Remembering The McGuffey Reader Of Our Grandparents

MCGUFFEY READER COVERThe McGuffey Reader interests me. Why? I have no idea; I suppose I just like to know how things WERE, if that makes sense. Of course, since I spent years studying and teaching the U.S. Constitution, I am also fascinated by those things that have been proclaimed by politicians as unconstitutional since the days when my grandfather was taught from a McGuffey Reader as well as the Bible in his little Texas schoolhouse.

The reader was the brainchild of Dr. William Holmes McGuffey who was born September 28, 1800, in Washington County, Pennsylvania. The first and second of these readers were first published in 1836. By 1843, the series consisted of six readers, each designed to teach morals and character while they also educated students in “book learning.” As always happens, many, many revised editions were also published over the course of the series’ very long life, but the morals and the lessons remained.

What was called the First Reader was written in the style you would expect of a beginning reader, its stories of a kind boy who freed a caged bird, of a lame dog who, when helped, brought another dog for help, and of the boy who told a lie and then repented. While learning to read, these little ones were also learning the marks of good character.

“The school readers are the proper and indispensable texts for teaching true patriotism, integrity, honesty, industry, temperance, courage, politeness, and all other moral and intellectual virtues. In these books every lesson should have a distinct purpose in view, and the final aim should be to establish in the pupils high moral principles which are at the foundation of character.”


While the first primer does not seem to contain actual Bible passage, it does have stories such as the following from my own personal primer:

“Do you see that small tree?
Long ago it sprang up from a small nut.
Do you know who made it do so?
It was God, my child.
God made the world and all things in it…
Should we not then love him?

Of course, were I teaching a course on these readers I’m sure you know what question I would ask my students: Why did no one scream “UNCONSTITUTIONAL” about the lessons taught in these textbooks?


Although certainly more advanced, the Second Reader also included stories with a moral such as George Washington cutting down the cherry tree and refusing to lie about it. (Yes, I argue the truth in this one myself.) and a word search about the “Garden” where the letters Washington’s name were used to at least give the connotation that he believed in the Creation theory.

The Third Reader actually carried five readings from the Bible along with historical and scientific selections on items such as Napoleon and “How a Fly Walks on the Ceiling.”

The beginning reader has no actual Bible passages, just references to Him.

The beginning reader has no actual Bible passages, just references to Him. Remember when we were supposed to make our letters look like these?

It is the Bible passages that have intrigued me since the day my grandfather (who did not die until 2000) told me of them. According to Granddad, right here in Texas the teacher simply gave students a page out of the Bible for them to read if there were not enough texts to be had.

Believe it or not, the Fourth Reader contained seventeen passages from the Bible along with selections from Wirt, Bacon, Nott, Irving, Milton, Shakespeare, etc. Obviously, by the time students were in the fourth grade* level it was expected that they should know these classic authors and be able to memorize passages from their works.

Of course, the other two readers continued on in much the same way with students expected to learn from what was believed to be the great literature of great men as well as from the Bible.

In one of his sermons Dr. David Swing of Chicago said, “Much as you may have studied the languages or the sciences, that which most affected you was the moral lessons in the series of McGuffey.”

Obviously, it is never my intention to preach in this column; however, I do know my Constitution well enough to know that its intent has been unbelievably skewed in our modern world and that politicians are well able to do this because no longer are students being taught from its pages about their country and the workings of their government.

I also am not telling you that the Bible should be taught in public schools today or that its passages should be found in our textbooks. I am, however, saying that while we may think it best not to have “religion” in our readers, while we may not WANT a discussion of Bible principles in our schools, it is positively NOT unconstitutional to do so.

I am also saying that there has to be a reason why American students are taught more and more and yet know less and less. There is also a reason for the moral decline in this country, especially (but not confined) in our young people. I’m also saying that it is well past time that we all take a look around us to see just where we went wrong…because somewhere, somehow we did go very, very wrong.

*I think of my grandfather’s third grade education a lot. He was a voracious reader and could easily have the cost of a bill of groceries figured in his head long before the computer told him what he owed. Then, I think about a third grader today…

Title: A History of the McGuffey Readers
Author: Henry H. Vail

Release Date: April 7, 2005 [EBook #15577]
Language: English

Read More…

Another Constitutional Issue..

About Fredda Jones

Fredda Davis Jones was raised “in the country” in Comanche County and learned very early that creativity and innovation are traits that can flourish even in small-town Texas and that with enough effort, indeed nothing is impossible, including being married to the same man for over 40 years! Rickey and Fredda have 2 children, 5 grandchildren, and a crazy life that includes sitting in the bleachers several times a week. The rest of her time is spent creating great content for and marketing small-town Texas.
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2 Responses to Remembering The McGuffey Reader Of Our Grandparents

  1. missy jones says:

    Fredda, the Comanche Historical Museum has a complete set of the McGuffey’s readers, of course they are a reproduction. Notice on the page listed: McGuffey Primer “slate exercises”. In our school room at the Museum is an original “slate” framed with wood, that belonged to our dear director, the late Harold Roberts. With this slate, each student could print out words, etc, with chalk and erase it at their desks. Please come by to see the slate and the books.
    I also marvel at the plainness of the pages in the early day school books. Now, as though the students are idiots, they are forced to look at all sorts of colored pictures and graphics to be sure they get the message. Funny the early day students learned, invented, made our world a better place to live, from those plain early day books.

  2. Janan says:

    We are a conservative Muslim family homeschooling our young son (almost five), and we are excited to use the McGuffey readers. Although we are not Christian, we still believe in God and these lessons on character, and are much happier teaching from books that revere God than ignore any religious or spiritual allusions (hence why we’re homeschooling). We would be happy to see such books reimplemented in public schools, even with Biblical passages.

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