Noah Webster's American Spelling Book (aka, Blue-back Speller) is currently being republished. As the product description from one site declares:
"His goal was to provide a uniquely American, Christ-centered approach to training children. Little did he know that this remarkable gem would become the staple for parents and educators for more than a century and would help to build the most literate nation in the history of the West. Many of the Founding Fathers used this book to home school their children, including Benjamin Franklin who taught his granddaughter..."
What are Christians to make of these assertions? Is this book even worth buying?
Let us peal back the claims in reverse order.
First of all, the claim that many of the Founding Fathers used this to homeschool their children is dubious. In my experience, many historical claims have been circulated that have no foundation in fact (e.g. Jefferson, Witherspoon and John Jay were homeschooled, more here). The book was published in 1783. A little late for mass circulation for some Founder's children. Yet it could be the case that many of the Founders used Webster's book for their children. Not having easy access to the facts, I can only hold this assertion in abeyance.
Second, the book appears to have been a staple for education and helped raise literacy. This claim is true as far as it goes. It must be remembered, however, that this does not mean that literacy was not already being propagated by other means. The blue-book was popular but did not singlehandedly create a literate society. In fact, in 1765 John Adams noted:
"A native of America who cannot read and write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake." (here)
Third, the book was written for schools. Webster notes in the preface,
"THE design of this Grammatical institute is to furnish schools in this country with an easy, accurate and comprehensive system of rules and lessons for teaching the English language."
Of course, it can be used for homeschooling. The irony is simply that the publisher and catalog are part of an organization that pushes, promotes and proposes homeschooling as the Biblical approach (here).
Fourth, the claims of a "Christ-centered approach" is dubious at best. Using an online transcript of the 1800 text, I searched for common words a presumed "Christ-centered approach" text would use. Here are some results:
Searching for sin and its cognates yielded a total of seven times in one section (lessons of easy words and moral duty). The word is mentioned eight more times in a similar fashion, most notably:
"He that covereth his sins shall not pros-per; but he that confesseth and forsaketh them shall find mercy."
Next, I searched for cognates of 'Christ'. It is used about ten times and once for pronunciation. Another few times it refers to what Christ said. The bulk was in the Moral Catechism section, making no mention of the Gospel.
The word 'Gospel' does not exist. 'Repent' and its cognates occurs once. 'Faith' occurs once as an example of a monosyllabic word. 'Believe' is never used with respect to God or Christ. 'Cross' is found in a list of words and part of a proverb.
Thus far the evidence is a far cry from a "Christ-centered approach." In fact,there is evidence to the contrary: in the appendix is a Moral Catechism. A Catechism without reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the Catechism does not mention the Gospel, it does mention the pure in heart:
Q. What reward is promised to the pure in heart?
A. Christ has declared "they shall see God." A pure heart is like God, and those who possess it shall dwell in his presence, and enjoy his favour forever.
Furthermore, in the section describing a "Good Boy" and a "Bad Boy" any reference to God, church and Christ are missing.
In contrast, Christ-centered instruction would point out that Christians (and "good boys") can only see God through the merits of Christ.
Lastly, the biography of Webster explains why this Speller--although useful--was not Christ-centered: he was not converted until 1808. He admits that before that time he preferred the more "rational" religion of doing good to one's neighbor over the more "emotional" doctrines of grace. But God's omnipotent love moved his heart to eschew moralism and accept a Christ-centered education in his life.
The conclusion of the matter is that this book is a mixed bag. It is heavy on the Law with no corresponding Gospel message. With today's weak Christian culture, this book can easily turn into simple moralism.
That does not mean that one cannot use it. It means that a father or mother must use it in an environment that has a clear presentation of the Gospel of Christ's righteousness. Hopefully, with these facts at hand parents will be better able to evaluate the selling and buying of Webster's Blue-back Speller.