Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America

In 1517, a revolution began when a German monk by the name of Martin Luther unwittingly started a revolution when he publicized his differences with the Catholic Church. Put off by the church’s practice of assuring others salvation “by letters of pardon,” this otherwise unknown cleric inspired the birth of a new church when he criticized the Pope and his fellow brethren of the cloth for “hawking” forgiveness and for corrupting the practice of the sacraments by accepting money. On October 31, he posted his grievances on the door of the Church of Wittenburg. Shortly thereafter, they were printed in the vernacular of the day and circulated.[1]

Remarkably, it had been the printing press that set Luther’s revolution apart from the others. To the monk’s surprise, the advent of the Gutenberg press had the un-calculated effect of emboldening his disagreement with the established church as it made possible mass circulation. By March of 1518, his theses were being read throughout his native Germany. No less than a year later, they had made their way throughout the rest of Europe. Between the 1520s and the 1550s, Luther’s writings concerning the indulgences of the Catholic Church were being read in France. Around that same time, the unsuspecting heretic found an audience in Spain, England, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. On the fact of it, Luther’s ideas about the church seemed to hold little promise of exciting any type of real ecclesiastical change. And yet, in less than fifty years after they were printed, change the world they did.[2]

The Protestant Reformers urged the necessity of reading the Bible, and so they hastened the translation of the sacred text from Latin into the vernacular languages spoken in everyday life. “Printing,” Luther explained, “is God’s ultimate and greatest gift. Indeed through printing God wants the whole world, to the ends of the earth, to know the roots of true religion and wants to transmit it in every language.” No longer would the Scriptures be hidden from ordinary souls and monopolized by priests. To achieve salvation, every individual required direct access to the Word of God. Reading, in Luther’s view, was the “root of true religion.”[3] In her Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, E. Jennifer Monaghan explores the history of literacy in colonial America which had been greatly influenced by the Protestant Reformation.

As early as the 1630s and 40s, reading became a universal feature of Protestantism in America. “Salvation,” as the professor emerita of English at Brooklyn College explains, “could come only through conversion, and Protestants believed that reading the scriptures oneself was a vital path to that goal” (11). In their efforts to obtain grace, colonials of different denominations adopted “the ordinary road” for reading instruction which began with the horn-book, “a little paddle of wood with a single page tacked onto it that consisted of the alphabet, four lines of syllables, the invocation (‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’) and the Lord’s Prayer,” and ended with the Bible (12). By Monaghan’s account, the Congregationalists were the first to adopt this method for religious and reading instruction. In March of 1642, New Haven was the first of several New England towns who approved laws that instructed its residents to set up a school, employed the services of a master, and required the instruction of children in reading, writing, and arithmetic. By 1665, when New Haven was incorporated into the colony of Connecticut, grammar school had become a common feature of towns “of over a hundred families” (27).

But before their lessons in grammar began, children throughout New England were taught to read at home and by their mothers. In private “dame” schools, as Monaghan explains, reading was primarily religious in nature. Such had been the case of the Boston minister Increase Mather who recounted that his mother, whom he described as a “very Holy praying woman,” taught him to read. The same would also be true for Mather’s children who were likewise taught by their mother (43; 127).

In the Virginia colony, Anglicans observed different practices. There, work and geography, Monaghan asserts, “militated against a New England” model. In the Chesapeake, tobacco was the driving force of the economy. People generally lived far away from one another and, tutors—like Philip Fithian—were employed to teach children. For those parents who could not pay for the services of a teacher, apprenticeship afforded their sons and daughters the opportunity to gain knowledge of religion and letters. Indeed, as early as 1632, the colony’s legislatures passed laws that mandated compulsory reading and catechetical instruction for orphaned and poor boys and girls (44). Consequently, like other Protestants, Virginia also subscribed to the “ordinary road” which included the Book of Common Prayer.

Not surprisingly, literacy instruction in British North America grew. Starting in the 1740s, the number of printers not only multiplied but so did the quantity of books imported into the British provinces. In this changing setting, “materials for writing instruction became easier to obtain” (369).

In due course, the art of writing or penmanship, which was once thought solely a male employment, became commonplace among girls. Around the 1750s, as Monaghan observed, “writing masters actively wooed (white) girls as students, advertising the hours that were convenient for them” (373). Though religion continued to play an important role in how most Americans learned to spell, pronounce, and copy their letters, less sacred materials, spellers and John Newberry’s pocket-sized books, were adopted as part of the “ordinary road.” By the time the colonies began to contemplate revolution, parents—adopting John Locke’s empathetic approach toward education—became increasingly perceptive toward how their children were instructed. As a result, the books used to teach boys how to read and write became less rigid and were “aimed to amuse rather than to convert them” (372).

Biblical literacy instruction also represented a vital aspect of Protestant work among Native Americans and African American slaves. John Eliot taught the Massachusetts Indians to read and write in part by commissioning religious reading materials printed in both English and in the Massachusetts native tongue. Thomas Mayhew and his son, Thomas Mayhew, Jr., performed a similar work among the Wampanoag Indians in New England. While Eliot worked among the natives of the mainland of Massachusetts, Mayhew taught those who lived on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the southwest coast of Cape Cod (46-80).

Not to be outdone, the Anglicans also proselytized to Indians through literacy. Through the London-based Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G), Anglicans in colonial America ministered the Mohawks. But “unlike the Congregationalists,” Monaghan noted, “the Anglican saw no need to ‘civilize’ the Indians as part of their conversion procedures. They were content simply to ‘gospelize’ them—to bring them the ‘good news’ of Christianity” (169). In addition to spreading the good news to Indians, the S.P.G. taught religion and reading to slaves throughout the colonies vis-à-vis the “ordinary road” curriculum. In that duty, the S.P.G. was not alone. The Associates of the Dr. Thomas Bray, another Anglican philanthropic Bible society, also performed a similar work among slaves in South Carolina, Virginia, and in other parts of British North America (241-272).

Curiously, in her account of the Native Americans and African American slaves, Monaghan’s account falls a bit short. Nowhere, for example, in this extensive history of literacy in America are the efforts of the Church of England to teach natives of the Powhatan Confederacy considered. Like the Congregationalist, as Terri Keffert’s recent study of the Brafferton School for Native Americans demonstrated, Anglican Virginians realized modest success between 1619 and 1622 in instructing Indians in the Chesapeake. While in the beginning, those efforts yield little due to rising conflicts between whites and Native Americans, that was not so in the years that followed. To be sure, between 1700 and 1777, those efforts bore fruit when the Brafferton School opened its doors. [4] Moreover, while Monaghan documents numerous ways slaves became literate, she makes little use of recent studies regarding runaways notices which complicates her contention that slaves who knew how to read and/or write were “rare” as only a few had “access to it” (239). Between 1730 and 1776, five per cent of the fugitives in colonial Virginia were literate. In New England, fifteen per cent of the runaways could read. The same was true of absconded slaves in the colony of Philadelphia. There, fourteen per cent could either read or read and write.[5]

These omissions notwithstanding, E. Jennifer Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America represents a significant contribution to the History of the Book and education as it explicates the Protestant book ethic in early America. For those familiar with Monaghan’s “Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England,” “’She Loved to Read in Good Book’: Literacy and the Indians of Martha’s Vineyard, 1643-1725,” and “Reading for the Enslaved, Writing for the Free: Reflections on Liberty and Literacy,” Learning to Read and Write offers a wider context and analysis of her earlier work. But for those who are not, Learning to Read and Write puts forward a stimulating account of how colonial America was transformed into a republic of letters. (Indeed, after 1750, as Monaghan points out, girls increasingly began to participate in a complex epistolary culture that crisscrossed British North America.) Ultimately, save perhaps for Edward E. Gordon and Elaine H. Gordon’s Literacy in America: Historic Journey and Contemporary Solutions, Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America reveals a complex narrative in which early Americans (white, black, and red) traveled the “ordinary road” toward the art of religion and letters.


[1] Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in Works of Martin Luther, Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et al., trans. & eds. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), 1: 29-38.

[2] For a fuller account of the Reformation in Early Modern Europe see Jean-Francois Gilmont, ed. and Karen Maag, trans., The Reformation and the Book Aldershot: Ashgate, 1990. In particular, see John L. Flood’s essay “The Book in Reformation Germany,” Francis M. Higman’s “French-Speaking Regions, 1520-62,” A. Gordon Kinder’s “Printing and Reformation ideas in Spain,” David Loades, “Books and the English reformation prior to 1558,” Ugo Rozzo and Silvana Seidel Menchi’s “The Book and the Reformation in Italy,” Remi Kick’s “The Book and the Reformation in the Kingdom of Sweden, 1526-71,” and Anne Riising’s “The Book and the Reformation in Denmark and Norway.”

[3]Martin Luther in The Reformation and the Book, 1. For a fuller account of the interplay between the Reformation and vernacular reading see Jean-Francis Gilmont, “Protestant Reformations and Reading” in A History of Reading in the West, Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, eds.(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), chap 8; David R. Olson, The World On Paper. chaps. 7 & 8; R. A. Houston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: Culture & Education, 1500-1800 (London: Longman, 1988), 147-150.

[4] Karen A. Stuart, “’So Good a Work’: The Brafferton School, 1691-1777.” M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1984; Terri Keffert, “The Education of the Native America in Colonial Virginia, Particular Regard to the Brafferton School” Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter 21, no. 3 (Fall 200): 20-28.

[5]Lathan A. Windley, Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from 1730s to 1790s. 4 vols. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983; Smith, Billy G. and Richard Wojtowicz, Blacks Who Stole Themselves: Advertisements for Runaways in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1790. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989; Graham Russell Hodges and Alan Edward Brown, eds., “Pretends to Be Free”: Runaway Slave Advertisement from Colonial and Revolitionary New York and New Jersey. New York: Garland, 1994; Lathan A. Windley, A Profile of Runaway Slaves in Virginia and South Carolina, 1730-1787. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995; Antonio T. Bly, “Breaking With Tradition: Slave Literacy in Early Virginia, 1680-1780.” Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 2006.