14 Oct 2008

The New England Primer

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
Most people know this sweet (trite!) little prayer. Fewer of us know where is came from - The New England Primer of 1784.

This book, often known as America's schoolbook, was first published around 1690 by the English printer Benjamin Harris, who had come to Boston in Massachusetts in 1686 to escape the Catholic James II.

The New-England Primer was the first reading primer designed for the American Colonies and it became the most successful educational textbook published in colonial history. It was commonly said that the primer taught millions to read and not one to sin.

As well as selections for beginning reading instruction, the book contained religious sayings, catechisms, and moral lessons. Some versions contained the Westminster Shorter Catechism; others contained a catechism, known as Milk for Babes.

Its rather a shame that it is only the prayer printed above that is widely known today - there are some wonderful contents in this little book!

We use this short catechism as part of Family Worship sometimes:

Who was the first man? Adam.
Who was the first woman? Eve.
Who was the first Murderer? Cain.
Who was the first Martyr? Abel.
Who was the first Translated? Enoch.
Who was the oldest Man? Methuselah.
Who built the Ark? Noah.
Who was the Patientest Man? Job.
Who was the Meekest Man? Moses.
Who led Israel into Canaan? Joshua.
Who was the strongest Man? Sampson.
Who killed Goliath? David.
Who was the wisest Man? Soloman.
Who was in the Whale's Belly? Jonah.
Who saves lost Men? Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? The Son of God
Who was the Mother of Christ? Mary.
Who betrayed his Master? Judas.
Who denied his Master? Peter.
Who was the first Christian Martyr? Stephen.
Who was chief Apostle of the Gentiles? Saul.

Some of the verses are fun for copywork:

Good children must,
Fear God all day, Love Christ alway,
Parents obey, In secret pray,
No false thing say, Mind little play,
By no sin stray, Make no delay,
In doing good.

The Golden Rule in verse would be good too:

BE you to others kind and true,
As you'd have others be to you:
And neither do nor say to men,
Whate'er you would not take again.

The primer remained in print well into the 19th century and was even used in the 20th. It is easy to see why. Take a look at the 1777 version of the primer online, and see if you find anything of value for your family!

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