The Bay Psalm Book (1640) and The New England Primer (1683?)

    Contributing Editor: Jean Ferguson Carr

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Readers may assume that both of these texts are simply functional transmissions of doctrine and discipline, representing a narrow and dogmatic religious culture of merely antiquarian interest. Readers should be encouraged to question their prejudgments both about Puritan culture and about religious/educational texts, particularly texts that have many parts, that are written not by a single author but by a group representing broader cultural interests and values. They need to see these texts as an emergent culture's effort to formulate values that can be taught and maintained.

    For example, in reading the psalms, it is useful to compare the Bay Psalm Book version with those of the King James translation or others, noting the choices made and the interpretation those choices represent. Also, in reading the primer, consider what those lessons suggest about not only what the culture authorized teachers to enforce, but what the culture feared or had difficulty controlling.

    Students are often unnerved by the old-style spelling, but with a little practice they can read the material smoothly. Once they are comfortable with these external issues, they are often surprised and impressed by the frankness with which such topics as death, sin, and governmental punishment are treated.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The psalm book reflects a concern about making worship contemporary, particular to their time and place and special circumstances as pilgrims to a new land. The book's design and production stress the belief that faith must be attended to on a daily basis by each individual. The small books, written in English and in contemporary verse forms, could be carried into the home and the place of work, their lessons repeated to ward off the dangers and temptations of life in a "wilderness." The primer recognizes the difficulties of remaining faithful and obedient, and it values learning as a way to preserve from one generation to another "that part, /which shall never decay," the cultural and religious values of the community which cannot be silenced by the state or death.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    John Cotton's preface is a fascinating document about translation, advocating use of the vernacular and defending "modern" poetry. The psalms are "contested" versions, retranslated to mark a cultural and religious difference from those versions widely used in Europe and England, as well as to distinguish the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans from the Plymouth Pilgrims, who used the Sternhold-Hopkins Psalter of 1562.

    Original Audience

    The psalm book, written and printed by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640, was designed to allow a whole congregation to sing psalms together in church and at home. Neither Cotton's essay nor the poems have been attended to by modern critics: the psalter has been generally treated as a simple "text" of antiquarian interest only. The primer was the chief educational text of the New England colonies for over a hundred years, from its first printing in 1683.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Melville's call for American readers to "boldly contemn all imitation, though it comes to us graceful and fragrant as the morning; and foster all originality, though, at first, it be crabbed and ugly as our own pine knots" ("Hawthorne and his Mosses," 1850) suggests how the psalms and Cotton's preface might usefully be reread. The Bay Psalm Book can be compared with the literary credos of Emerson and Whitman, which prefer originality over literary polish or imitative technical perfection. The primer could be used to frame discussions about attitudes toward learning and childhood, toward the propagation of cultural values through books. It serves as a useful anthology of cultural concerns to compare with such later textbooks as McGuffey's Eclectic Readers or Webster's American Speller.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) Compare two versions of a psalm (perhaps King James, Isaac Watts, Bay Psalm, or a modern version). What do the changes suggest about what is valued by the translator? What do they suggest about how the translator understands the difficulties or possibilities of faith?

    (b) What does John Cotton's preface propose as the important considerations for poetry and religious song? What established values is he thus opposing?

    (c) What seem to be the daily conditions of life for the readers of the primer, as exemplified in the lessons' details? What did they have to fear or to overcome?

    (d) How does the primer envision the relationship of parent to child? Of state to citizen? Of God to person?

    (e) How do the lessons demark proper social relations? How do they suggest the community's ability to contain crime or misbehavior?

    (f) How does the primer propose to shape (control?) speech and writing?

    2. (a) Compare the claims about poetry and national literature in Cotton's preface to one of the following texts: Emerson's "The Poet," Whitman's "Preface" to Leaves of Grass, Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, Melville's "Hawthorne and his Mosses."

    (b) Discuss how The New England Primer represents both the importance and difficulty of learning cultural values and behavior.

    (c) Compare The New England Primer as a cultural artifact with a contemporary textbook for children. What seem to be the fears each text guards against? What does each text presuppose about childhood and children? How do they represent the relationship of school to children, of parents to children? What do they propose as the proper subjects for children?


    Eames, W., ed. The Bay Psalm Book (Facsimile), 1903.

    Ford, Paul, ed. The New England Primer (Facsimile and introduction, pp. 1-53). New York: Teachers College Press, 1962.

    Nietz, John. Old Textbooks. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961.

    Watters, David H. " 'I Spoke as a Child': Authority, Metaphor, and The New England Primer." Early American Literature 20: 193-213.