17th Century Children’s Literature Was Rife With Stories About Death, And For Good Reason

17th Century Children’s Literature Was Rife With Stories About Death, And For Good Reason

Megan Hamilton - July 17, 2018

When we think of children’s literature, magical stories like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are may come to mind. While these stories aren’t infused with too much dark imagery, children’s stories from earlier times were full of frightful images and stark warnings about death.

In the 17th century, kids received a daily dose of death during bedtime stories and during the day’s teachings. While this may seem depressing it made sense since diseases like measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria claimed thousands of young lives in Europe and North America. In England, the life expectancy for most people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was 39.7 years. Infant mortality during this period was staggering, with 12 percent of England-born children dying within the first year of life. Cumulatively, 36 percent of children died before age six.

Now compare this with modern times: In 2014, only 5.82 infant deaths per every 1,000 births were reported in the U.S. Today, children’s books are full of colorful images of animals, plants, and anything else that seems cheerful. But with death by disease seeming to hang around every corner in the 17th Century, books were full of lavish praise for the Great Beyond.

17th Century Children’s Literature Was Rife With Stories About Death, And For Good Reason
An excerpt from James Janeway’s book “A Token For Children. Image by Phrood via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

A Dose of Death With Every Fable

Stories like A Token for Children by James Janeway, a Puritan minister and The New England Primer, written by Benjamin Harris, a British journalist who emigrated to the U.S., put death front and center in a child’s mind.

All of the children in Janeway’s book are on their deathbeds, and all of them are portrayed as virtuous and pious, and as such on their way to the afterlife. Hardly cheerful, the book is subtitled “an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children.” As they lay dying, each child describes in detail the sins kids committed — idleness, disobedience, inattention to school work, being too noisy and boisterous, ignoring the Sabbath. But instead of being depressed and tearful, these children find it in themselves to tell everyone that salvation awaits if they renounce their sinful ways. The kids make it clear they are quite happy to be traveling to their eternal reward. And the book sold well for more than a century, making it clear that young readers enjoyed this book. But to really hammer the message home, parents, teachers, and nurses were advised to have their young charges read the book at least one hundred times.

But The New England Primer is the book that really held sway in the 17th and 18th centuries. Widely used for more than 150 years, the book became popular throughout colonial America and Great Britain. By 1830 an estimated six to eight million copies had been sold. Illustrated with crude woodcut prints, Harris borrowed from books that influenced him as a young man: John Amos Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus, and Protestant Tutor, an earlier book he himself had written.

17th Century Children’s Literature Was Rife With Stories About Death, And For Good Reason
An excerpt from The New England Primer by Benjamin Harris by FAE via Wikimedia Commons

Punishment in Rhymes

In rhyming couplets featured in poems, prayers, and scriptures, the slim, 100-page book immersed children in themes of sin, death, punishment and salvation and respect for authority. Punishment, for example, is demonstrated in these rhyming couplets for the letters F and J:

“The idle fool is whipt at school.”

“Job feels the rod, yet blesses God.”

And there’s this cheerful couplet for the letter Y:

“Youth forward slips/death soonest nips.”

While the Primer seems morbid to us, it’s a good idea to remember it was written well before Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau began espousing his ideas on childhood innocence. And Puritan families in this time period probably wouldn’t find this book morbid because they embraced the idea of original sin, which held that all human beings, beginning with Adam, are born in sin. Death was considered the bridge to heavenly bliss, so these teachings helped alleviate anxiety and fear of death.

The political and religious climate of this time fueled the rise of this book. And when Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, they hoped to form a society based on the English Reformation, full of the fundamental precepts embodied in the Bible. The push was on to teach people to read so they could follow the Christian scriptures. By 1635, the Boston Latin school was founded, and students were immersed in Greek and Latin and thus prepared to attend the newly established Harvard University. There, they were to study to become ministers or magistrates.

By 1642, Massachusetts law required that all children, servants, and apprentices be taught to read. With the passage of the 1647 Old Deluder Satan Act, townships with more than 50 households were required to hire a teacher.

For kids, learning came in the form of a hornbook, which was a sheet printed with the alphabet that was attached to a wooden paddle. The hornbook was usually accompanied by The New England Primer, which really came into its own during this period. Whipping was the most common form of discipline, but sometimes a yoke was also used to tie miscreants together like oxen. On occasion, those who talked out of turn got the whispering stick — a stick placed in the child’s mouth and tied with a string.

The Primer was reproduced by a number of publishers and more than 450 editions were released by 1830. Adaptations were geared towards different geographic regions and different ethnic groups. There was even The Indian Primer, printed in 1781 in both the Mohawk and English language. With every new edition came changes in the content, although each still contained the illustrated alphabet and religious doctrine in one form or another. The couplet for the letter A remained constant: “In Adam’s fall/We sinned all,” but other verses changed to reflect emerging political or religious ideas. Once the U.S. gained independence from Britain, the corresponding couplet changed from “Our king the good/No man of blood,” to “The British King/Lost states thirteen,” and finally to “Queens and kings/Are gaudy things.”

17th Century Children’s Literature Was Rife With Stories About Death, And For Good Reason
Later editions, such as this one dated 1773, reflected the changing political and religious ideologies of the time. Image by The Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Differing Editions, Differing Ideas

The Great Awakening reignited the colonies with a new religious fervor from the 1720s through the 1740s and the primer changed accordingly. Instead of “The Cat doth play/And after slay,” children were learning that “Christ crucify’d/For sinners dy’d.” The wrathful God portrayed in the earliest primers became more loving, and education itself became more secularized and there was less emphasis on sin and punishment. Where there was once fire offered as punishment there was in one 1790 edition, the threat of treats being taken away and the idea of literacy was now offered as a path to financial security. The idea of eternal salvation was still there but its voice was less strident. A 1819 version extolled the virtue of play:

“Tis youth’s delight/to fly their kite.”

Other adaptations included The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments, and Milk for Babes, written by the Colonialist John Cotton.

Despite criticism for portraying children as corrupted by sin, The New England Primer made an enormous impact on morality in North America. Sadly, despite its popularity, less than 1500 copies of the book remain today. The earliest known copy still in existence was published in 1727, and because there are so few surviving texts. likely due to constant use, this indicates the book was indeed very popular. It’s also an indication of how the text’s principles influenced American values during this time. The primer was used well into the 19th century before losing its popularity.

But this text which influenced so many lives is also remarkable in another way. Because numerous editions of this work were published, those that still exist serve as a window into the changing philosophies used to educate children. While The New England Primer was slim, its impact on how children learned to think was huge. With childhood mortality rates so high, and terrifying diseases like smallpox, whooping-cough, and others that could wreak havoc on a child’s body both physically and mentally, undoubtedly the primer was a comfort that made the idea of death less frightening. It normalized death and put it in contexts that kids could relate to.

It certainly gives you something to think about the next time you peruse the children’s book section at the local bookstore.


Where do we get this Stuff? Here are our sources.

17th Century Children Learned to Read With Lessons On Death, Hell, And Salvation, The Vintage News

The New England Primer, Encyclopaedia Britannica

How The Old Deluder Satan Act Made Sure Puritan Children Got Educated, The New England Historical Society

Once Upon A Time: A Brief History Of Children’s Literature, The Conversation

The Origins of Children’s Literature, The British Museum

About Harvard, Harvard University

A Token For Children, The British Library