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The man who taught millions of Americans to read before being forgotten

William Holmes McGuffey, creator of McGuffey Readers. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

When an Ohio publisher released William Holmes McGuffey’s school primers in 1836 and 1837, McGuffey was an ancient languages professor at a rural college.

He quickly became an influential voice in the 19th-century common school movement, and his McGuffey Readers became something more: books that educated millions of Americans.

Over the course of the next 100 years, nearly every president as well as influential figures from Henry Ford to Laura Ingalls Wilder learned to read from McGuffey’s primers. Yet today, McGuffey is hardly a household name outside of conservative Christian home-schooling circles.

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McGuffey was a purist — to his detractors, an extremist — a Calvinist preacher who believed that dancing was a sin and once expelled so many students that come springtime, there was only one senior left to graduate.

When McGuffey arrived in the mid-1820s to teach at Miami University in tiny Oxford, Ohio, the town was little more than a pioneer outpost. Along with his fellow professors, he had helped clear the forest to build the college.

But McGuffey’s Readers would strike a chord far beyond Oxford, their influence spidering out into a country just beginning to create public school systems. As Americans debated how to educate an expanding number of citizens, McGuffey’s books offered a convenient answer.

The Readers could guide children from learning the alphabet all the way to high school materials, as each volume increased in skill level. Just as importantly, with their tales of self-made men, American revolutionaries and Pilgrims, they served as a conduit for White, Christian culture. In that way, McGuffey Readers were about much more than teaching spelling and grammar.

“To educate the 'mind and heart of the nation’ meant, above all, to form a public, one people out of many,” Christian educator Robert W. Lynn of McGuffey’s Readers wrote.

This Calvinist-inflected idea of American identity made its made mark on generations of schoolchildren — McGuffey’s Readers have sold at least 122 million copies — and helped found a tradition of God in the classroom debated to this day.

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They were used to teach children huddled around the fireplace at home, just as they found their way into a wide range of public schools well into the 20th century.

McGuffey’s fierce commitment to common schooling may have come from a desire to correct the gaps in his own education.

As a child of the frontier, he had been swaddled in an empty maple syrup trough and grew up in a log cabin built out of the surrounding trees. His schooling had been piecemeal: something to be done in the winter, only when the work of the farm had been carried out. His mother taught him the alphabet by tracing letters in the soot of their fireplace. He would experience some formal schooling, often doing chores in exchange for tuition, but his education was frequently interrupted because of a lack of money.

As the frontier boy grew into a dogmatic young man, his faith, too, was central to his understanding of education. Religious activists dominated the common school movement, and for them public school was seen as a kind of parallel institution to Sunday school, a place to form the moral character of the nation’s children.

“The public school was pressed into service as a new kind of national church, commissioned to create and carry the common culture and morality of the nation,” wrote James W. Fraser, a historian of U.S. education at New York University, in his book “Between Church and State.”

The public schools that increasingly cropped up in the second half of the 19th century would be unrecognizable to an elementary school student today. Classes drew on Bible readings, hymns and, later, the McGuffey Readers — which were also full of Bible readings and hymns. As McGuffey wrote in the preface to one of his readers: “From no source has the author drawn more copiously, in his selections, than from sacred Scriptures.”

Religion was deeply entrenched in public life in 19th-century America. Even Horace Mann, the nonsectarian Massachusetts education activist, assumed Bible reading would be part of school.

The question was not whether the Bible would be in American schools, but rather which version would be used. The King James Bible, for instance, was seen as a Protestant translation. Debates over Bible translations were so fierce at this time that historians have since dubbed them “The Bible Wars.”

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In Philadelphia, a disagreement over Bible translations in schools devolved into an all-out anti-Catholic riot that culminated in hand-to-hand combat with broken bottles and the exchange of cannon fire, with more than 30 fatalities.

Some have accused McGuffey Readers of being exclusionary, drawing a narrow portrait of White Protestant America, and there’s some truth to that: The first editions were often overtly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic. But McGuffey would later revise those passages or take them out entirely.

Johann Neem, a historian of public education, noted that despite McGuffey’s sectarian bent, there’s evidence that he was trying to create a text that would be widely accessible.

“Whether revering or rejecting his work, McGuffey’s fans and detractors both manage to miss the point of his original project: to find a middle ground, a place where diverse Americans could come together around shared values to participate in common public institutions,” Neem wrote.

McGuffey died in 1873. His Readers slowly disappeared from public schools by the mid-20th century as many school districts began enforcing a separation of church and state. But the debates over what is taught in public schools — and with which books — have continued long after.

Jess McHugh is an author and journalist. Her book “Americanon,” a history of U.S. bestsellers, is being published in June.

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