Only a Speller?

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Aug 25, 2009 No Comments ›› John Eidsmoe

Only a Speller?

Noah Webster (1758-1843), often called the “Schoolmaster to America,” is best known for his Webster’s Dictionary (http://1828 NULL.mshaffer He was a close friend of many of America’s Founding Fathers, frequently dined with them during the Constitutional Convention, and campaigned zealously for its ratification.

But during his lifetime he was best known for his little book “The American Spelling Book,” (http://books published around 1783 and in many subsequent editions. Commonly called “The Blue-backed Speller,” the book was used in American schools for over 100 years. It is said to have sold 70 million copies, but H.L. Mencken said it had actually sold more than 100 million copies and that some have estimated its total sales at four times that many. Webster insisted that “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for arts as for arms.”

Webster was also a devout Christian, and throughout his Speller he used the Bible and Bible-based themes to teach children spiritual and moral truths while at the same time teaching them how to spell and pronounce words. For example, Table XIII of his 1824 Speller, is titled “Lessons of easy words, to teach children to read, and to know their duty.” Lesson I reads:

“No man may put off the law of God:
My joy is in his law all the day.
O may I not go in the way of sin!
Let me not go in the way of ill men.”

And Lesson XI reads:

“He who came to save us, will wash us from all sin: I will
be glad in his name.
A good boy will do all that is just: he will flee from vice;
he will do good, and walk in the way of life.
Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world;
for they are sin.
I will not fear what flesh can do to me; for my trust is
him who made the world:
He is nigh to them that pray to him, and praise his

Table XXIX is based on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Lesson IV reads:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21

Webster also used some of Aesop’s fables to communicate timeless moral truths. The fable titled “The Partial Judge” bears some resemblance to the prophet Nathan’s words to King David in II Samuel 12:1-14:

The Partial Judge

“A FARMER came to a neighboring Lawyer, expressing great concern for an accident which he said had just happened. One of your Oxen, continued he, has been gored by an unlucky Bull of mine, and I should be glad to know how I am to make you reparation. Thou art a very honest fellow, replied the Lawyer, and wit not think it unreasonable that I expect one of thy oxen in return. It is no more than justice, quoth the Farmer, to be sure; but what did I say? — I mistake — It is your Bull that has killed one of my Oxen. Indeed! says the Lawyer, that alters the case: I must inquire into the affair; and if — And if! said the Farmer — the business I find would have been concluded without an if, had you been as ready to do justice to others, as to exact it from them.”

Table XLV narrates the Genesis account of creation and concludes,

“All things are known to God; though his throne of state is far on high, yet doth his eye look down upon us in this lower world, and see all the ways of the sons of men.

“If we go out, he marks our steps: and when we go in, no door can shut him from us. While we are by ourselves, he knows all our vain thoughts, and the ends we aim at: and when we talk to friend or foe, he hears our words, and views the good or harm we do to them, or to ourselves.

“When we pray, he notes our zeal. All the day long he minds how we spend our time, and no dark night can hide our works from him. If we play the cheat, he marks the fraud, and hears the least word of a false tongue.

“He sees if our hearts are hard to the poor, or if by alms we help their wants: If in our breast we pine at the rich, or if we are well pleased with our own state. He knows all that we do; and be we where we will, he is sure to be with us.”

Webster closed his Speller with A Moral Catechism, 13 pages of questions and answers designed to inculcate Christian morality in the child. It begins:

Question. WHAT is moral virtue?
Answer. It is an honest upright conduct in all our dealings with men.
Q. What rules have we to direct us in our moral conduct?
A. God’s word, contained in the bible, has furnished all necessary rules to direct our conduct.
Q. In what part of the bible are these rules to be found?
A. In almost every part; but the most important duties between men are summed up in the beginning of Matthew, in CHRIST’S Sermon on the Mount.”

Through books like Webster’s Blue-backed Speller, the New England Primer (http://books, and others, children learned to read, write, spell, and pronounce. But they learned much more. They learned respect for God and His Laws, for the Bible as God’s Word, and for Jesus Christ as God’s only Son. And they learned a Biblical world view. Even if they did not trust Jesus Christ for their salvation, they were Biblically literate, they had a Biblical frame of reference, and they formed opinions, made judgments, and took actions with Biblical precepts in mind.

If a public school teacher were to assign Webster’s Blue-backed Speller today, the courts would probably forbid it (http://morallaw as an establishment of religion. After all, they would say, we have to protect children against religious indoctrination.

But in so doing, the courts have robbed our children of a beautiful and rich heritage. And are we better people as a result?

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