Catechisms and Bibles before 1900 - Catechistical, devotional and biblical writing - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


22. Catechistical, devotional and biblical writing


Ruth B. Bottigheimer


Judaeo-Christian religious literature for children takes the Bible as its central reference point and confirms religious identity by inculcating ritual practices or by mediating Bible content in edited versions that conform to national, temporal, confessional or denomination expectations. Its chief representatives are catechisms and Bible story collections. Devotional literature differs from religious literature in its sources, form and intent. Unlike Bible stories and catechisms, devotional literature generally does not derive from Scripture, but from ancient, medieval or recent history. In form it may appear in prose or verse and as fictional or historical narrative, allegory or song. In intent, devotional literature strengthens religious identity in political, religious, moral and doctrinal terms. Religious and devotional literatures, principally concerned with the soul’s welfare, differ from moral literature, which is primarily concerned with inculcating values (which may be religious or devotional) that lead to worldly success.


Catechisms and Bibles before 1900


Catechisms for children represent the oldest form of religious instruction. Known since the early middle ages, catechisms multiplied dramatically in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in conjunction with the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. Early catechisms did not discriminate in terms of age among ‘the simple’: Richard Barnard’s Two twinnes: or, two parts of one portion of scripture (London, 1613) included adult ‘babes in knowledge’ together with young ‘babes in yeares’. It was only in the eighteenth century that children came to be distinguished as a separate group of religious readers. Catechesis as a pedagogical practice affected only a small proportion of Jewish children (cf. Abraham Jagel’s Catechismus judaeorum, composed c. 1587 etseq.).

According to Isaac Watts’s Discourse on the Way of Instruction by Catechisms (1730), catechisms were ‘the best Summaries of Religion for Children’. Simple and brief, Cotton Mather’s The A, B, C. of Religion read in its entirety:


Q. Who Made You and all the World?

A. The Great GOD made me, to serve Him.

Q. Who Saves the Children of Men from all their Miseries?

A. Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, saves them that Look unto Him.

Q. What will become of You, when You Dye?

A. If I obey Jesus Christ, my Soul will go to the Heavenly Paradise; and He will afterwards Raise me from the Dead. If I continue Wicked, I shall be Cast among the Devils.



The most durable genre for children, apart from catechisms, was the Bible story collection, which had first appeared in the high middle ages when Peter Comestor composed the Historia Scholastica (c. 1170) in Latin for students at the University of Paris. Entering Latin grammar school curricula and adult devotional literature in the later middle ages, the Historia Scholastica's stories provided Europe with a common set of Bible narratives. Most books of Bible stories, however, were rooted in Reformation attempts to familiarise children (and unschooled adults) with biblical material.

Bible story collections written solely for children emerged in the mid-seventeenth century and were the first extended prose narratives composed specifically for child readers. They thus predated the emergence of fiction intended for children alone by about fifty years. Children’s Bible histories, which claimed to be true stories composed by ‘the Holy Penman’ himself, differed from contemporaneous chapbooks, which were written for a mixed audience and whose prose mixed ‘true reports’ of prodigious experiences with fanciful fictions like Tom Thumb, Robin Hood and Fortunatus.

In France, Nicolas Fontaine’s L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament (1670 et seq.) provided virtually the only Bible story collection for Catholic children until the nineteenth century. At that point, additional titles appeared. In Germany, Johann Hubner’s Zweymahl Zwey und funffzig Biblische Historien (1714 et seq.) dominated the eighteenth century and was only slowly displaced by competing versions of Bible stories later in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. In England, Bible story collections began in 1690 but proliferated only in the mid-eighteenth century when John Newbery, and later his heirs and rival publishers, repeatedly printed The Holy Bible Abridged (London, 1757 et seq.), which was followed in the later eighteenth century by The Bible in Miniature, A Concise History of the Old & New Testaments, The Holy Bible Abridged, A New History of the Holy Bible, The Children’s Bible and The History of the Holy Bible Abridged. The genre appeared in Switzerland and the United States in the late eighteenth century, but south of the Alps and Pyrenees only after 1945 for a mass market.

The principal developments in the history of Bible story collections were their shift from negative to positive exempla at the beginning of the eighteenth century, their slow reduction in the number of female characters in the course of the eighteenth century, and their increasing emphasis on New Testament stories in the nineteenth century. It was common in the eighteenth century to assume that all children shared a ‘common spiritual inheritance’, as did Isaac Watts in his Discourse on the Education of Children and Youths (1725). Yet educators also prescribed different forms of education for different classes, one consequence of which was that authors of Bible story collections between 1750 and 1850 built social expectations about anticipated child-readerships into their editing. A century-long two-tier tradition of Bible stories resulted (c. 1750-1850), in which differing topics or differing treatments of the same topics appeared in the two tiers. For example, children’s Bibles for the well-off largely ignored work, its spiritual causes and its gritty consequences, while those for the poor advocated work as spiritually beneficial.

From the sixteenth century onward authors explored a variety of prose and verse forms to familiarise children with the Bible. Like Bernard’s Two Twinnes, Henoch Clapham’s Briefe of the Bible (London, 1596) addressed ‘all yovng ones in Christs Schoole’, that is, the untutored of all ages. A lengthy interpretative recapitulation accompanied each six-line versified chapter summary. For the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, the commentary read thus:


Ioseph, placed in Potiphar the Eunuch his house, is for his beautie, lusted after by his inordinate eyed Mistress. She, having no blush in her fore heade, wooeth Ioseph to Sinne; but he avoideth her alluring presence. Her lust, for that cannot be properlie called Love, it turned into Hate. She therefore pulling his Garment from him, accuseth him to her Husband, for a wanton Hebrewe, and an Assailer of the Marriage-bed. He believing her, cast Ioseph into Prison.


In the nineteenth century, Bible story collections proliferated in England and America and offered scores of approaches for micro-readerships of different ages, educational levels, confessions or denominations. Bible story collections for Jewish children also began to appear in the nineteenth century, the first German example of which was Moses Mordecai Budinger’s Der Weg des Glaubens (1823), which appeared in English as The Way of Faith; or, The Abridged Bible (London, 1848).

There were also sub-genres. The Child’s Bible (London 1677), whose title misleadingly suggests story content, was simply a concordance of ‘all the Words that are found in the Old and New Testament (excepting some of the most unusual proper Names)’; it grouped common nouns by the number of their syllables. Postils, specialised excerpt collections whose content was arranged according to liturgical Bible reading throughout the church year, familiarised communicants with the words and meaning of specified Bible verses. Bible excerpts, like postils, preserved Bible language, but were usually presented in verse- a-day format for the calendar year and bore fanciful titles, like William Mason’s Crumbs from the Master’s Table; or, select sentences, doctrinal, practical, and experimental (London, 1831) or Scripture Gems (1835). Bible summaries concentrated not on Bible language but on abbreviated Bible content, often in minuscule thumb Bibles. Prose thumb Bibles, like Biblia; or a practical summary of the Old and New Testaments (London, 1727), initially intended for adults, were manifestly read by children. Versified early Bible summaries, like John Taylor’s 1614 Verbum Sempiternum (London, 1614) galloped through the Old Testament, allotting sixteen lines to the fifty chapters of Genesis:


Jehovah here of Nothing, all things makes,

And Man, the chief of all, his God forsakes.

Yet by th’Almighty’s Mercy ‘twas decreed,

Heaven’s Heir should satisfie for Man’s misdeed.

Men now live long, but do not act aright,

For which the flood destroys them all but eight;

Noah, his Wife, their Sons, with those they wedd:

The rest all perish’d in that watery Bed.

Read here of Abraham’s numberless increase,

And of their journeying, and his own decease.

Of Israel’s going into Aegypt’s Land,

Of their Abode, their Entertainment, and

Of Joseph’s Brethren, faithless and unkind,

Of his firm faith, and ever-constant mind.

He pardons them that did his death devise;

He sees his Children’s Children, and he dies.


Verbum Sempiternum, which remained in print for nearly two centuries, provided a model for Benjamin Harris’s Holy Bible in Verse, which substituted a rollicking tetrameter for Taylor’s pentameter:


This book contains a full relation

Of God Almighty’s wise Creation,

Who by his Power in six Days,

The Earth did frame and Heav’n raise.


First printed in London c. 1712, it was imported to Boston in 1717. Nathaniel Crouch also versified Bible material in Youth’s Divine Pastime (2 vols), using fast-paced trimeter. A second volume turned towards violent death and lurid sex as it recounted stories like Lot’s incest, in which his daughters made him ‘drunk with Wine,/ And then both with him lye;/ He being ignorant of this,/ Their wanton policy.’

Bibles edited for children in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were usually illustrated. On occasion, however, pictures alone were printed to elicit spontaneous tellings of Bible stories. Such picture albums, of variable graphic and aesthetic merit, were directed at adult buyers all over central, western and northern Europe for use in the family circle. One early example that may stand for many was The History of the Old & New Testament described in Figures (London, c. 1670). Typical for the late eighteenth century was Sarah Trimmer’s Series of prints from the Old Testament (London, 1797), which was soon joined by her publisher’s New Series of Prints for Scripture History (1803 et seq.) and - in the chapbook market - by the 24-page New Pictorial Bible.

Hieroglyphic Bibles, like Elisha Coles’s Youth’s Visible Bible (London, 1675), became popular in the USA in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The full title of an early import, published by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1788, advertised its intent:


A curious hieroglyphick Bible: or select Passages in the Old and New Testaments represented with Emblematical Figures for the Amusement of Youth Designed chiefly to familiarize tender Age in a pleasing and diverting Manner, with early Ideas of the Holy Scripture to which are subjoined, a short account of the Lives of the Evangelists, and other pieces.


Coles united hieroglyphics to Latin instruction in his 1675 book (published in London) with the forbidding title Nolens Volens; or, You shall make Latin whether you will or no. Together with the youth’s visible Bible (London, 1675).

In some Latin schools, English-speaking boys encountered Sebastian Chateillon’s (also spelled ‘Castalio’) Dialogorum Sacrorum libri quattuor (London, 1577), which reformulated those parts of the Bible that lent themselves to dialogic presentation. Thus Chateillon’s dialogues began not with the monological Creation, but with the serpent’s conversation with Eve, while his Sodom story included Lot’s altercation with the lowering mob, though not his daughters’ discussion of inebriating him in order to become pregnant by him.

Scripture catechisms inculcated a knowledge of Bible content in two modes. Protestants favoured prescribed responses, while Catholics tended to elicit Bible content summaries. One of the earliest Protestant Scripture catechisms was Eusebius Pagit’s Historie of the Bible briefy collected by way of question and answer (London, 1613). It had grown out of Pagit’s twenty-six years of reading Scripture to his assembled servants and family, making ‘such observations as [he] thought fit for their capacities and understanding’, and questioning them ‘daily [to take] an account how they understood and retained [Bible content] in memorie’. Bible catechisms continued into the eighteenth century, for example with Ambrose Rigge’s Scripture Catechism for Children. Collected out of the whole Body of the Scriptures, for the instructing of Youth with the Word of the Lord in the Beginning ... that they might be taught our children, and Children’s children ... Presented to Fathers of Families, and Masters of Schools, to train up their Children and Scholars, in the Knowledge of God and the Scriptures (London, 1702). Historical catechisms, like some Bible story collections, could on occasion be interconfessional, as when the English Protestant publisher T. Cooper adapted the Jesuit Abbe Claude Fleury’s Catechisme Historique for Anglican children. The genre survived into the nineteenth century with A Brief Historical Catechism of the Holy Scriptures, designed for the Use of Children and Young Persons (York, 1815), which its author William Alexander proudly announced had been rearranged to make its format small and its facts clear, so that even the poorest classes might buy, and understand, it.

Bible subjects also made their way into English chapbooks like those printed and distributed by the English firm of Dicey. Individual stories, like Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, sold well, while cheap reference works like A Family-Index to the Bible (Northampton, 1739) entered modest households at small cost (two pence apiece or one shilling and six pence per dozen).

English publishers supplied American printers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a situation confirmed by the title of Cotton Mather’s catechism, Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in either England (1662; first British edition 1646). Mather’s Spiritual Milk lived on in the eighteenth century in editions of the enormously influential New-England Primer (c. 1686 et seq. ) assembled by the transplanted London printer, Benjamin Harris. Until the nineteenth century the majority of American children’s religious books, including children’s Bibles, originated in England and generally appeared on the western side of the Atlantic with a lag of one or two generations. For example, John Taylor’s 1614 Verbum Sempiternum was printed in Boston in 1693; and Newbery’s 1757 Holy Bible Abridged appeared in Boston in 1782 and in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1786. The printing of American children’s religious books differed from English ones, however, in one important respect. Whereas in England such printing centred almost exclusively in London, in the USA small local presses produced children’s Bibles and religious books in places like Leicester in Massachusetts; Bridgeport, New London and New Haven in Connecticut; and Sag Harbor, Cooperstown and Buffalo in New York, as well as in regional printing centres like Boston, Worcester, New York and Philadelphia.