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June 14, 2021

The New England Primer

Once upon a time, children learned by rhyme. And the most influential schoolbook of its time not only taught reading and arithmetic, but it also taught the Bible.

Thy life to mend,
this book attend ...
My book and heart,
shall never part.

These short rhymes are found in The New-England Primer, the first American textbook for children, published in 1690. By the early 1800s an estimated three million copies were in print. Less than 100 pages long, the Primer included the alphabet, spelling lists, and moral stories. It quoted the King James Bible frequently, including the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Early versions of the Primer reflected colonial New England's Puritan worldview, emphasizing themes of sin, death, punishment, salvation, and respect for authority. Later versions, after America's Great Awakening, saw a shift in emphasis from God's wrath to God's love. The Primer was published into the late 1800s. Now fewer than 1,500 copies remain, with the earliest copy from 1727.

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