Butterfly in the sky ... I can fly twice as high

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sunday School Books

Here is a great collection I have worked with in the past. It looks at 19th-century sunday school libraries. From 1826 to 1832, the percentage of Sunday schools with a library exploded from 17% to 75%. By 1830, some of the larger religious presses were printing over six million tracts a year. Often sold in pre-packaged libraries of 100 texts costing between five and ten dollars, these books covered a wide array of topics. I think it really drives home some of the origins of youth service librarianship in new ways that we maybe don't often think enough about. The collision of morality, religion, civics, consumerism, and education have all served in amorphous and varying ways to shape our profession. Some of these progressive ideas had much earlier origins before coalescing in the 1900s. I hope you enjoy this resource and the background I've provided!

Shaping the Values of Youth: Sunday School Books in 19th Century America

Materials digitized by the Michigan State Libraries Special Collection

Background: The Sunday school books in the Michigan State Libraries collection cover a wide-array of topics, genres and materials. Included are song books, story books, instructional pamphlets on birds and animals, parenting guides, and advice tomes on Christian values for young adults. The books range over a broad period of time, from 1800 to 1890, though the bulk come from mid-century. They represent the works produced by eight different publishers, though the American Tract Society and the American Sunday-School Union do dominate the publications. These books and periodicals were housed in local church libraries, some of the first libraries to cater to children. These resources can provide a lot of insight into the early development of youth service libraries.

The site offers a useful introductory essay by Stephan Rachman that can provide additional background on the available materials:  http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/ssb/?action=introessay

I hope you enjoy checking out this rare source. As the site’s introductory essay notes, “The combination of fiction and scripture under the pressure of culture produces many unexpected results.” Below, I provide a few more thematic guidelines for the collection.

Prevalent Topics and Themes: Though the topics and themes covered in the collection are far-ranging, certain ones seem to be oft-repeated:
Citizenship: Interestingly, many of the books are forced to collide Christian values with the frameworks of American citizenship. Christian moral lessons were often taught through stories about major American figures like George Washington or Ben Franklin. Notions of republicanism often intermixed with the religious virtues as well.
Poverty: Sunday Schools in England began as a way to inculcate poor orphans. Much of this was carried over to the United States and themes of Christian charity abound. A number of stories qualify charity, though, by prescribing it only for the temperate and devout poor. Immigration is also addressed through much of the poverty literature, usually in developing characters of pious poor immigrants to assert their acceptance in Christianity.
Disobedience: Many of the books present moralizing tales of the pitfalls of not obeying one’s parents. These stories often showed tragic stories of what could happen if a child were to leave home at a young age, or would fail to support one’s aging parents.
Industriousness: Though seemingly at odds at times with some of the notions of Christian charity and piety, industriousness is continually reinforced as a crucial virtue for young children to maintain. We also see some of the conflicts inherent when imbuing Christianity and citizenship together. Sometimes single texts seem conflicted over how to address these inconsistencies
Parental Involvement: Nearly every book on parenting reiterates the fact that parents must not rely only on the schools but carry the education and development of their children into the home. Many of the images, as well, seem to point to the role of the home in the education process. In some ways, these books may have been the link between the home and the schools.  It also insists on the need to set model examples for those children.
Advice: Many of the publications were advice books, seeking to provide guidance both to parents and young adults in how best to conduct themselves. In these works, there is a recurring sense of anxiety for both the authors and its readership. These books often discuss how young adults can maintain their piety in a world that increasingly seems devoid of virtue. In large part, these books attempt to indoctrinate the moral codes of the adults into their children in hopes of creating a better future.
Gender Roles: There is a clear delineation between the roles of men and women and boys and girls in these books. In fact, many books are written solely for young men, and others for young girls. Even in books published for both, there is a clear distinction between stories designed for boys and those designed for girls, even if the message is the same.

Educational Methods: It is also interesting to examine these texts as part of a framework for early education. The Sunday schools in many ways served to complement the common schools, but the lines of demarcation were never clear. Hence, in Sunday school books you have sections describing various birds and animals mixed in with stories designed to teach morality lessons.
The growth over the course of the nineteenth century in the amount of fiction, though, does speak to a shift in the educational methods used in the schools. Increasingly, publishers and instructors seem to have recognized the utility of fiction to teach their lessons. Rather than the rote memorization of church prayers and Biblical passages, Sunday school educators began to turn to means of imparting these morality lessons in packages that piqued children’s interests. Songs were also commonly intertwined in these instructional books. The mixture of fiction with lecture, though, forced the publishers to have to distinguish for children between what was valuable reading and what was inane, a lesson they taught through more moralizing stories.
There is also a repeated emphasis in these works on the fact that children were malleable. Rather than fully determined beings, or primitive beings shaped only by time and age, children would develop based on the nurturing they received at home and in the classroom. The Sunday school books also repeatedly stressed the importance of avoiding harsh physical punishment as part of a child’s education. They took child psychology into account to a much greater extent than earlier education. In many ways, some of their methods hint at aspects of certain later efforts for curricular reform of progressive education. Their appeal to children’s desires coincides with ideas later presented by educational developmentalists, who emphasized shaping student curriculum towards what would appeal to children at various ages.

Growth of Children’s Literature: It is also interesting to examine how these books fit in with the rise of American children’s literature. The introductory essay goes into some detail about this, so I do recommend it. This period in the nineteenth century is perfect for examining how these genres, publishing companies, and infrastructure developed. To look at it through the lens of church books adds a fascinating layer as the church constantly struggled with the implications of fiction upon their doctrinal message, though appreciated their ability to convey concepts of morality. Here’s an excerpt from Stephen Rachman’s introductory essay addressing that dynamic:
“As Anne Boylan has delineated it, "there was give-and-take between students and Sunday-school workers. Superintendents and teachers agreed on the inclusion of question books, catechisms, Bible concordances and dictionaries, Scripture biographies, and inspiring life stories, but they also recognized that children seldom checked out these books voluntarily." It was clear to most observers that children returned time and again to the fictional works and would seldom take out the books "of more solid religious character." Because teachers saw that it was most important to cultivate a taste for reading in their young students they began to rely more and more on "entertaining tales with moral messages."19 The concern with fiction lay in the sense that not only could it lead to fantasy or sensationalism but also to kind of license with scripture itself, unorthodox or personal interpretations, and secular opinion. This was another reason that the Sunday school unions formed publication committees to oversee and regulate content.”[1]

I hope you enjoy checking out these fascinating historical materials. They do help to inform us about the origins of much of our modern-day children’s literature, and how adults and publishers began to conceive of children both as a new consumer market, and a malleable intellectual marketplace that could be shaped through reading, and education.

[1] Stephe Rachman, “Shaping the Values of Youth: Sunday School Books in 19th Century America,” Accessed September 4, 2012, http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/ssb/?action=introessay .

No comments:

Post a Comment