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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

The Bay Psalm Book (1640)
The New England Primer (1683?)
The Bay Psalm Book and The New England Primer were, next to the Bible, the most commonly owned books in seventeenth-century New England. Together, they served to disseminate Puritan values for over a hundred years. Designed to be inexpensive and easily portable, they addressed the Puritan concern for having personal faith reconfirmed in daily activity. They established the basic texts of Puritan culture, setting them to familiar hymn tunes and pictured alphabets, thus enabling singing, recitation, and memorization. These books made possible individual participation in the culture, but they also represent the authoritative disciplining of that individuality through culturally sanctioned texts and behavior.

In 1647, the Massachusetts courts warned against that “old deluder, Satan,” who strove “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, keeping them in an unknown tongue.” The Bay Psalm Book addressed this warning by translating the Hebrew psalms of David into idiomatic, metrical English to be sung by the entire congregation both in church and at home. The New England Primer offered every child (“and apprentice”) the chance to learn to read the catechism and a set of moral precepts. Both books insisted on the cultural and religious importance of reading in the vernacular instead of in a language available only to university-trained clergy. The 1647 court hoped that “learning may not be buried in the grave of the fathers in the church and commonwealth.”

The Bay Psalm Book was the collaborative project of over twelve leading Puritan divines and the first publishing venture of the Massachusetts colony. The 1700 copies of the first edition provided Puritans with “a plain and familiar translation” designed to represent more “faithfully” the Hebrew psalms than did the version used by the Pilgrims of neighboring Plymouth. As John Cotton wrote in 1643, the translation was “as near the original as we could express it in our English tongue.” In his preface, Cotton defended the Puritans’ version as attending to “Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry”: “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.” Often printed in England and Scotland as well as in the colonies, the psalter went through over fifty editions in the next century. Revised by Richard Lyon and Henry Dunster (the first president of Harvard) in 1651, and three more times in the 1700s (once by Cotton Mather), The Bay Psalm Book was widely used until it was supplanted in the eighteenth century by psalters written by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady (1696), by Isaac Watts (1719), and by John and Charles Wesley (1737). Psalm singing continued to be considered an important means by which the general population could learn the cultural text through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. Emerson, describing the singing of the psalms during the 1835 bicentennial celebration of Concord, spoke with a kind of reverence about the psalm singing: “It was a noble ancient strain, & had the more effect from being ‘deaconed’ out, a line at a time, after the fashion of our grandfathers, & sung by the whole congregation.”

The New England Primer, which is estimated to have sold five million copies of its various versions from 1683 to 1830, offered the Puritan child literacy and religious training combined. By means of an illustrated alphabet, moral sentences, poems, and a formal catechism (either the Westminster Assembly’s “Shorter Catechism” or John Cotton’s “Spiritual Milk for Babes”), the child was to be “both instructed in his Duty, and encouraged in his Learning.” The book was the practical outgrowth of the colony’s insistence on the importance of widespread literacy as a means for salvation and civic order. A 1642 law required town leaders to inquire into the training of children, “especially their ability to read and understand the principles of Religion and the Capital laws of the country.” The Primer’s exemplary poem by the martyred John Rogers exhorts children to treasure the “little Book” of their father’s words, to “Lay up [God’s] Laws within your heart, and print them in your thought.” The young readers of the Primer, like Rogers’s children, were not just the “Heirs of earthly Things”; they were expected to inherit and preserve the cultural and religious values of the community, to be responsible for “that part, / which never shall decay” as long as each generation learned the words and creeds, the promises and definitions upon which Puritan culture was based.

Both the Psalm Book and the Primer are evolving texts, whose frequent revisions show their valued yet contested status as cultural transmissions. They are the product neither of a single author nor of one historical period, but embody the changing values of a changing society and show the influence of new events and situations, of variation in language and literary taste. Although both books clearly advance a dominant ideology, insisting on specific religious beliefs and moral precepts, they also show concern for making creeds responsive to the particular historical circumstances of the colonists. The preface to the Psalm Book warns against mere imitation of ancient poetry, advocating instead that “every nation without scruple might follow...their own country poetry.” The Psalm Book was revised to satisfy the desire for “a little more Art,” in reaction to changing practices of church singing and under the influence of neoclassical and Latin poetry. The introduction to the 1752 revision justified changes because “the Flux of Languages has rendered several Phrases in it obsolete, and the Mode of Expression in various Places less acceptable.” The 1758 revision sought to elevate “diminutive Terms” into “more grand and noble Words” (changing, for example, “Hills” to “Mountains,” “Floods” to “Seas”) and to match diction more closely with mood (“for grand Ideas, I seek the most majestick Words; for tender Sentiments, the softest Words”).

The Primer proved even more chameleon, as it was adapted to different geographical areas (e.g., The Albany Primer, The Pennsylvania Primer) and to different ethnic groups (an Indian Primer of 1781 was a dual-language text, designed for Mohawk children “to acquire the spelling and reading of their own: As well as to get acquainted with the English Tongue, which for that purpose is put on the opposite page”). Although certain sections of the Primer were regularly retained (especially the catechism, the pictured alphabet, and John Rogers’s poem), revisions over time show the influence of events (the American Revolution, the evangelical movement of the 1800s) and changes in attitudes (the softening of attitudes toward punishment and sin, the move toward more secularized moral education), as well as changes in children’s literature. In later, more secularized versions, naughty children are threatened not with tempests and the consuming fire, but with losing “Oranges, Apples, Cakes, or Nuts,” and the grim poem of the martyr is printed in uneasy conjunction with Isaac Watts’s soothing “Cradle Song.” The value of literacy as a route to eternal salvation becomes, in a 1790 English revision, the promise of economic advancement. An 1800 version even replaces the trademark illustrated alphabet with a milder verse, “A was an apple-pie.” Thus the Psalm Book and the Primer, in their multiple versions, both chronicle and foster historical change. They are central texts of Puritan culture, and they mark the subsequent transformations and uses of that culture.

Jean Ferguson Carr
University of Pittsburgh

In the Heath Anthology
from "The Preface" by John Cotton (1640)
Psalms 1, 8, 23, 51, 137 (1640)
The New England Primer
      "Alphabet" (c.1683)
      "The Death of John Rogers" (1683)
      "The Dutiful Child's Promises" (1727)
      "Verses" (1727)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
IMAGE fileThe New England Primer

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Bay Psalm Book. Cambridge, 1640.
Several scanned pages of The Bay Psalm Book.

The Bay Psalm Book
An etext of the first book written in the Colonies, each section is accompanied by "common meter tunes," which mark out the cadence of the text.

Secondary Sources

Paul Ford, ed., The New England Primer, facsimile of 1727 edition with historical essay, 1897, rpt., 1962

Zoltan Haraszti, The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book, 1956

C. Heartman, The New England Primer, 1914, Second edition, R.R. Bowker, 1934

Clifton Johnson, Old-Time Schools and School-Books, 1904, rpt., 1963

Maxine T. Turner, A History of the Bay Psalm Book, Diss., 1970