rom the seventeenth century onwards England had a remarkably literate population. Indeed, the widespread popularity enjoyed by chapbooks speaks to the manner in which English adults, whether urban or rural, had mastered the rudiments of reading. The spread of literacy, in fact, closely associated with the rise of Protestantism, which emphasized that all believers should read the Bible closely and apply what they found there to their own lives. Indeed, hornbooks and alphabet books reflect the essential relation of religion and literacy by printing The Lord's Prayer and other religious texts underneath or alongside the alphabet. This emphasis on reading as a means towards faith, which continued in the nineteenth century, was further emphasized by the spread of evangelical and moral tracts that appear with increasing momentum from the late eighteenth century onwards.
Religious and moral lessons for young children date well before the Victorians. One example of these early children's books is James Janeway's A token for children: Being and exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children. Published in 1671, Janeway's morbidly titled work, which underwent several editions and remains available today, enjoyed vast nineteenth-century popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. As the title suggests, all the children invariably die at tender ages after converting heathen Turks or rebuking wayward parents and frivolous siblings. The nature of this and other religious tracts is amply displayed in Janeway's Preface where he asks his reader,
How art thou affected, poor Child, in the Reading of this Book? Have you shed ever a tear since you begun reading? Have you been by your self upon you knees; and begging that God would make you like these blessed Children? or are you as you use to be, as careless & foolish and disobedient and wicked as ever?" 
F.J. Harvey Darton's study of English children's books provocatively suggests that that the seventeenth-century Puritans may have been the earliest children's authors. Darton also suggests that despite their heavy didactic and religious tone, these less-than light-hearted tales were meant to be enjoyed by children and to give them pleasure (51). Darton continues to argue that these books were meant to give their young audience "the highest pleasure, that of studying and enjoying the Will of God" (53).
Whether pleasurable or not, religious tracts continued to form the majority of children's books in English, in part because the rise of the Sunday School Movement and other late-eighteenth-century religious and educational reforms greatly increased the writing and publication of these books. These reform movements produced educational reform that specifically aimed to educate working-class children so they could know God and read His book (Vallone 73). This new emphasis upon education as a means to a good, moral, and religious life appears throughout this literature. Vallone's study of three evangelical writers indicates, moreover, a recognition of social class differences and material well-being. Thus while Anna Laetitia Barbauld taught the middle-class child that it was a privilege to love God, Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts emphasize that godliness leads to wealth, goodness and happiness (Vallone 77, 79). Interestingly, the Cheap Repository Tracts, and other religious and moral tracts, were printed as chapbooks.
Both evangelical and more secular authors broadened their messages from simple calls for religious conduct to admonishments for proper moral and social behavior that would bring about material pleasures. The most famous nineteenth-century moral tale is Mary Martha Sherwood's full length novel, The History of the Fairchild Family, which was published in three volumes in 1818, 1842 and 1849 respectively and which emphasizes the importance of unselfishness and self-improvement, prudence and reason. Here, Mrs. Sherwood, who realistically depicts an English family, underscores the prevalent belief that it was the responsibility of adults to teach children not to be sinful and thereby attain salvation (MacCann 95).
Thus Margery, the heroine of the highly popular The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), becomes a model of patience and perseverance and is therefore finally rewarded with wealth and a title. In this evangelical take on the Cinderella story, the penniless orphan Margery learns to read and pray, becoming a schoolmistress and eventually marrying Sir Charles Jones. Unlike Janeway's narrator who seeks to move his young audience to questionably joyful tears inspired by religious fervor, the epigraph to The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes affirms the pursuit of a different, material pleasure:
Who from a State of Rags and Care, And having Shoes but half a Pair, Their Fortune and their Fame would fix, And gallop in a Coach and Six.
Instead of an early death, the well-behaved child could now look forward to riding "in a Coach and Six."
- Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction: The Child as Sinful
- A tradition of befriending children: Rev. Wilson and Children's Friend
- The Evangelical Movement in the Church of England
- The Doctrines of Evangelical Protestantism
- Magazines: An Introduction
- Penny Dreadfuls
- Secular Magazines for Victorian Children
Darton, F. J. Harvey. Children's Books in England. 3rd ed. revised by Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes; Otherwise called Mrs. Margery Two-Shoes. New York: Printed by H. Gaine, 1775.
Janeway, James. A token for children: Being and exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children. Boston: Printed for Nicholas Boone, 1700.
MacCann, Donnarae. "Moral Tales" Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. ed. Jack Zipes. Vol. 3. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Vallone, Lynn. "A humble spirit under correction." The Lion and the Unicorn.. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 15, 1991. 72-95.
Last modified 14 July 2007