Religion and Literacy in Colonial New England

by Patricia Miletich

Historical Background

Puritans believed that reading the Bible was important to achieving salvation and, therefore, teaching children to read was a priority in their colonial centers. The New England Primer, first published in Boston in 1690 and used by students through the nineteenth century, was seen as a means to advance literacy. With more than five million copies of the Primer sold, generations of children first learned their ABCs through this publication. The document image is an excerpt from the Primer that shows how the alphabet would be taught to Puritan children.

The New England Primer provides a clear example of the importance of religion to the early Puritan colonists. It also illustrates why the literacy rate in the New England colonies far exceeded that in other areas of settlement.

Essential Question

To what extent did literacy connect the spiritual and secular lives of Puritans?

Motivation, Do Now

  1. Ask students to recall how they learned to read (most will mention school, some may relate exposure to Sesame Street or computer-based instruction, some home schooling). List responses.
  2. Then ask whether they can recall the name of the book they used when they first learned to read.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the process by which Puritan and many other New England children became educated.
  • Read and examine a sample page from the New England Primer.
  • Explain why the Bible was used to help children learn to read.
  • List important values and aspects of proper behavior that were learned along with the ABCs.
  • Create a sample contemporary primer for elementary school students that would replicate the format of the New England Primer but list values and proper behavior in a secular format.

Questions and Activities

The teacher will distribute copies of a page from the New England Primer. (A facsimile edition of The New England Primer can be viewed in the online Internet Archive if you wish to project the page on a large screen.) The teacher will ask various students to read each of the entries and where necessary assist with vocabulary issues.

The teacher will then ask the following questions:

  1. In what ways does the New England Primer reveal the importance of religion in colonial Puritan life?
  2. List and explain the values children would learn along with their ABCs.
  3. Cite any examples in your own education where values may have been taught as part of a reading/writing exercise.

Closure / Summary

The students will be broken up into pairs or triads and asked to take a letter of the alphabet and, using a format similar to the New England Primer, create a contemporary model that will stress appropriate behavior, attitudes, and relationships with others. The lesson will end with reports from the groups on the contemporary primers they created.

The New England Primer, Improved (Hartford: Lincoln & Gleason and Hudson & Goodwin, 1803) (Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress)

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