Devotional literature 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


Devotional literature before 1900


John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, which soon came to be known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was first published in England in 1563, and soon made its way into abridged editions for children, its horrifying reports of martyrdoms affirming Protestant identity, in part by vilifying Catholics. (It remained in print in illustrated editions well into the twentieth century.)

James Janeway, one of the first writers to recognise that a message can be most effectively communicated by exploiting children’s love of story, published A Token for Children (1671-2), which contained accounts of the ‘Conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful Deaths of several young Children’. The children, some of them of very tender years, set an example to their families by their piety and by welcoming death as the way to everlasting bliss, while their sorrowing families look on, full of awe and admiration. Similar books, such as The Young Man’s Calling by Nathaniel Crouch (1678) and An Account of the Remarkable Conversion of a Little Boy and Girl (1762), The Happy Child (1762) and the Cheap Repository Tracts tale, The Story of Sinful Sally, Told by Herself, were published throughout the eighteenth century.

John Bunyan offered doctrinal doggerel in A Book for Boys and Girls: or, Country Rhimes for Children (London, 1686), using the already established pattern of illustrating divine truths and moral ideas through everyday and familiar objects. However, children appear to have been much more attracted to the earlier The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which not only told a good story, but used familiar figures and images from popular traditional tales. The Pilgrim’s Progress has been published in countless editions for children.

The Divine Songs of Isaac Watts (London, 1715), verses in which he emphasised moral virtues in order to ‘beautify [children’s] Souls’, also enjoyed a long-lasting popularity and were still widely known when Lewis Carroll parodied some of them in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Although much devotional literature was didactically grim, some used a toy book format. For example, a rotating dial in Nathaniel Crouch’s Delights for the Ingenious (London, 1684) guided readers to appropriate moral verse. At home and in school English and American children routinely encountered verse and prose with religious and devotional intent. Rhyming ABC books taught that ‘A is our Advocate, Jesus his name;/ B is a Babe, in weakness who came’. In the mid-eighteenth century Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont mixed Bible stories with fairy tales and interleaved both with edifying conversations in her Magasin des Enfants (1756).

Drama also proffered religious and devotional messages. At the French court of Louis XIV the pious Marquise de Maintenon encouraged girls to act in Bible dramas, a practice that Francois Fenelon codified in his Traite de l’education des filles (1687), where he discussed girls’ dramatising appropriate Bible stories. In the eighteenth century Mme de la Fite’s Drames et contes moraux (1778 et seq.) and the Comtesse de Genlis’s Thedtre d l’usage des jeunes personnes (1785) were part of an elite English education, while Maria Edgeworth’s Little Plays for Young People, Hannah More’s Sacred Dramas and Mark Anthony Meilan’s Holy Writ Familiarized to Juvenile Conceptions (London, 1791) provided much the same kind of material for anglophone pupils.

Magazines and miscellanies also included religious and devotional material, and with support from Protestant and Catholic churches the religious component blossomed in the nineteenth century. Magazines like Child’s Companion and Children’s Friend elevated English values, purveyed the message that it was better to be pious than rich, and included grotesque narratives and pictures of heathen barbarity. Death was luridly prominent with titles like ‘You Are Not too Young to Die’ and ‘The Dying Sunday Scholar’.

Allegories, which followed the pattern set by The Pilgrim’s Progress and which were written especially for children, were enacted in symbolic space by archetypal characters, without linear plots; people’s actions were surely and simply eponymous, their names predicting their individual fates. Mrs Sherwood’s Infant’s Progress, From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory (1821) exemplifies this genre. Her histories were structured by sequential events that impinged on their stories’ characters, shaped their fates, and generated their attributes, for example ‘chaste’ Joseph. Moral narrative amalgamated the characteristics of allegories and histories by retaining allegorical naming (Squire Allworthy, Peter Prudence, Betsey Goodchild, Anthony Greedyguts and Marjory Meanwell) with an essentially historical narrative structure. Allegories, histories and moral narratives shaded one into the other and shared a single aim - to produce good and successful children. In early children’s books religiously demonstrated piety often brought socially advantageous results.


Further reading

Bottigheimer, R. B. (1996) The Bible for Children from the Age of Gutenberg to the Present, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Demers, P. (1993) Heaven upon Earth. The Form of Moral and Religious Children’s Literature, to 1850, Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Gold, P. S. (2003) Making the Bible Modern: Children’s Bibles and Jewish Education in Twentieth- Century America, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Greene, I. (1995) The Christian’s ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England c. 1540-1740, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacDonald, R. K. (1982) Literature for Children in England and America from 1646 to 1774, Troy, NY: Whitston, 1982.

Pickering, S. F., Jr (1993) Moral Instruction and Eiction for Children, 1749-1820, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.