucial to learning, and should be the focus of early education.
As adherents of classical education well-know, all education begins with the Grammar stage. To learn anything new, I must learn the vocabulary of that subject, and memorize its basic principles. Memorization is fundamental to all learning, regardless of a child’s ability or a parent’s disposition.
Much of the NEP is focused on teaching children to memorize basic theology and life-principles. It includes The Shorter Catechism, a series of questions and answers to help children learn the most important biblical truths. It also includes The Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and many pithy couplets for memorization. Also included are these:
1. PRAYING will make us leave sinning, or sinning will make us leave praying.
2. OUR weakness and inabilities break not the bond of our duties.
3. WHAT we are afraid to speak before men, we should be afraid to think before GOD.
Learn these four lines by heart.
HAVE communion with few,
Be intimate with ONE,
Deal justly with all,
Speak evil of none.
5. Poetry, drama, and Q&A are helpful tools for memorization.
It is interesting to see all of the devices the NEP uses to help children memorize. Acrostics, couplets, poems, dialogues, and more are employed. The Puritans often have a bad rap when it comes to artistic expression, but in reality they believed in the power of rhythm and rhyme to help important truths become a bit sweeter to the tastes of young children.
Perhaps one of the most famous little poems of the NEP is this one:
Now I lay me down to take my sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
See the full-text of a 1777 edition of The New England Primer here.