Tag Archives: Literacy

Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2

In my last post I laid out a brief overview of the origins and development of Sunday Schools in England.  Now I want to turn more specifically to what was taught in Sunday Schools.  I have already laid out the contours of the debate over reading and writing instruction, but now I will more closely examine some of the most popular Sunday School textbooks.  These textbooks speak for themselves as a living record of how early Sunday School organizers, teachers, and students viewed the tasks of reading and writing instruction.

Early Sunday School Textbooks

Textbook publication by and for turn of the eighteenth century Sunday Schools was a major enterprise.  Laqueur estimates that, between 1809 and 1830 over 10 million copies of two of the most popular Sunday School readers were sold (114). The non-denominational Sunday School Union was especially active in producing Sunday School materials that were used by schools across the denominational spectrum.  Broadly speaking, though, Sunday School textbooks can be divided into two categories: Readers/Spellers and Catechisms/Moral Literature.  The aims of both were relatively similar and there was inevitably some cross pollination between the two genres, but each served a defined purpose within the Sunday School classroom.  Both were cheaply mass produced for a vast audience and distributed across the country.  As such, though the goals and aims of each Sunday School may have been different, many used the same curriculum.

Readers and Spellers

The first category of Sunday School textbook are the Readers and Spellers.  The most popular readers and spellers remained relatively consistent throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as they were both cheap to produce and readily available.  They included: William Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, T. Wise’s Reading Made Easy and Best Guide to Spelling, and Joseph Brown’s New English Primer, or Reading Made Easy.  Each textbook followed a relatively similar graduated curriculum that stressed progressive exercises in reading and spelling. Students would first be introduced to the letters of the alphabet and then progressively work through one, two, three, and multisyllable words.  Each unit also usually contained a short story or scripture passage that used many of the words included in the lesson.  These stories, if not from scripture itself, usually contained an explicit moral lesson for the child to learn.  Furthermore, rough woodcuts often accompanied the stories or words to illustrate the concepts visually for the student.

In this these early readers and spellers incorporated much of the Lockean educational theory that had been popularized by educators like Anna Barbauld and Sunday School advocate Sarah Trimmer.  John Locke’s 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education essentially applied the conclusions of his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding to the education of children – arguing that children’s mind’s were essentially blank slates and that all ideas are gained through the senses.  As such, children should be taught to read and write through an approximation of sensual experience:

If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of knowledge with it: for such visible objects children hear talked of in vain and without any satisfaction whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves or their pictures.  And therefore I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge.

In thus arguing for the incorporation of pictures of animals and other natural objects into a text, Locke posits a pedagogical role for illustrations which, according to Schultz, worked to “extend… the limits of the children’s knowledge and help… them to connect with a world larger than that of their immediate circumstance” (88).  This theory was picked up by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) who in 1778 published Lessons for Children – a groundbreaking children’s book which not only included pictures but led children through basic concepts step by step – mirroring the complexity of the subject matter with the complexity of the language.

Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, for example, which was one of the most widely used Sunday School texts (Laqueur 114) was subtitled: A Necessary Introduction to the Bible: Consisting Chiefly of Scripture Sentences; Each lesson of which is disposed in such Order, as the Learner is led on with pleasure, Step by Step, from simple and easy, to compound and difficult words: which is allowed by All to be the most regular, speedy, and rational Method of Teaching.  By thus adopting the Lockean method of leading the student step by step through graduated lessons that stressed experience, Reading Made Completely Easy adopts a decidely “rational” approach to education that is based on theories of cognition instead of innate knowledge.  Furthermore, by explicitely illustrating its lessons through “scripture sentences,” and by concluding with a brief catechism that leads students through the basic tenants of the faith, it fulfills the other chief goal of the Sunday School – instruction in Bible reading and Christian living.

Likewise, as Shultz has pointed out, the woodcuts that accompany such texts cannot be ignored as tools of instruction (88).  The Lockean theory of education privileged sensory experience of the world and the illustrations that accompied the text worked to reproduce this experience.  Both Reading Made Completely Easy and Reading Made Easy, for example, begin with an illustrated alphapet that includes images that correspond to each letter:

This provided a concrete image that the student could then associate with each letter of the alphabet.  Likewise the New English Primer includes woodblock illustrations of scenes from everyday life that subtly inculcate a moral or social message:

Here children are encouraged to associate specific simple words and phrases with still life representations.  Representations that, interestingly enough, confirm the established divide between king and beggar and the traditional societal role of the farmer or miller.

Thus, even when the material included in the Readers and Spellers is not explicitely religious, it is specifically moral.  Reading Made Easy, for example, includes an entire section of fables that include a specific moral.  In the fable of “The Lion and the Mouse” the moral is that “the great and little may need the Help of one another – the most powerful or wealthy Person on Earth may want the Assistance of the smallest or poorest, in some Way or other. – for who could have thought that the Lion, so powerful as he is, could have been indebted to a Mouse for his Life.”  Even here, then, the reading exercise seeks to promote virtue and knowing one’s place in the social order.  And the woodcut that accompanies the story provides a vivid visual example for the young reader.

Overall, then, the Readers and Spellers that were used by Sunday Schools served a variety of purposes.  Not only did they teach reading and writing based on Lockean educational theories about experiential, graduated knowledge – they also promoted social and religious virtue through the reading exercises that accompanied the texts.  In some texts (Reading Made Completely Easy) the scriptural component was more pronounced than others, but all sought to promote literacy within the context of societal order.

Catechisms and Moral Literature

The second category of Sunday School textbook that was used by almost all the schools was some form of catechism and/or moral literature.  Remember that Hannah More only allowed the use of “two little tracts called ‘Questions for the Mendip Schools,’… the Church Catechism… the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible” (6).  We have already seen how catechistic and moral material could be woven into the readers and spellers that most Sunday Schools used, but there was also an entirely separate category of moral and religious literature that was used alongside these core texts.

In the case of catechisms, such texts were often abridgements of standard catechisms adapted to both the age of the audience and particular denominational differences.  Hannah More’s Questions and Answers for the Mendip and Sunday Schools is a brief (eleven page) text which abridges the Church of England catechism, asking questions like “Who made you and all the world?” and “Who redeemed you?”  By thus applying reading instruction to Church doctrine, More was able to both control what children read and inculcate religious virtue.  In this she also follows Locke who suggested that “as soon as he can say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, the Ten Commandments, by heart, it may be fit for him to learn a question every day, or every week, as his understanding is able to receive and his memory to retain them.”  Thus progressive reading and memorization are combined to instill moral principles for, as Locked argues in his Essay on Humane Understanding, these are the principles that, if learned while young, will guide a child through the rest of his or her life.

Likewise, the cheap moral literature spawned by More and the Sunday School movement worked to not only provide acceptable reading material for children, but also counteract a nascent popular culture that reformers like More thought both immoral and potentially politically radical.  Though little studied today, there was a tradition of cheap popular literature in England that dated to the early seventeenth century.  Broadside ballads, cheap pamphlets, and bawdy tracts were produced cheaply and en masse and then sold throughout the countryside by ballad hawkers (Pederson 87).  Such literature was tremendously popular but also deeply troubling to someone like Hannah More who objected to the often immoral sexual content of the broadsides.  This concern was exacerbated in the years after the French Revolution when pamphlets like Tom Paine’s Rights of Man began to circulate in cheap editions among the poor.

To counteract these influences, More first published Village Politics in 1792 and then began the Cheap Repository Tracts in 1795 (Pederson 84).  Village Politics is an explicit reaction to the French Revolution controversy.  It uses the characters of Jack Anvil, the blacksmith, and Tom Hod, the mason – two workmen on opposite sides of the controversy – to argue that the existing social system works in the best interests of rich and poor.  Likewise, the Cheap Repository inculcates these ideas on a more subtle level.  In The Cottage Cook, for instance, More introduces the character of Mrs. Jones, a middle class woman who (much like More herself) moves to the country and begins to teach the local population how to live moral, upright lives.  In The Cottage Cook she goes about teaching the women of the parish how to make the most of their meager resources and accept their social place.  Then, in The Sunday School she begins a Sunday School despite the opposition from local farmers and prevalence hawkers out selling their “immoral” literature to the young ladies of the parish.  By the end of the tract, however, she has established her Sunday School and is busy teaching moral virtue.  Finally, The History of Hester Wilmot follows the history of one of Mrs. Jones’ star pupils who, by exhibiting the Christian virtues she learns in Sunday School, leads her parents to lead better, more religious lives.  Thus, the Cheap Repository Tracts worked not only to provide acceptable reading material for the Sunday Schools, they also modeled More’s vision for how the schools could counteract the influence of popular, radical culture and reform society.

Finally, such works proved to be tremendously successful. In the case of More’s  Cheap Repository Tracts, 300,000 were sold or distributed between March 3 and April 18, 1795; 700,000 by July 1795; and over 2 million by March 1796 (Pederson 112).  Furthermore, More’s work paved the way for an explosion of nineteenth century moral periodicals written explicitly for Sunday Schools.  Titles like the Sunday School Magazine, which was published and distributed by the Sunday School Union, sprung up and gained circulation numbers the millions.  In fact, by 1839 25-30 million of such moral tracts and literature had been distributed – outselling even the most popular bestsellers (Laqueur 118).  Clearly, then, such literature worked to shape the way children learned to read, write, and relate to key social institutions throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Conclusion

Thus we return once again to the questions of class and social relations in Sunday Schools.  While this brief survey of Sunday School literature and practice is far from comprehensive, nevertheless is suggests some of the interrelated and complex ways that class and literacy interact both in the eighteenth century and today.  For if we take seriously Ruggles Gere’s argument that the extracurriculum is an important site of instruction that deeply influences how students think and write, we need to start to think past easy assumptions about the interplay between religion, social class, and education.  In particular we need to carefully reassess the class assumptions that have been made about eighteenth and nineteenth century Sunday School students and then apply these lessons to current composition practice.

In the first case it has been long assumed that Sunday Schools operated more as instruments of social control than social liberation.  This is primarily due to the influence of E.P. Thompson and to the fact that the early Sunday School reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More were so socially conservative.  Furthermore, as an analysis of the actual Sunday School literature shows, many early texts did work to subtly inculcate religious virtues and stable class relations.  Nevertheless, here as elsewhere I would argue that Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies more than ever – for despite the texts socially conservative messages, the medium was really quite progressive.  Using progressive exercises and woodblock illustrations these early textbooks created a sort of spiritual literacy that grew out of the forms and structures of the classroom exercises.  Much as I learned to read and write through gradual repetition and structured scripture memory, millions of eighteenth and nineteenth century children also developed these skills in this way – skills that often opened avenues far beyond the intent of a Hannah More or a Robert Raikes.  Thus, not only did these children learn how to read and write in Sunday School, they learned how to relate to their rapidly changing world.  In this sense Sunday Schools became a sort of refuge for children from the brutal factory owner or mill foreman instead of a further instrument of repression.

Secondly, the study of these early Sunday Schools has clear implications for modern English and composition practitioners.  The Sunday School as a specific site of extracurricular instruction suggests ways in which locations outside of traditional schools can have a profound impact on the way students think, read, and write even today.  As in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of our students come to us with literacies that are shaped far more by extracurricular learning than school learning.  Teaching, as I do, in urban Detroit many of my students have had as little structured literacy instruction as the eighteenth century child. Nevertheless they have been shaped by writing and reading practices they have learned in their communities and/or religious institutions.  Thus it is that one of my African American students struggles to construct a coherent scholarly argument, but is brilliant at writing social commentary poetry in the tradition of religious spirituals.  By recognizing these extracurricular sites of instruction as important we can both legitimate our students’ literacy practices and begin to think about how we can better incorporate their literacies into our discourse.

References:

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Tegg & Son, 1836.

More, Hannah. Mendip Annals: Or, A Narrative of the Charitable Labours of Hannah and Martha More in Their Neighbourhood. London: Nisbet, 1859.

Pederson, Susan. “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth Century England.” Journal of British Studies 25.1 (1986): 84-113.

Ruggles Gere, Anne. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.

Schultz, Lucille M. The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.

Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1

This is the first part of a larger project on the early English Sunday School movement and the literacy practices it inculcated through the use of graduated readers and moral literature.

As far back as I can remember words have always been a part of my life.  From the time I was an infant, my parents read to me constantly – The Wizard of Oz, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Chronicles of Narnia were only a few of my favorites that absorbed before I could even read.  We had a televisionbut this was before cable and satellite (we couldn’t have afforded it anyway) and my television watching was limited primarily to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Reading Rainbow – all programs that were full of stories and words.  I didn’t have access to the internet until I was in junior high school and, even then, my usage was strictly limited.  By the time I was in kindergarten I could already read and write simple sentences.

When I entered kindergarten, I was exposed to different types of literacy practices.  I attended a conservative religious school where my father taught and where modern literacy theories like “whole language” were viewed with suspicion.  Instead, I was given a Victory Drill Book, a navy blue, hardback volume with gold lettering on the cover.  It was filled with list upon list of words – single syllable words, multiple syllable words, rhyming words.  Each week, it would be my task to learn all of the words on one page of the Victory Drill Book and read them to my teacher, without error and within a prescribed amount of time.  I quickly became a master at this, completing the entire book before all but one of my classmates.

Finally, my journey towards literacy was deeply informed by my experiences at church.  Sunday School, though a far cry from the educational Sunday Schools of the 18th and 19th centuries that are the focus of this essay, was a focal point of my life.  Each Sunday I would attend a graded Sunday school class in the morning and “Children’s Church” during the adult service.  In these classes the focus was on learning to read and understand Scripture.  Bible stories were taught through a combination of memorization, activities, and instruction as we learned the make the Bible the focus of our lives.

As my own experience makes clear, my journey towards literacy and writing was informed by powerful forces both inside and outside the classroom.  Moreover, each of these literacy influences continues to inform how I think about reading and writing to this day.  While ample scholarly research has been conducted on the development of literacy and composition within school walls, little has focused on what goes on outside them, in what Anne Ruggles Gere terms the “extracurriculum.”  This is in part because, as Ruggles Gere points out, “we in composition studies have sought to establish our right to a place in the academy by recounting our past, and this historiography has focused inside classroom walls” (78).  Furthermore, histories of composition studies that have considered the extracurriculum have largely viewed it as a stopping point on the way to scholarly engagement with writing instead of as something that, “extends beyond the academy to encompass the multiple contexts in which persons seek to improve their own writing; … includes more diversity in gender, race, and class among writers; and… avoids, as much as possible, a reenactment of professionalization in its narrative” (Ruggles Gere 80).  By thus considering the extracurriculum (in this case the Sunday School) in its own terms, we can better gauge how specific sites influenced the literacy and composition practices of a far wider group of people.

In this early Sunday School textbooks are a particularly important resource for understanding the broader implications of the movement.  For, while few actual Sunday School exercises by children are extant, many of the most popular textbooks are available in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) database, though little scholarly work has been conducted on them.  As Ferguson Carr, Carr, and Schultz argue in their study of nineteenth century American textbooks, this is largely because such texts are considered largely derivative:

Textbooks have a particular status in the history of the book.  They are unusual and difficult books in the variety of their parts, the mode of their author, and their publication history.  Like cookbooks, children’s books, and popular fiction, they often slide beneath bibliographers’ and historians’ radar, mentioned as a totality rather than in their particularity or difference (11).

It is in this particularity and difference, though, that we can begin to unravel what influenced these texts and how the texts were used in early Sunday Schools; and it is in tracing the multiplicity of these texts that we can begin to understand the far reaching effects of Sunday Schools in late eighteenth century Britain and today.

Interestingly enough, each of my literacy influences illustrate the key aims and methods of turn of the nineteenth century Sunday Schools that I will trace in these textbooks.  For the eighteenth and nineteenth Sunday School, as for my Sunday School, the goal was scripture literacy and the methods employed to reach that goal were often repetition of lists of words, memorization, illustration, and imitation.  What I want to argue is that such methods, far more than larger social or cultural factors, subtly shaped the types of literacy that the early Sunday School produced.  These types of literacy in turn informed how an increasingly literate, industrial populace engaged with the larger social questions of the day.  Thus, by examining the material texts of early Sunday Schools – textbooks, spellers, catechisms – we can develop a clearer perspective on the often turbulent relationship between reading, writing, religion, and society at the turn of the nineteenth century.

A Brief History of Sunday Schools in England

Until the middle of the nineteenth century free public education did not exist in England.  While the aristocracy hired governesses or sent their children to expensive private academies like Eaton and later on to Oxford and Cambridge, there were few viable options for the vast majority of the population.  Though local grammar and finishing schools did exist, they were prohibitively expensive and families would send at most one child to such schools.  As such, the demand for basic education was high among England’s rapidly expanding working class population.  Parents realized that learning to read and write was a vital skill, but they simply could not afford it.  Thus Sunday schools are a case of a fortunate confluence of religious, social, and economic forces that collided to create a movement that, by 1851, served over two million children (Laqueur xi).

Robert Raikes

Though the Sunday School movement in England evolved slowly over the course of the eighteenth century, with isolated schools appearing across the country, it was Gloucester philanthropist Robert Raikes (1736-1811) who is credited with systematizing and popularizing the movement.  Raikes was the editor and publisher of the Gloucester Journal and he used his position to promote various causes, including prison reform, poor law reform, and the abolition of the slave trade (Tolar Burton 269).  A deeply religious man, Raikes was disturbed by what he saw as the abuse of the Sabbath by unruly poor children.  As he wrote in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1784:

I was walking into the suburbs of the city, where the lowest of the people (who are principally employed in the pin-manufactury) chiefly reside [when] I was struck with concern at seeing a group of children wretchedly ragged, at play in the street.  I asked an inhabitant whether those children belonged to that part of the town, and lamented their misery and idleness. – Ah! Sir, said the woman to whom I was speaking, could you take a view of this part of town on Sunday, you should be shocked indeed; for then the street is filled with multitudes of these wretches who, released on that day from their employment, spend their time in noise and riot and playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid, as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell, rather than any other place (qtd. in Tolar Burton 270).

Robert Raikes on the Street

This was the impetus for Raikes’ founding of a Sunday School in Gloucester in 1780.  Other schools quickly sprung up in the area so that by November 1783 Raikes could write in his Gloucester Journal that:

In those parishes where this plan has been adopted, we are assured that the behaviour of the children is greatly civilized. The barbarous ignorance in which they had before lived being in some degree dispelled, they begin to give proofs that those persons are mistaken who consider the lower orders of mankind as incapable of improvement, and therefore think an attempt to reclaim them impracticable, or at least not worth the trouble (qtd in Power 35-36).

Thus as their inception Sunday Schools, much like the charity schools that had preceded them, sprung from a desperate need for education among the still coalescing working class.  Unlike Scotland, England had no system of free public education and most poor families could not afford to send their children to school; thus Sunday Schools filled a much needed gap in the education of children and illiterate adults.  Though expressed by Raikes as a concern for public order among the poorer classes, his Sunday Schools met a real social need and also responded to rapidly changing social conditions in England during the 1780’s.

Jonas Hanway

Like Raikes, London philanthropist Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) was also deeply concerned about the living conditions of the working poor and the moral effect these conditions had on individuals and society.  Best known for his work with foundlings, Hanway was a tireless advocate for what he saw as the inexcusable treatment of children (Taylor 286).  To this end, in 1785 he published A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps in London and Westminster Shewing the Necessity of putting them under regulations to prevent the grossest Inhumanity to the Climbing Boys with a letter to a London Clergyman on Sunday Schools calculated for the preservation of the Children of the Poor which detailed the deplorable conditions under which young chimney sweepers, or “climbing boys” worked.  According to Hanway, boys as young as five were apprenticed by master chimney sweepers who forced them to climb up “chimnies [sic] which are on fire; or to climb chimnies too strait in their dimensions” (xvii).  In addition, these boys would often be forced to live in filth and often contracted cancer from the amount of soot they had to breath in.  In response, Hanway urges his readers to both support reforms that would change the way such working boys were treated and proposes the establishment of Sunday Schools as a means shaping the boys moral education.

Indeed, in his 1786 Comprehensive View of Sunday Schools Hanway goes even further by laying out a justification for Sunday Schools that frames them explicitely in terms of a reformation of manners among the poor. “The better condition the labourer’s children are put in, with regard to moral and religious instruction,” he writes, “the less they will turn their thoughts to pilfering and beggary.  They will become more industrious, be tighter and cleaner in their garments, and be better nourished” (iii).  Thus, for Hanway, Sunday Schools were a means to raising the condition of the poor only as high as their societal station allowed.  By inculcating moral and religious principles, middle class philanthropists like Hanway hope to better regulate the poor so that they would quiescently accept their station in life.

Nevertheless, at least until 1800, there was a deep anxiety among the middle and upper classes over the wisdom of teaching the poor to read – nevermind write.  The fear among the ruling classes was that if the poor were taught to read they would be more susceptible to dangerous or seditious literature like Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.  Especially in the years following the French Revolution when radical pamphlets and tracts abounded, the propriety of teaching the poor to read was profoundly questioned.  It thus became the job of Sunday School proponents to convince their wealthy donors that by teaching the poor to read they were actually guarding against radical activity.  As Hanway writes in Comprehensive View, “The better Christians they are, the better subjects they will make” (xii).

Hannah More

Hannah More (1745-1833) was one of the most visible proponents of this view. A prominent writer, poet, philanthropist, and social reformer More, with the help of her sister Martha and the financial support of William Wilberforce, founded a system of Sunday Schools in the poor Mendip Hills around Bristol in 1789.  Both deeply conservative and deeply evangelical, More was fundamentally interested in inculcating religion and social order among the poor.  In her account of the Sunday School project in Mendip Annals, More recounts how she structured her curriculum to instill these values through reading:

…my plan for instructing the poor is very limited and strict.  They learn of week-days such coarse works as may fit them for servants.  I allow of no writing.  My object has not been to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower class to habits of industry and virtue.  I know no way of teaching morals but by infusing princoples of Christianity, nor of teaching Christianity without a thorough knowledge of Scripture.  In teaching in our Sunday-schools, the only books we use are two little tracts called “Questions for the Mendip Schools,”… theChurch Catechism (these are hung up in frames, half-a-dozen in a room), the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible (6).

For More reading was a vital skill, but it had to be the right kind of reading.  Thus she provided her students with a very circumscribed curriculum and supplemented it with her own Cheap Repository Tracts which were meant to explicitely combat the popular and/or radical broadsheets and pamphlets that typically circulated among the poor.  Her tract titled The Sunday School, for instance, includes an explicitely moralistic message about the transforming effect a Sunday School can have on individuals, families, and communities when everyone learns to make the best of their proper social place.

Note, though, that More explicitely opposes teaching writing in Sunday Schools.  In this she echoes the concerns of earlier middle class social reformers like Hanway who saw writing as unecessary to the poorer classes:

As to the connexion between reading and writing, as vulgarly understood, I discover none that concerns those who depend for their bread on their manual labour, and not on the pen.  The first is necessary to them for learning their religion, and filling up their vacant hours, and to prevent that vacuity of thought, or mischievous consequence which ignorance often occasions; the last is not necessary or expedient (Hanway, Comprehensive View xiii).

This disconnnect between reading and writing instruction is perplexing to a modern audience, but it was a fundamental principle to these early middle class social reformers and it became the defining controversy of the Sunday School movement in the nineteenth century.  Reading was so necessary for religious instruction that these early reformers were willing to risk providing people with the tools to also read what they considered “dangerous” literature.  Writing, however, was more closely associated with thinking and social action and thus for reformers like Raikes, Hanway and Hannah More it had no place in Sunday School.

Up to this point, the history of Sunday Schools in England would seem to accord with E.P. Thompson’s famous argument in The Making of the English Working Class that Sunday Schools mainly operated as middle class instruments of social control and indocrination (375-376).  Though no doubt prompted by the best of motives, reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More did see themselves as defenders of the existing social order.  The conditions of the poor could be bettered and they could be taught to be better stewards of their time and money, but they ultimately could not expect to rise above their God-ordained place in society.  Nevertheless, recent scholarship has questioned the extent to which the ideas of these prominent Sunday School advocates spread to the Sunday School movement at large.  What began as a relatively circumscribed movement among middle class evangelical Anglicans quickly spread across the country and among Methodists, Dissenters, and even political radicals.  What is more, control of these local Sunday Schools rarely rested in the hands of wealthy patrons like More.  By 1800, 200,000 children attended Sunday Schools, by 1818 – 240,000, by 1833 – 1,400,000, and by 1851 – 2,100,000 (Laqueur xi).  Such figures are staggering and they indicate the extent to which Sunday School instruction quickly became far more dependent upon local and denominational circumstances than the opinions of a few influential reformers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of writing instruction in Sunday Schools.  For conservatives like Raikes, Hanway, and More teaching writing was predominately a social and political question and that is how it has been portrayed in the literature since (see Thompson 377).  However, as Laqueur has pointed out, this rather limited view of the subject does not take into account the broader scope of the argument in the early nineteenth century (124-125).  In reality, many of the fears over writing instruction had faded after 1800 and the opposition to writing was based mainly on religious conviction and denominational politics.

In the case of religious conviction, many people were worried that teaching writing on the Sabbath violated the command to “honor the Sabbath day.”  Reading instruction was excused because children could be taught the Bible, but some argued that writing was not strictly necessary.  This did not indicate an opposition to writing instruction, in fact many Sunday Schools offered writing courses on weekday evenings, but it did limit the number of people who were able to learn to write (Laqueur 138-139). However in denominations like Methodism, which had the highest number of children in Sunday Schools and where the debate over writing was the most fierce, the issue went much deeper.  Here, the debate over writing instruction really came down to issues of control with Methodist leader Jabez Bunting attempting to bring the relatively independed Sunday Schools more closely under his supervision (Laqueur 142).  In both cases, however, class regulation was not really at issue and, despite the heat of this controversy, many Sunday Schools continued to offer writing instruction throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century.

In my next post I will explore how the textbooks of the Sunday School movement shaped both literacy and social practice in more depth.  Stay tuned…

References

Ferguson Carr, Jean, Carr, Stephen L. and Schultz, Lucille M. Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Power, John Carroll. The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools. New York: Sheldon, 1863.

Ruggles Gere, Anne. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.

Taylor, James Stephen. “Philanthropy and Empire: Jonas Hanway and the Infant Poor of London.” Eighteenth Century Studies 12.3 (1979): 282-305.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.

Book Review: Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism

Vicki Tolar Burton. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008. [388 pgs].

For far too long the complex issue of the relationship between Methodism and 18th century literary practices and social roles has been overlooked.  Although the disciplinary turn to new historicism and cultural studies has allowed literary scholars to examine texts and contexts through a broad variety of cultural lenses, a serious consideration of religion has rarely been one of them.  As Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti note in their study of “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies,” this is not so much because religion has disappeared as a topic of study but because it has been “somewhat pushed to the side by most New Historicists and cultural materialists, who pursued other topics and, when they dealt with religious issues, quickly translated them into social, economic, and political language” (167).  The same largely holds true 18th Century studies as is evidenced by E.P. Thompson’s famous representation of Methodism in The Making of the English Working Class as an autocratic, repressive, and bourgeois movement intent on reifying class hierarchy.  In Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe, Vicki Tolar Burton takes on these issues by arguing that John Wesley, autocrat though he was, actually promoted a form of “spiritual literacy,” that located the practices of reading, writing, and speaking within a particularly communal and religious space.  In doing so she both situates Methodist literacy practices within the broader literature on 18th century literacy and education, but also reassesses Methodism’s role in promoting the voices of women and the working class.

Tolar Burton’s key argument is that one of the unique factors that determined the success of Wesley’s Methodism was the types of literacy he promoted among its adherents.  Thus literacy, for the Methodists, was located in and revolved around a communal religious space and specific religious practices.  Wesley himself placed a high value on literacy – an attribute he learned in childhood from his brilliant mother Susanna – and kept both a personal spiritual diary and published journal (which often varied greatly) throughout his long life, a practice he expected his followers to emulate.  As such, he both promoted and expected literacy practices from both his lay preachers and lay people – both men and women.  To this end Wesley engaged in an extensive publishing venture which not only published his own works and those of his brother Charles, but also abridged versions of works in “practical divinity” that he thought would be helpful to his flock.  Wesley fully expected that his lay preachers (who were not college educated and not ordained in the Church of England) would read these works and thus improve their education and literacy.

Not only did Wesley promote reading among his preachers and lay members, he also promoted speaking and writing.  In reaction to the growing demand for preachers and the lack of ordained Anglican clergy associated with the movement, Wesley controversially began appointing (though not ordaining) lay preachers to circuits around England.  These preachers were encouraged (nearly fifty years before Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads) to speak in as plain and understandable style as possible without the rhetorical flourishes that characterized the belle lettristic tradition.  Even more controversially and after initial opposition, Wesley began to allow women who possessed an “extraordinary call” to preach publically to mixed crowds.  Women like Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (the wife of the famous John Fletcher), Sarah Crosby, and Sarah Mallett, though not appointed to a circuit, travelled around England preaching and ministering to large crowds.

Unfortunately, the writings and sermons of many of these women preachers do not survive; however there is a clear print record of many other Methodist women who, encouraged by John Wesley, wrote spiritual diaries and journals.  Wesley often solicited these spiritual accounts as “seals” of his ministry and proofs of his controversial doctrine of Christian perfection.  Thus many men and women, even if they did not preach, wrote their own religious experience diaries – many of which were published in the pages of Wesley’s Arminian Magazine or in standalone editions.  The most famous of these accounts is The Experience of Hester Ann Rogers which was published by Wesley shortly before his death and was a best seller throughout the nineteenth century.  Though not a preacher, Rogers was one of the few people who he believed had achieved mystical union with God on earth and her account is an engaging testimony to that fact.

Finally, Tolar Burton includes a chapter on Wesley’s role in the Sunday School movement which, though not founded by the Methodists, was quickly appropriated and expanded by their extensive organization.  By Tolar Burton’s estimation, nearly 2 million children had made their way through Methodist Sunday Schools by 1850 – thus educating an entire generation of working children (and their parents) who had no other options for learning to read.  Thus, she argues, in all of these instances the Methodists were able to use an explicitly religious and spiritual space to both promote literacy practices and reach the poor and marginal (including women), who lay outside of traditional religious and educational structures.

Thus, in reading Methodism as a movement that envisioned literacy as part and parcel of spiritual development, Tolar Burton both expands the existing literature on literacy and education during the eighteenth century and modulates the perception of Methodism as a socially repressive force – a perception that has existed at least since Thompson.  On the first count, Tolar Burton’s chief contribution is to call into question the admittedly shaky analysis of literacy conducted by scholars like Harvey Graff who base their estimates of literacy in the period on signatures on public documents.  As has long been recognized, this is a problematic approach because it privileges writing over reading – ignoring the fact that, while many individuals during the period could not write, this did not mean they could not read.

Tolar Burton makes this especially clear in her chapter on the Sunday School movement, in which she details the controversy even within Methodism over whether to teach the children to write.  Though both reading and writing were considered dangerous skills for the lower classes to obtain, writing was considered to be far more dangerous than reading.  As such, every Methodist Sunday School taught reading (basing the lessons on the Bible) but not all taught writing.  This indicates that, not only was the practice of reading intimately tied to the Protestant ideal of reading the Bible, but that perhaps a higher percentage of people than previously thought were taught to read through Methodist Sunday Schools.

Not only does Tolar Burton interrogate literacy practices and research that privilege writing over reading, she also highlights oratory as a vital Methodist literary practice.  In two key chapters on men and women preachers in early Methodism, she emphasizes the impact the extempore, open air preaching style Wesley encouraged his preachers to adopt affected the spiritual literacy of the movement.  Classically trained at Oxford, John Wesley was more than familiar with all of the major schools of preaching rhetoric – from Ciceronian to Belle Lettristic – nevertheless the style he came to both practice and advocate was far different from anything he learned at Oxford.  Instead, Wesley suggested that his preachers preach simply, on a single scripture passage, without a written text, and in a natural manner (Tolar Burton 114-115).  This style was not only radically different from his contemporaries (especially Hugh Blair) but it also points to the fact that, for Wesley, reaching the broadest possible audience with his message was the paramount concern.  No doubt one of the reasons that preachers like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield were reported to have spoke to open air crowds as large as 10,000 was due to the fact that their style of preaching was far different and far more engaging than the alternative.

Furthermore, in an excellent chapter on Hester Ann Rogers, perhaps the best known of the early Methodist women due to her bestselling Account, Tolar Burton lays out engaging theory of female textual materiality that examines the way in which texts themselves are reshaped in print after the author’s death:

In order to understand and critique the function of women’s rhetoric in the cultural formation of women’s lives, it is helpful to read closely not only the disembodied content of rhetoric written by and for women, but also the embodied texts – the material elements of production and distribution – with particular attention to how publishing decisions and practices affect ethos as it functions in women’s texts and women’s reading.  I am referring to the actual physical changes in the printed texts (211-212).

Hester Ann Rogers’ Account, she argues, is an especially good example of this due to its complicated and revealing publication history.  Originally published on its own in 1793, subsequent editions of the text published after her death in 1794, while still containing the main body of her text, also included significant additions.  Most notably, a funeral sermon by Methodist leader Thomas Coke and personal reflections by her husband James Rogers were appended to the text – both of which went to great lengths to portray Hester as an exemplary wife and mother, a feature notably lacking from the original, intensely spiritual, text.  Furthermore, though there were numerous women preachers in early Methodism, it was the non-preaching, privately religious Hester Ann Rogers that the Methodist leadership post-Wesley chose to uphold.  Thus the internalized spirituality of Rogers’ text, along with the way her image was shaped by her later editors, paradoxically worked to canonize her as a symbol of quiescent female spirituality.

That said, Tolar Burton’s contribution to the literature on eighteenth century literacy practices in only half the story.  Not only does she point out that the practices of literacy were far more extensive and complex than has previously been recognized, but she also challenges the long dominant perception of Methodism as a largely reactionary bourgeois movement.  To be sure, John Wesley was a Church and King man till the day he died but nevertheless, as Tolar Burton points out, a large portion of his ministry was directed to and for the poor, the laboring classes, and women.  In fact, not only were many of Wesley’s preachers drawn from the trades, but some of his first successful ministries were to the Kingswood miners.  Furthermore, as several chapters of Tolar Burton’s book point out, women were an integral part of early Methodism – leading classes and bands, teaching Sunday Schools, and even preaching.

This portrayal of Methodism explicitly challenges its portrayal by people like E.P. Thompson who argue that Methodism operated as an instrument of oppression:

At one level the reactionary – indeed, odiously subservient – character of official Wesleyanism can be established without the least difficulty…. He [Wesley] rarely let pass any opportunity to impress upon his followers the doctrine of submission, expressed less at the level of ideas than of superstition…. Thus, at this level Methodism appears as a politically regressive, or ‘stabilizing’, influence (40-41).

Instead, while in no way denying the fact that Wesley was an unabashed autocrat and defender of the established order, Tolar Burton complicates the portrayal of the movement as a whole by examining the lives and literacy practices of actual Methodist people – both preachers and lay members.  In doing so, she echoes historian Phyllis Mack’s recent call to locate “an angle of vision that allows [us]… to accept these spiritual concerns as sincere and legitimate,” and also “share, however imperfectly the struggles of ordinary Methodists and lay preachers, to stand with individual men and women as they worked to shape their own subjectivity, not in a single cathartic moment at a revival meeting, but over a lifetime” (7).  By doing so, Tolar Burton seeks to move beyond the monolithic figure of John Wesley and understand how ordinary Methodist men and women conceived of the connection between faith, spirituality, literacy, and the public sphere.

In sum, Tolar Burton’s Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism is truly one of the first comprehensive studies (with Phyllis Mack’s Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment) of early Methodist literacy practices and is indicative of a growing trend within literary and rhetorical scholarship to take religious texts and traditions seriously.  Though some of the terrain Tolar Burton covers, especially the history of the Methodist movement and early Methodist diary writing, has been admirably and more comprehensively covered elsewhere (see especially David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of Spirit and D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s The Evangelical Conversion Narrative) overall her book represents a significant contribution to our understanding of how ordinary Methodists experienced and enacted their faith through “spiritual literacy.”

Works Cited

Jackson, Ken, and Arthur Marotti. “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies.” Criticism 46.1 (2004): 167-190.

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.