New England Primer

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The New England Primer was a book, first published in 1690 or shortly prior to that date, intended for use as an instructional school text for young children so that they might be taught how to read. At the same time, in accordance with the then current educational philosophy, it was designed to provide a basic catechism in the Christian religion. It was the most widely used school text in 18th century colonial America.

Origins and background

Crucial to the Protestant Reformation was the idea that the individual needed no intermediary to stand between him and the experience of God. In order that this idea be implemented in practice, it was necessary for the individual Christian to be able to directly access the word of God, or the Bible, and this, in turn, required that he know how to read. Thus, early on, education in basic literacy skills became an important part of the Christian life for Protestants. In turn, the function of education was seen as to enable the Christian to read the Bible and other sacred writings. Education thus became important to the Christian life and a strong connection between education and religion became established.

The danger inherent in the Protestant idea that man fronts directly with God individually is that each man would then develop his own religion with a multiplicity of creeds, beliefs and sects resulting. In the years and decades following English settlement in New England, sundry different sects did in fact develop. During these years, several different catechisms were drawn up by as many different congregations in the Massachusetts Bay Colony with a resulting multiplicity of sects and schism. As a result, there was a real danger that, with no common religious sentiment, there would be a lack of unity necessary for the foundation of a true Commonwealth.

Gradually, however, over the course of the 17th century, in the interests of establishing a basic unity in the colony, the Westminster Confession, drawn up by Presbyterians at the Westminster Assembly in England in 1646, was adopted by most of the congregations in New England. This Confession consisted of a longer and a shorter catechism and it afforded a basis of unity thoughout the Bay Colony.

Meanwhile, over the years, beginning as early as the 16th century, a number of Church primers which contained statements of faith, or catechisms, were published.

The word primer originally referred to a primary (hence the name) manual of church service and consisted of various prayers, hymns, and a catechism into the creed and doctrine of the church. The word was in use in this fashion by 1400 A.D[1]. Thus, in this original usage, the primer was not a school text book, much less a children's book. In order to teach the reading and writing of the language, separate books, called A B C s were issued.

Sometime in the late 16th century, the first combined books appeared, with the alphabet (the A B C) simply prefixed to the catechism and other church service material. This combination eventually resulted in the word primer coming to denote a children's book.

Contents of the New England Primer

The followng is a summation of the contents of the earliest known copy (printed 1727) of the New England Primer. The title page reads: New-England PRIMER Enlarged. For the more easy attaining the Reading of English. To which is added, the Assembly of Divines CATECHISM. The catechism referred to is the Westminster Confession, adopted by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 in England.

The A B C and Syallabarium

Following a brief exhortation to the student ("Children obey your Parents in the Lord, for this is right", among other moral injunctions), the Primer begins with a page which presents the alphabet in lower case letters, which is then broken into vowels and consonants, followed by certain double letter combinations, and then an Italick (sic) alphabet, both upper and lower case. There follows an example alphabet consisting of upper case and lower case English letters. The alphabet section closes with regular upper case letters.

Then comes what was usually called a syllabarium, to which four pages are devoted. First, there are 140 Easie Syllables for Children consisting of two letter syllables arrange in five columns, one for each of the vowels a e i o and u. No pronunciation guide or markings are given, so these syllables can represent more than one sound (for example, a short a and a long a indifferently. There follows a listing of words of one syllable (68 total), two syllables (8 in number), three syllables (10), four syllables (9), and five syllables (9). The multisyllabic words are presented in two columns with the first column showing the syllabic division and the second column the word itself. No pronunication or accentuation is indicated.

This type of section, common in primers and all editions of the New England Primer, could be thought of as a nascent speller, a type of school book which, in later years, would present the same type of material, greatly expanded and more systematically arranged. But the New England Primer did not rely in the main, or much at all, on the alphabet or speller method of teaching young children to read and, in fact, in many of the variant versions of the Primer which were published over the years, this section was abridged even from this very short presentation.

The illustrated alphabet and alphabet of lessons

Next in order comes an alphabet illustrated by crude wood-cuts with the alphabet letters being used in words beginning with the letter in question and contained in doggerel verse, as, for example:

In Adams fall,
We sinned all.


Thy life to mend,
this Book attend.

The latter accompanied by a wood-cut illustration depicting the Bible.

These verses underwent much modification through the numerous editions of the Primer depending upon the political, social, and religious events of the day and how strongly the publisher wished to represent religious themes. The function of this presentation of the alphabet was to aid the pupil in learning the letters of the alphabet, the verses, in addition to whatever moral or biblical lessons they provided, being primarily an aid to that end.

Following this illustrated alphabet is a section of more extended moral lessons, although again presented in alphabetical order. This section - the alphabet of lessons - is introduced with the injunction: "Now the Child being entred (sic) in his Letters and Spelling, let him learn these and such like Sentences by Heart, whereby he will be both instructed in his Duty, and encouraged in his Learning." Hardly a better expression what was seen as the essential unity between education and religion could be imagined.

There follows a series of sentences and paragraphs taken from the Bible, so arranged that each successive passage begins with a different letter of the alphabet, taken in order. Some examples:

For the letter E: Except a Man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

For the letter M: Many are the Afflictions of the Righteous, but the Lord delivers them out of them all.

Church services

Harkening back to the original meaning and function of the primer, there follows a number of prayers and instructions related to the services of the Church. Along with the alphabets and syllabarium, these were a staple feature of children's primers of the day. Included in the New England Primer were: the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed (as given by the Westminster Confession), and the Ten Commandments.

Some additional moral instructions are then given specifically for the children learning from the Primer, such as the Duty of Children Towards Their Parents, some miscellaneous moral verses, a listing of the books of the Bible, a table of Roman numerals (up to 100) together with their equivalent representations in Arabic numerals and their names in words. Then follows the curious and apocryphal last letter of John Rogers to his children before he was put to the torch at the stake as the first Protestant martyr during the Burning Times following the accession of Queen Mary in England.

The Catechism

The bulk of the New England Primer is devoted to The Shorter Catechism Agreed Upon by the Reverend Assembly of Divines at Westminster. It consists of a series of questions and answers concerning church doctrine, starting with very easy questions (Quest: What is the chief End of Man? Answ: Man's Chief End is to Glorify God, and to Enjoy Him for ever) and proceeding to more difficult (and longer) questions and answers.

The pupil was to commit these questions and answers to memory and in the process would learn to read when used in conjunction with the preceding alphabetic lessons. Thus the basic instructional technique of the New England Primer was a combination of the word-rote method and a rudimentary form of the alphabet / speller method.


  1. see William Brohaugh, English Through the Ages for the date of the first usage of the word