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By Kate Uttinger

Thousands of school children across the South and Midwest devoured them. No fewer than 10 presidents cut their teeth on their famous stories. Business magnates such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, and H.J. Heinz believed they were the bread and butter of their elementary education.

More than 120 million copies of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were sold in the 19th century alone, making them the third most popular texts behind the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary. Though peppered with references to God (and a small few specifically to Jesus Christ), McGuffey’s Readers reflect a non-denominational sentiment tolerant of even the most extreme political and religious sects of the time – from abolitionists to Unitarians.

William Holmes McGuffey, born in 1800, was raised in a home with strong Covenanter roots. His parents, Anna and Alexander McGuffey, hailed from a line of Ulster Scots who hated political tyranny, valued the “Puritan” virtues of diligence and thrift and believed in the importance of education.

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Just two years after McGuffey was born, his father moved the family to the Western frontier of Ohio. Ohio was a rich, fertile land, filled with opportunities for those with strong backs (and empty purses) to make a future for themselves.

Taming the wooded territory was incredibly difficult work – work that Anna Holmes McGuffey hoped her son would leave behind for intellectual pursuits. One day, a traveling Presbyterian minister passing by the McGuffey home overheard Anna praying for her son’s education. The next day, the minister, William Wick, returned and offered to take young McGuffey under his care at his “subscription school.” There, Wick continued the education that Anna had begun in her home.

Many of the schools in the early 1800s, like Wick’s, were subscription schools. Parents paid a small sum to a qualified – and sometimes not so qualified – young man to give their children a basic education in reading and mathematics, and in McGuffey’s case, Latin. The Bible, Webster’s Blue Backed Speller and the New England Primer were the chief reading texts of the day.

McGuffey was a bright and dedicated student. Before he had even completed his college education, he was offered a job teaching languages at Miami University in Ohio, a school loosely associated with the more liberal elements of Presbyterianism and famous for hosting radical abolitionist debates. Miami University was young, with big ambitions to become the “Yale of the West.”

It was during McGuffey’s 10-year tenure at Miami that he wrote and compiled the first four Readers of his series. At Miami, McGuffey gained a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. He had apparently had some harsh disagreements with Robert Bishop, the president of the school, over the lax discipline of the students. Students were caught drinking, engaging in “riotous behavior” and shooting and stabbing one another on campus. In a conciliatory move, Bishop offered McGuffey the prestigious Moral Philosophy chair. McGuffey readily accepted. Moral philosophy is the study of ethics, generally apart from inscripturated revelation. The starting point of such philosophy is the “law” revealed in creation and the mind of man – his reason, conscience and so forth. It is no surprise, then, that some of McGuffey’s thoughts about moral philosophy color the pages of his Readers.

In 1829, McGuffey was ordained to the ministry by the Oxford Presbytery in Ohio. Though never formally called by any church, he did fill a Presbyterian pulpit in Darrtown, Ohio, for about four years. McGuffey reportedly preached over 3,000 sermons in his lifetime – and rarely wrote down a single one. He valued extemporaneous preaching, believing that it forces the preacher to preach simply, so that even the most illiterate farmer could understand.

Though McGuffey himself was remarkably silent about his precise theological leanings, some biographers consider him an “Old School” Presbyterian. Later, when McGuffey would serve on the board of the Athens Presbyterian Church, he maintained his reputation as a strict disciplinarian in the church, prosecuting individuals for “profane language, dancing, keeping vain company and questioning the Scriptures.” McGuffey also spent a great deal of time preaching in the campus chapel and filling numerous pulpits during his time in Ohio, including those in Methodist congregations.

Little is known about the content of McGuffey’s sermons, but he was an eloquent, popular speaker. One story is surprisingly reminiscent of Luke 5: Some eager citizens, “unable to gain admittance to the lecture hall, cut a hole in the ceiling of the hall and gathered there every Sunday to hear the eloquent divine expound the Scriptures.”

McGuffey published his first in Reader 1836. In his spare time, he had been teaching reading and elocution to children in a makeshift schoolroom on his back portico as sort of an experiment. He noted what interested the children; he learned what sort of mistakes they kept making; he observed the character traits that needed addressing. McGuffey used his findings to write and compile his Readers.

Though there were a plethora of readers popping up in McGuffey’s day, his vision was unique on at least a few counts. First, McGuffey felt that many of the readers available didn’t truly meet the needs of the young student. Most presented a level of content too difficult for struggling learners, and the most popular, he felt, had lessons far too preoccupied with death.

McGuffey’s early Readers included, among its moralistic teachings, age appropriate stories about nature, pets, siblings and rural life. Filled with appealing pictures, the Readers progressed in difficulty as the student increased in skill. The more advanced Readers included selections from the Bible, as well as prominent American and British authors.

Second, McGuffey’s Readers stood as an alternative to Eastern and Northern publications. McGuffey saw that the needs of Western children differed radically from the children of urban, and often more aristocratic, children in the East. The West was still a wild place, attracting the rough, the poor and the ambitious, and especially those from diverse political and religious backgrounds. Just as Bishop desired a college that could stand toe-to-toe with Yale, so McGuffey and his publishers sought a reader that was distinctly “Western.”

And most importantly, McGuffey’s Readers were self-consciously moralistic and non-sectarian. The flood of immigrants into the West necessitated in McGuffey’s mind the need for a reader that would appeal to the various religious sentiments of the diverse population, without stepping on any theological toes. In McGuffey’s grander educational vision, it was critical to “bust up the dominant Eastern educational bias of Calvinist theology.” Therefore McGuffey “refused to indoctrinate in religious dogma, but found common ground in the diverse religious views of the time.”

He was, according to one biographer, “the lone voice crying in the wilderness of illiteracy; crying, ‘Prepare the way for a great people.’”

The McGuffey social standards were accepted as of Sinitic authority. This new mind of the West, tolerant, eager to be “communized,” found agreement in the sturdy, consistent moral and social principles taught by the McGuffey Readers.

This general appeal to the social morality of a broad cross-section of America made McGuffey’s Readers the most popular and successful of the 19th century.

McGuffey’s success was due in large part to the myriad of social reforms sweeping the nation. The education of America’s youth was no exception. The College of Teachers, a politically radical and diverse organization in Cincinnati, dedicated themselves to the notion that education has the utopian power to eradicate social evils. McGuffey joined this group during his tenure at Miami out of his desire to discuss education, pedagogy, philosophy and literature with other intellectuals who cared about such things. And care they did. McGuffey and others within the College worked tirelessly to address the problems they saw in education, from overly democratic Jacksonian ideals to the ill-preparedness of young teachers to the moral decay evident in the edges of the frontier.

The College, which was akin to a “think-tank,” was a motley group of radical abolitionists, Unitarians, liberal New School Presbyterians, Old School Presbyterians, Catholics, feminists and socialists. Lyman Beecher, Catherine Beecher, Calvin Stowe, Daniel Drake, Samuel Lewis, Thomas Grimke and other controversial activists worked side by side with McGuffey in the College as he was hammering out his Readers. The Teacher’s College was instrumental in defining and campaigning for one of the most important, if not lasting, educational developments in the 19th century: the common school.

The goals of the common school were relatively few and simple, yet their impact upon education for the nation would be profound. Common schools sought to provide a non-denominational education to all classes of children, poor or rich. Common schools worked to teach and maintain a common, shared language that would erase distinction between regions and social status. The common schools’ curriculum was to reflect the values, morals and shared intellectual heritage of America by teaching the basics – basics that every creed, class or sect could agree upon. And it was to be paid for by all taxpayers, regardless of whether they had children to be educated or not. An educated citizenry, proponents argued, was in the common interest of every American.

In actuality, the common school was an attempt to create a moral citizen, even a “Christian” citizen, without appealing to doctrinal distinctives or much doctrine at all. The end result would be a morally grounded citizenry ready to assume leadership over the growing diversity of the nation.

William McGuffey

In the vision of McGuffey, Drake and other educational reformers across the nation (like Horace Mann, who hated the Calvinism of his youth), the common school would be so non-sectarian that a Unitarian, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a German Schwenkfelder and a Roman Catholic could feel at home under the instruction of an impartial schoolmaster.

It was in this context that McGuffey developed his readers. The virtues most important to a Westward expanding society, such as diligence, thrift and patriotism was the mantra of the common school, and the addition of the Bible to the curriculum was not seen as contradictory at all to the goal of the common school – so long as the more controversial parts of the Scriptures were omitted. McGuffey’s Readers reflect his philosophy that “Christian morals [were] a base shared by all American regardless of faith.”

One modern biographer remarks, “It is no surprise then, that many conservative religious groups in McGuffey’s day, such as the Amish and Mennonites, who today cherish the McGuffey Readers, refused to use them in McGuffey’s time, appalled by McGuffey’s request for a common moral ground.”

Many see McGuffey expounding the praises of diligence, industry, thrift, compassion for the poor and the providence of God and immediately equate them with the Calvinistic doctrine presented in earlier New England and Puritan readers. It may be that his Readers reflect earlier texts, but the heart of McGuffey’s theology in the Readers departs from Calvin’s, particularly in his belief that “moral education was the real agent of change” in the hearts of children.

Consider Calvin’s view, speaking of the great “moral virtues” of Christianity, the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5: “[Paul] condemned the whole nature of man as producing nothing but evil and worthless fruits. … All virtues, all proper and well regulated affections, proceed from the Spirit, that is, from the grace of God, and the renewed nature we derive from Christ. … There have often appeared in unrenewed men remarkable instances of gentleness, integrity, temperance and generosity; but it is certain that all were but specious disguises.”

Yet McGuffey’s Readers were filled with moral maxims for living, many of them consistent with Christian principles, but with a sort of “do-it-yourself” twist.

On the later editions of the Readers, McGuffey biographer Vail writes, “There was in these books much direct teaching of moral principles, with ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not.’ In the later revisions this gradually disappeared. The moral teaching was less direct but more effective. The pupil was left to make his own deduction. … The author and publishers were fully justified in their belief that the American people are a moral people and that they have a strong desire that their children be taught to become brave, patriotic, honest, self-reliant, temperate and virtuous citizens.”

The fundamental flaw here perhaps lies in the fact that 19th century educators – and McGuffey would appear to be included – believed that education was the answer to man’s sin problem. A proper education could present virtue so winsomely that the wise child would be drawn to do good and to fear Divine retribution.

In McGuffey’s Primer we read, “My son, do no bad act. Go not in the way of bad boys. A bad boy has woe. He can have no joy. If you tell a lie, you will be a bad boy. If you do ill, few will care for you. If you do well, all will love you. To have the love of all will give you joy. If you can not love, you must not hate. Do not try to hurt him who is a foe, for God can do to him as He will. Let it be your joy to do the will of God, for He can see you and all you do.”

Such moralizing apart from the work of the Spirit reflects McGuffey’s belief that children naturally want to be liked, that they want to be happy and that they want to have the approval of God and their teachers – and that they can choose to “be good,” given enough incentive. Educating children about the dangers of lying, wasting time, gambling and especially drinking became a hallmark of the Readers.

Though McGuffey’s Covenanter upbringing no doubt played a role in his attitude toward drinking, his close association with many prominent temperance advocates, like the Beechers, fueled his belief that temperance was a primary middle-class Christian virtue.

Stories like “The Whiskey Boy,” where John, at the tutelage of his tippling father, becomes “a dreadful object” before he was eight years old and is promptly carted off to the poor house for public drunkenness are characteristic of McGuffey’s teetotaling sentiments. Thus, teaching children about moral vices and their fearful consequences became a way for education to work hand in hand with religion as the panacea of society.

McGuffey claimed, “The more intelligence is diffused through the community, the more will the desire to improve be increased.”

One critical biographer remarks that the soteriology presented in the Readers suggests that “no one has gone too far on the path of sin to redeem himself.”

Given that such outspoken abolitionists as the Beechers and the Stowes had such a profound influence upon McGuffey’s Readers (and their shared concern over temperance appeared so frequently in Readers), it is noteworthy that the Readers make no mention of slavery. McGuffey himself never claimed to be an abolitionist. Although he had a personal distaste for it, he ultimately wanted the question of slavery to be left up to the individual states to sort out.

After McGuffey’s time as president of Ohio University, McGuffey accepted a position at the University of Virginia teaching moral philosophy, where he stayed until his death in 1873. McGuffey had since lost his first wife and married the daughter of the University’s philosophy chair, Laura Howard.

McGuffey’s appointment to Virginia was not without some conflict, especially considering his intimate connection with a radial group of abolitionists. But McGuffey seemed to settle into Southern life nicely, with one exception. His father-in-law had sent over one of his slaves, William Gibbons, to work in McGuffey’s home as a butler. This made McGuffey and particularly his 16-year-old daughter, Mary, more than a little uncomfortable. But McGuffey wasn’t one to rock the boat.

His daughter, however, had no problem with making waves. According to one family history, she was appalled that Gibbons wasn’t allowed to learn how to read or write. So she set out to teach him.

“You can’t do that,” McGuffey remonstrated, “it’s against the law of Virginia.”

“Don’t care if it is,” she answered. “I’m going to do it anyway.”

And she did.

Gibbons later went on to become a prominent African-American Baptist minister in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Perhaps McGuffey did not see the danger of offering a watered down Christianity to the masses of uneducated American children. Perhaps he did not foresee that his likely well-intentioned Readers could make the slide from ecumenical “Christianity” to secular moralism so easy.

McGuffey, in a lecture to the College of Teachers declared, “The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions. From its sanctions are derived the obligations to veracity imposed on the administration of justice. In its revelations are found the only certain grounds of hope in its reference to that, else unknown future, which lies beyond the horizon of time. It alone places a guard over the conscience, which never slumbers, and whose eye cannot be evaded by any address of the delinquent. Its maxims, its precepts, its sentiments and even its very spirit, have become so incorporated in the mind and soul of civilization, and all refinement, that it cannot be eradicated, or even opposed, without imminent hazard of all that is beautiful, lovely and valuable in the arts, in science and in society.

“Let us then, fellow-teachers,” he continued, “avoid, on the one hand, the inculcation of all sectarian peculiarities in religion: and on the other, let us beware of incurring the charge (which will not fail to be made) of being enemies to our country’s quiet, by teaching to our pupils the crude notions and revolutionary principles of modern infidelity. It is at best, but an unsustained hypothesis.”

McGuffey’s apparently extreme fear of “sectarian peculiarities” prompts many such stories as little “John Jones.” The poor illiterate boy John Jones is given some “good advice” by his well-meaning employer in the First Reader, which sums up the “good” boy’s road to salvation: “Pray to Him when you rise, and when you lie down. Keep His day, hear His word and do His will, and He will love you, and will be your God forever.”

Here salvation is offered in ostensibly non-sectarian terms, terms that any Unitarian, Arminian or liberal Presbyterian could accept: the road to salvation need not specifically mention the Bible, sin or the particular atoning work of the incarnate God-Man Jesus Christ. In this case, salvation is achieved by going to church on Sunday, offering a non-specific prayer and hearing His “word.” Those who read McGuffey’s Readers may be tempted to see more in their pages than trite stories about the evils of whiskey and the glories of hard work. They may see a Christianity without Christ, a spirituality without the Spirit, and a salvation without the cross.

Learn more about William McGuffey at the Leben website.

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