The recasting of the Bible to meet the needs of children has been a topic of increasing interest in the twentieth century. Although children were always included within the concern of the religious communities for which the Bible served as scripture, they were understood as parts of families within which the Bible would be read and explained. In Christian circles, such an assumption lies behind the widespread production of family Bibles and their use by parents in reading to their children. But the view of the Bible as a work to be read independently by children and the accompanying challenges for a child reading an adult book reflect a recent approach to children's Bibles. Attempts to translate the Bible in language comprehensible to children have been significant only from about 1970 on.
The education of children included a knowledge of the Bible, a goal to be carried out in the home, the church, and the school, until the nineteenth century. Since it was regularly believed that the goals of education were piety, civility, and learning, children and youth were expected to be familiar with the Bible. The necessary knowledge of the Bible included not only its contents but also an affirmation of the authority of scripture.
After the invention of printing by movable type and the rise of vernacular Bibles, the widespread dissemination of Bibles was accompanied by significant study helps such as chapter summaries (Coverdale Bible, 1535) and marginal notes (Geneva Bible, 1560). A Puritan divine such as Cotton Mather (1663–1728), in his Bonifacius: An Essay upon the Good, proposed a number of methods intended to enable children to learn the contents of the Bible. These included Bible storytelling at the dinner table and rewards for Bible memorization—with appropriate attention to the age, interests, and abilities of particular children. The study of the Bible by children also included catechisms, psalters, and liturgies, intended to prepare them for a knowledge of the Christian faith and participation in public worship.
Among the ways used to teach children the Bible, one of the most important in England and the United States beginning in the late eighteenth century was the Sunday School in its own right and as a forerunner of the common school. Two of the popular texts used in Sunday Schools were The Sunday School Spelling Book (1822) and The Union Spelling Book (1838), both containing biblical texts and biblical diction.
In areas such as the United States where Protestants predominated through the middle of the nineteenth century, there was agreement that the reading of the Bible should be a central aspect of the public‐school curriculum. The increasing religious pluralism of the United States would question this assumption and its accompanying presupposition that public reading of the Bible would be from the Authorized Version of 1611. In the United States the publication of both Roman Catholic and Jewish versions in the nineteenth century was intended, in part, to offset the exclusive use of the Authorized Version in public‐school education.
By 1850 McGuffey's Eclectic Readers (1836) was the basic school reader in some thirty‐seven states. Eighty percent of the schoolchildren of the United States used McGuffey's Readers for some seventy‐five years. Although the majority of the material in McGuffey was nonbiblical, there was still a significant degree of biblical content in the six readers.
During the nineteenth century Sunday Schools evolved a systematic approach to Bible study. The need for children's Bibles received little attention when the focus of the child's Bible study was either the memorization of Bible verses or catechetical learning that had subsumed the Bible into affirmations of the Christian faith. In the case of memorization much attention was paid to the selection of particular verses, and contextual reading of the Bible played little role. When the Bible was the primary source of moral example, this became the strongest influence in the education of children in the Sunday Schools. Initially started as interdenominational agencies, these shifted in the course of the nineteenth century to a denominational basis. Their early goals had been to improve the moral life of their students as expressed in effective citizenship. Increasingly a knowledge of the Bible was viewed as essential for personal salvation and social stability; the Bible was a source of texts to be memorized. The texts might reflect moral themes drawn from Jesus' ministry or the lives of the ancestors and prophets. Lewis Baldwin's The Bible Interrogatory (1816) was one of the first attempts to systematize biblical study in Sunday Schools. The greatest achievement of interdenominational Sunday Schools was the creation of the International Lesson System. A post–Civil War development, these plans stressed uniform lessons for all ages. Critics of the lesson plans noted that they ignored child psychology, and in 1894 the Lesson Committee developed a separate course for younger children.
The establishment of Bible Societies and the dissemination of Bibles, or parts of Bibles (See Circulation of the Bible), contributed to a consideration of the forms of Bibles for children. One result was to ensure that children have their own Bibles. This could be accomplished within the Sunday School movement by giving children Bibles as they completed one part of the Sunday School and moved to another. These presentation Bibles were usually an existing adult translation with a presentation nameplate and occasional illustrations.
Another form of children's Bible was a collection of Bible stories, selected for various emphases, and either paraphrased or completely rewritten. This has been the most popular form of children's Bible and accounts for a large part of juvenile Bibles available at any time.
A well‐known example of the storybook Bible was Child's Bible Reader (1898), a work widely employed by three generations of Protestant Sunday School teachers in the southeastern United States. The stories in the Reader were attributed to the popular British writer, Charlotte M. Yonge. Thousands of southern homes owned copies of this Reader, distributed by door‐to‐door salesmen of the Southwestern Company of Nashville, Tennessee. Equally popular in a later generation was Walter de la Mare's Stories from the Bible.
The storybook approach to children's Bibles inevitably involves the selection of stories considered to be appealing or appropriate to children. Perennial favorites include Noah, Moses, Samson, David, Jonah, and Jesus. Common to these collections are also stories about birth and childhood, animals, and adventure stories. Such storybook Bibles generally avoid events, persons, or narratives seen as inappropriate or incomprehensible to children, such as the story of Joshua, the letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation.
The storybook Bible has encouraged the use of illustrations to complement the biblical narratives and to increase their appeal for children. Examples that have been publicly recognized for their aesthetic achievement include E. Boyd Smith's writing and illustrating of The Story of Noah's Ark (1905) and Dorothy Lathrop's Animals of the Bible (1937). (See Illustrated Bibles.)
The most recent development has been the production of translations specifically for children, with considerable initiative coming from the United Bible Societies. Based on the understanding of psychological, social, and intellectual development, this movement has attempted to produce readable Bibles to match the abilities and interests of various ages. In 1983 the Sweet Publishing Company issued the pioneering International Children's Version (New Testament) as the first translation for children. In 1986, the Worthy Publishing Company issued the International Children's Bible, New Century Version, noting that this was not a storybook or a paraphrased Bible but the first translation of the whole Bible prepared specifically for children. Because of its specialized vocabulary, the publishers claim that their Bible translation can be understood by children with a grade‐three reading level.
Ernest S. Frerichs