Collections of stories from the Bible—written in prose, accompanied by illustrations, and edited for children’s use—originated in the early modern period for readers from 5 to about 15 years of age, with nineteenth- and twentieth-century children’s Bibles often composed for 2- to 5-year-old pre-readers. For centuries, children’s Bibles presented themselves as the Bible itself, either with a frontispiece illustration of a book labeled “Biblia” or with a prefatory claim to be God’s words authored by the Holy Penman but simplified for young readers. Among the many kinds of instructional books long composed for children, children’s Bibles constitute the first genre addressed to a child readership that enjoyed a sustained publishing history into the modern world.


The 1170 Historia Scholastica, composed by Petrus Comestor (ca. 1100–ca. 1179), was written as a text for university exposition. Including Bible histories from the Old and New Testaments and augmented by commentary, the Historia Scholastica became a Latin schoolbook by the late 1400s and, in translation into French and German, an early family Bible in the 1500s for nobles and prosperous merchants. With explanatory expansions (such as the invention of Ham’s laughter to account for Noah’s anger), illustrations, and moral interpolations, the Historia Scholastica furnished the earliest and most enduring model for children’s Bibles. For nearly 400 years it was produced in large and small formats, in expensive and cheap editions, with and without illustrations, for adults and for children, and with the complete content of biblical stories.

Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) small-format 1529 Passionalbüchlein (Little Book of the Passion) formed one section within a householder’s book of saints’ days and agricultural dates and offered only those parts of the Old Testament that presaged Jesus’s New Testament birth, teachings, and crucifixion. Each left-hand page of text from the Bible (sola scriptura) faced a woodcut on the right-hand page. Not a children’s Bible per se, the Passionalbüchlein is important for its stated preference for Bible words, rather than its inclusion of extensive Bible content, as in the Historia Scholastica.

The next socioculturally significant Bible text produced for children was Dialogorum Sacrorum Libri Quatuor (Four Books of Sacred Dialogs). Written and published in the 1540s by Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563) for Latin-learning schoolboys at the Collège de Rive in Calvinist Geneva, it was used as a Latin reader in European schools for two and a half centuries. Castellio’s choice of biblical material rested on actual or potential biblical dialogues, such as Eve’s encounter with the serpent or Jacob’s with an angel, but unlike Petrus Comestor, Castellio censored biblical misdeeds, so that Noah did not become drunk, Joseph never met Potiphar’s wife, and David’s adultery became Bathsheba’s seduction, editing choices prefiguring patterns that would predominate in Protestant children’s Bibles from 1700 onward.

In 1670 Nicolas Fontaine (1625–1709), the actual author behind the titular attribution to the Sieur de Royaumont, published L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament (History of the Old and New Testament). Initially a large format collection of two-page edited Bible stories lavishly illustrated with plates from Matthaeus Merian’s Icones Biblicae (Biblical Images, 1625–1627), it was immediately pirated by Brussels and Amsterdam printers for small-format editions while continuing to be published in Paris. Enjoying long-lasting success, it was translated into the languages of Europe’s Catholics as well as into a luxury edition underwritten by England’s Protestant monarchy, aristocracy, and prosperous merchant class. Fontaine, a reformist Catholic educator at the Little Schools of Port-Royal, had composed easily understood stories, with the result that his History underlay the first generation of French school Bibles, was used at university level (for instance, in English translation at Harvard College in the eighteenth century), and with revisions remained in print as an American Catholic school Bible into the twentieth century. With moral and theological commentary in a separate final paragraph, Fontaine rendered not only New Testament stories but also the full content of each Old Testament story, including problematic ones such as David’s double sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his mediate homicide of her husband.

Numerous illustrated collections of German Bible stories in the later 1600s by authors such as Justus Gesenius, Johann Amos Comenius, Johann Christfried Sagittarius, Bartholomaeus Lenderich, and Johann Gottfried Zeidler prepared the way for the first large-scale Protestant children’s Bible success, the 1714 Zweymahl zwey und funffzig Auserlesene Biblische Historien Aus dem Alten und Neuen Testamente, Der Jugend zum Besten abgefasset (Twice Fifty-Two Selected Biblical Histories from the Old and New Testament, composed for the Benefit of Youth) by Johann Hübner (1668–1731). An illustration copied from the canon of Matthaeus Merian’s Icones Biblicae faces the first page of each story; book, chapter, and verse references in the margins identify the biblical location of each story’s numbered sentences; one question per sentence hammers home the story’s content; “useful” prose “teachings” interpret each story; and versified devotional thoughts, the first in German and the second in Latin, conclude each “history.” Hübner’s school Bible predominated in the Protestant German-speaking parts of Central Europe throughout the eighteenth century, drawing in its wake revisions and newly composed “improvements.” In the United States it was printed in German in Harrisburg (1826), in Philadelphia in English as well as in German editions for the children of nineteenth-century emigrants, and solely in German in New York (1857) and St. Louis (1860s and 1870s). Christian Gottlob Barth’s Biblische Geschichten (Bible Histories) ultimately replaced Hübner’s children’s Bible, reaching a 76th printing in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1906. Other immigrant groups similarly published Bible stories for their young in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in North and South America.

In 1755, John Newbery (1713–1767), England’s first dedicated publisher of books for children, published The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Adapted to the Capacities of Children, and the following year Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s (1711–1780) Magasin des Enfans (Children’s Miscellany) incorporated “true” Bible stories (histoires) from both Old and New Testaments that alternated with “untrue” fairy tales (contes). In 1757 Newbery expanded his first effort at Bible stories as the woodcut-illustrated Holy Bible Abridged, or The History of the Old and New Testament.

Newbery’s children’s Bible was quickly joined by other publishers’ productions, some shorter and some longer, such as Hübner’s Youth’s Scripture Kalender (1759), The Children’s Bible (1759), An Abridgment of Scripture History (1766), The Bible in Miniature, or A Concise History of the Old and New Testaments (1771), The Pocket Bible for Little Masters and Misses (1772), and A New History of the Holy Bible (1778). A flood of children’s Bibles by named authors followed: Sarah Trimmer’s five titles, An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature. And Reading the Holy Scripture, Adapted to the Capacities of Children (1780), Sunday School Dialogues: Being an Abridgment of a work by M.P. [Eleanor Lady Fenn] (1790), A Series of Prints from the Old Testament. Designed to accompany a book intitled [sic] Scripture Lessons (1797), A Help to the Unlearned (1805, more an explication than a Bible narration) and her Sacred History …, which reached its eighth edition in 1824; Sacred Dramas written in French by Madame la comtesse de Genlis Translated into English by Thomas Holcroft (1786), William Massey’s Synopsis sacerrima, or, an Epitome of the Holy Scriptures. In English Verse; Chiefly designed for children, to be got by Heart when they have learned to read (1801).

As the nineteenth century progressed, the tide of English children’s Bibles became a flood with increasingly domestic titles, such as Mamma’s Bible Stories (ca. 1850), Mamma’s Fireside Pictures from the Bible (1860), The Sweet Story of Old (1866), Leaflets for the Little Ones (1870), Children of the Old Testament (1873) in the Aunt Louise’s Sunday Books series, and Bible Tales for Infant Minds (ca. 1885). As stories from both Testaments continued to appear (An Abridgment of Scripture History [1865], Golden Light [1865], Bible Steps for Little Pilgrims [1875]), they were accompanied by New Testament–only story collections in books such as Gospel Stories for Catholic Children (1852) and the Protestant Gospel Story-Book (1855). In general, however, English-language Bible stories for Catholic schoolchildren continued to be the Jesuit Reeve translation and amendation of Fontaine’s 1670 text.

In colonial America, printer-publishers had produced the homegrown History of the Holy Jesus in Boston (1716 et seq.) and The Holy Bible in Verse (1717 et seq.), but piracy began early with a Philadelphia imprint of Wilkie’s 1759 Children’s Bible (1763) and continued after independence in large printing centers such as Boston, Worcester, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as well as in provincial locations in Maine (Waterville), Vermont (Brattleboro, Windsor), New Hampshire (Concord), Massachusetts (Salem, Leicester, Wendell, Worcester), Connecticut (Bridgeport, New London, New Haven, and Hartford), New York (Albany, Buffalo), Pennsylvania (Harrisburg), Delaware (Wilmington), Virginia (Richmond, Charlottesville), South Carolina (Charleston), and Illinois (Chicago). Eventually, European and especially British publishing houses issued books simultaneously in, for example, New York and London, as was, for instance, the case for Josephine Pollard’s Bible and its Story for Young People in words of one syllable (1889).

Edited Bible stories for Jewish children in the vernacular made their first appearance in Moses Mordecai Büdinger’s (1783–1841) 1823 Derekh Emunah; Der Weg des Glaubens, oder Die kleine Bibel (The Way of Faith, or The Little Bible). Initially composed for girls and women, its second edition addressed girls and boys whose preparation for life in business left no time for Hebrew-language scripture studies. Its buyership originally lay in southern Germany, but by midcentury it was printed in Berlin and had also been translated into English for Britain’s Jewish boys and girls.

At midcentury Jakob Auerbach’s various German Jewish children’s Bible texts (Kleine Schul- und Hausbibel [1858, Little Bible for Home and School]), Lesestücke aus den Propheten [1854, Selections from the Prophets]) emerged for school use, principally in northern Germany. Other Jewish children’s Bibles followed, notably the “increasingly free narrative treatment of biblical topics” (V#x00F6;lpel, 2005, p. 117) in Jewish children’s Bibles such as Joachim Prinz’s (1902–1988) 1930 Helden und Abendteurer der Bibel (Heroes and Adventurers of the Bible), his 1934 Die Geschichten der Bibel der jüdischen Jugend neu erzählt (The Bible’s Stories Newly Told for Jewish Young People), meant particularly to inspirit and encourage young Jews in the face of Nazi persecution, and his 1936 Reiche Israels und Juda (Kingdoms of Israel and Judea). There are also numerous English-language Jewish children’s Bibles: Sulamith Ish-Kishor’s Bible Story (1921), Lenore Cohen’s Bible Tales for Very Young Children (1934), Edith Lindemann Calisch’s Bible Tales for Young People (1957), Dorothy Zeligs’s The Story Bible (1960), Sholem Asch’s In the Beginning (1966), and Bette Hollander et al.’s Bible Stories for Little Children (1986–1989), as well as, among others, Spanish-language ones in South America.

The children’s Bible genre gained traction in Switzerland and the United States in the later eighteenth century and in southern Europe in the mid-twentieth century. School Bibles emerged as a widespread publishing phenomenon in Europe from the nineteenth century onward. Plain, with small typeface and often unillustrated, they were repellently drab, unlike children’s Bibles for home use.

By the nineteenth century, children’s Bibles can be said to have become part of popular culture in every country where a significant proportion of the child population had achieved literacy, with distribution of often culture-specific children’s Bibles in missionary settings in Africa and Asia. By then Protestant Bible societies of many stripes were also distributing religious, devotional, and biblical literature to the poor, both young and old. Large-scale national and international publishing in the twentieth century continued the trend. Twenty-first-century Brick Bibles took illustration in the direction of animé, and video Bible stories bypassed the traditional book format, but the Golden Bible remained an international bestseller.

Content and Editing Trends.

The first consequential divide in children’s Bibles emerged at the beginning of the eighteenth century when Protestant authors generally shifted from negative to positive behavioral examples, diminished men’s but emphasized women’s misdeeds and at the same time removed stories of girls’ and women’s autonomy. Catholic children’s Bibles adopted these traits a century later. Both Protestants and Catholics privileged New over Old Testament stories in the course of the nineteenth century. Up to and including the nineteenth century, children’s Bibles routinely incorporated explicit references to children’s diligent study and their duty and obedience to parental, school, and civil authority.

The reception of children’s Bibles can be divided into four periods. In the first period (from its inception until about 1750), children’s Bibles addressed the children of the employing classes. Between 1750 and 1850 charitable individuals and institutions underwrote the religious education of poor children, as literacy grew sufficiently among those children to justify producing children’s Bibles for them. Consequently, stories in newly edited children’s Bibles for the children of the employed classes praised the godliness of labor, loyalty to employers, and obedience to domestic and civil authority, while offering instances of children’s tough lot in life, such as Ham’s being cursed by his father and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Children’s Bibles addressed to the children of prosperous families continued to be composed and published from 1750 to 1850, but around 1850 story versions and collections privileging the upper classes began to die out. The children’s Bible narrative tradition that continued preserved the harsh narratives that had been prepared for lower-class children. Feminists precipitated a sea change in content in the late twentieth century, returning biblical heroines to the canon and valorizing egalitarian social and theological principles.

All children’s Bible authors—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish—demonstrate similar editing patterns. In any given editing cycle, the first author adheres closely to biblical text, while subsequent authors emend and amend earlier published texts. The publishing history of Büdinger’s Way of Faith provides a concise and classic example, with full tellings in the first edition, problematic parts of the text relegated to footnotes in the second edition, footnotes subsequently removed, and explanatory apologetics inserted. Consequently, the texts of an identifiable publishing cycle of children’s Bibles diverge ever more from the Bible text from which they originated. When the divergence becomes insupportable in light of canonical biblical text, a new set of authors returns to biblical text and the cycle begins anew. Twentieth-century mass published children’s Bibles, often with ecumenical editorial boards, have largely (but not completely) displaced earlier confessionally based children’s Bibles.

Children’s Socialization, the Bible, and Children’s Bibles.

When Martin Luther observed that the Bible made fools of the wisest men, he openly acknowledged the dissonance between many Old Testament stories and the kind of behavior parents, teachers, and preachers wished to inculcate in the young. In addition to the stories named above, children’s Bible authors have wrestled with the tower of Babel, Lot’s incest with his daughters, Jacob’s sons’ revenge on Shechem and his court, the rape and murder of the Levite’s wife, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, Absalom’s disobedience to David, and Jael’s and Judith’s separate but equally clever stratagems to overcome an enemy general. Most children’s Bible authors eventually dropped these stories, but Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, one of the most problematic, was foundational and could not be ignored. Although individual tellings always seem to redact the biblical version, variance becomes evident when two or more are read against one another.

A large trend in twentieth-century children’s Bibles was an increasing derogation of women’s position and powers, a movement that began with Protestant children’s Bibles in 1700 and with Catholic ones in the mid-1800s. With feminist sensibilities and increased numbers of female theologians, attention to children’s Bible contents and language heightened and led to a new generation of children’s Bibles in the 1980s that restored heroic females like Jael and Deborah to children’s Bibles, that reconsidered Eve’s role in the fall from grace, and that redefined Mary Magdalene as a supporter of Jesus rather than as a sinner. Two additional significant changes have to do with Jesus’s personal appearance and with anti-Judaism in the trial of Jesus.

Confessional Characteristics.

Educational and philosophical influences redirected Bible story content around the end of the seventeenth century, when both Protestant and Catholic educators and theorists, like John Locke (1632–1704) and François Fénelon (1651–1715), laid out reasons for sheltering young minds from pernicious influences, such as bawdry, irreverence, and superstition. In addressing the question of Bible stories, Locke specifically recommended the composition, and young people’s reading, of a “short and plain Epitome” or a good “History of the Bible” that would include only what was “fit to be put into it.” In Locke’s eyes that meant “Joseph and his brethren, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, etc.” (Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, §158, 159). Locke’s choice of stories veered sharply toward the fraternal and away from the sexual, and in the main, Protestant authors of children’s Bibles followed his advice. Fontaine’s Bible stories, however, had such a large publishing presence that the content of his collection, though edited by Jesuit opponents of the Port-Royalism from which Fontaine’s Histoire had emerged, was not significantly changed. Thus Catholic children continued to learn more about actual Bible content well into the nineteenth century than did Protestant children.

Catholic and Protestant children’s Bible authors treated Jesus’s New Testament miracles very differently. By and large, Catholic authors privileged reversals of natural law (walking on water, changing water to wine), while Protestant authors emphasized healings and revivals from the dead. As suggested above, the level of evident sinning was higher in Catholic children’s Bibles, perhaps to establish the necessity of ecclesiastical intervention to redeem sinners and preserve them from eternal damnation. Catholics and Protestants both exculpated males and inculpated females, but Protestants initiated the process in the eighteenth century, while Catholics on the whole waited until the nineteenth century to edit their children’s Bibles in this direction. In a story like Moses parting the Red Sea, both Catholics and Protestants introduced causes other than Moses’s agency (such as unusual tides or strong winds) to account for the Jews’ miraculous salvation from pursuing Egyptians, while Jewish children’s Bibles drew attention to Moses’s own powers or to him as God’s direct instrument. Jewish children’s Bible explanations of the presence of evil in the world downplay or even ignore the possibility of Adam and Eve’s opposition to divine directive, which most Christian authors assume.


Religious books accounted for the overwhelming majority of illustrated books in the early modern period, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some “Bibles” consisted only of images. One was Hans Holbein the Younger’s Historiarum Veteris Testamenti Icones (1538–1549, Illustrations/Images of the Histories/Stories of the Old Testament). In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, albums or freestanding plates of biblical images were created for school and home use to elicit children’s own tellings of the stories. One such set was prepared for a French dauphin in the late seventeenth century; another was published in England as The History of the Old and New Testament described in Figures. The practice continued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England with Mrs. Trimmer’s Series of Prints from the Old Testament (1797) and her New Series of Prints for Scripture History from the New Testament (1803), while children of humble means might tell stories to fit the pictures in a chapbook like New Pictorial Bible (n.d.). In late eighteenth-century France, Figures de la Bible contenues en 500 Tableaux (Image of the Bible in 500 Scenes) served the same function for children of the upper classes (Saint-Martin, 2005, p. 252).

Canonical Bibles were often illustrated, not only for Catholics and Protestants, but also, on occasion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for Jews. As religious books, children’s Bibles for home use fit neatly into this pattern. Publishers routinely chose illustrations familiar to the buying public: early editions of Ulrich Zwingli’s translation of the Bible reproduced Holbein illustrations, 21 old ones as well as 140 newly commissioned ones from the acclaimed artist. From the late 1620s through the 1700s and even into the 1800s, Matthaeus Merian’s classic Icones Biblicae images predominated in Bibles for adults as well as in those for children. Similarly, the illustrations of Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872) and Gustave Doré (1832–1883) decorated one children’s Bible (and adult Bible) after another in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Once children’s Bibles became part of mass market publishing, however, commercial decisions determined production costs and their illustration number and quality. Children’s Bibles that well-off parents bought for their children in the nineteenth century were illustrated with woodcuts or copperplates and often hand-colored lithographs, unlike dull black-and-white school Bibles.

Illustrations reproduce cultural assumptions, and throughout the nineteenth century, Old and New Testament characters regularly resembled northern Europeans, with a blond (or light-brown-haired) blue-eyed Jesus. Directly after World War II, Jesus became Middle Eastern in appearance, a visual trend first evident in Germany that slowly spread to the children’s Bibles of other Western countries.

Children’s Bibles and Literature

Woodcut of Adam and Eve in John Newbery’s The Holy Bible Abridged: or, The History of the Old and New Testament, 1757. Newbery established children’s books as a successful commercial enterprise in mid-eighteenth-century England.

© The British Library Board, General Reference Collection 3130.l.6

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Book Design.

Children’s Bibles are by nature repeatedly (intensively) read books, as opposed to the extensive reading that characterizes leisure reading for novelty and amusement. Repeatedly read, the size of a children’s Bible and the design of its pages exert a correspondingly greater visual effect.

Historically, the size of children’s Bibles has paralleled the cost of paper. In the 1500s and 1600s, children’s Bibles were typically about 10 × 18 cm, and when the cost of paper rose sharply in the 1660s, the size of children’s Bibles shrank. In the 1700s Bibles for children, like other children’s books, remained small, about 9 × 15 cm. This remained the case until the mid-1800s when—first in England and later in France and Germany—paper costs decreased and the book size of children’s books in general and of children’s Bibles in particular slowly increased until the smallest were about 10 × 15 cm and the largest nearly four times that size, averaging 23 × 28.5 cm. In the 1900s children’s Bible book size increased once again, ranging from 12 × 15 cm at the smaller end to about 26 × 31 cm at the larger end.

Variety in typefaces and typeface sizes characterizes all book title pages well into the nineteenth century, while typographic variety on the printed page itself conveys messages about cultural siting (Roman vs. Gothic type), religious significance (God vs. GOd or Herr vs. HErr), and readerly importance. Typographic size, color, or font also draws attention to text as a subject category worthy of attention. The optics of reading results from the design, positioning, and typographic appearance of text on the page, which comprises the text as readers encounter it. Thus, typography not only determines what readers see but also guides their eyes’ movement (the order in which they perceive words), readers’ return to specific words, and the length of time spent focusing on a text. Scholarly analysis of such issues took place only in the 1980s, but it is evident that soon after the invention and implementation of movable type, book designers were well aware of the guiding effects of typography, illustrations, and the disposition of text on the page.

Children’s Bibles can reasonably be considered an integral part of material Christianity. Their text was sacralized, like that of canonical Bibles, but their pages were not completely so. Some children inked out nudity in illustrations, while others inscribed their names, principally on the blank spaces of title pages and endpapers. However, if a children’s Bible had a hallowed location in the household, as did the canonical Bible, it has not yet been identified.

Issues in Children’s Bible Research.

Johann Michael Reu (1976) established a Protestant canon of abbreviated Bible histories intended to instruct the unlearned: books like Martin Luther’s Passionalbüchlein (1529 et seq.), Wendelin Rihel’s Leien-Bibel (1540), Braunfels, Castellio, and Hartmann Beyer’s Historienbibel (1555). Reinmar Tschirsch outlined the field as a whole in Bibel für Kinder (1995), and in Die Bibel als Schul- und Hausbuch (1984). Christine Reents (1984), using Hübner’s Zwey mal Zwey und funffzig Biblische Historien, systematically analyzed individual German children’s Bibles according to theological content. Subsequent studies have been carried out on individually significant German children’s Bibles, such as Johann Peter Hebel’s Biblische Geschichten (Wunderlich, 1990), as well as on long-term traditions, such as Sybille Peter-Peretz’s (1991) examination of eighteenth-century German children’s Bibles as a whole, Ran Ha Cohen’s (1994) account of Jewish children’s Bibles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Ruth Bottigheimer’s (1996) study of the cultural and social values built into children’s Bibles over their history from 1170 to the 1990s.

Numerous volumes of essays appeared in the 1990s and the early 2000s devoted to theoretical and methodological parameters of studying children’s Bibles (Lachmann et al., 1999), their verbal and visual versions of God (Körtner et al., 1999), the problematics of religious educators’ interpreting and presenting children’s Bibles to children (Adam et al., 2003), and the use of children’s Bibles as a formal educational tool (Elsenbast et al., 2004). As Protestants and Catholics alike increasingly regarded the Old Testament as a body of writing that had been superseded by the appearance and teaching of Jesus, regarding New Testament acts and events as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy, Christian renderings of the Old Testament for children changed fundamentally. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers of Bible stories for children found much to object to in Old Testament narratives, whereas the less dramatic New Testament stories were unobjectionable. Facets of the problematics of Old Testament vs. New Testament stories are addressed in Das Alte Testament in Kinderbibeln (Adam et al., 2003).

The omnipresence of illustrations in children’s Bibles, an essential part of children’s Bibles for home use, has prompted analyses of their aesthetic value, interpretive effect, didactic function, and accuracy (Adam et al., 2005; also individual essays in Lachmann et al., 1999; Körtner et al., 1999). In Text, Image, and Otherness in Children’s Bibles (Vander Stichele et al., 2012), a rare volume in English devoted to children’s Bibles, one article explores visual depictions of Daniel in the lion’s den and the boy Jesus in comic books and manga Bibles.

Parallel to Protestant and Jewish inquiries, Catholic conferences resulted in volumes that addressed the Bible as a children’s book and overall questions of belief, morality, materiality, and Jesus’s identity. Conferences initiated by Hans-Gerd Wirtz and sponsored by German Catholic institutions led to a series of essay collections: Der Glaube der Kinder und das Gottesbild in Kinderbibeln (Children’s Faith and the Image of God in Children’s Bibles, 1997), edited by Hans-Gerd Wirtz; Moral in Kinderbibeln (Morality in Children’s Bibles, 1998), edited by Franz W. Niehl; Kinderbibeln zwischen Qualität und Kommerz (Children’s Bibles between Quality and Commerce, 2000), edited by Franz W. Niehl and Hans-Gerd Wirtz; and Jesus Christus in Kinderbibeln (Jesus Christ in Children’s Bibles, 2004), edited by Hans-Gerd Wirtz and Franz-Josef Ortkemper.

For religious educators and social historians, children’s Bible story choice is of primary importance, yet the canonical biblical source reflects agrarian and herding assumptions as well as urban expectations, only the latter of which resonates with most contemporary readers. Editing ancient and alien assumptions for modern readers, in the process bending them to doctrinal expectations, requires supple thinking and creative writing. These processes are complicated by pressures to compose a children’s Bible that is both accurate in rendering the biblical source text and acceptable in offering stories appropriate to the sensibilities of modern child readers (Adam et al., 2008). Generally unacceptable in the modern world are children’s Bible narratives of paternal or fraternal incest, circumcision as a military stratagem, and hospitality leading to rape and murder, although some fundamentalist religions include them in in-house children’s Bibles. Ethics and morality in relation to all stories included in children’s Bibles are examined in Moral und Ethik in Kinderbibeln: Kinderbibelforschung in historischer und religionspädagogischer Perspektive (Morality and Ethics in Children’s Bibles: Children’s Bible Research in Historical and Religious-Educational Perspective; Schlag and Schelander, 2011).

A painful subject in the history of children’s Bibles is the virulent anti-Judaism routinely expressed in accounts of Jesus’s trial. Before 1945 the majority of Christian children’s Bibles drew on the Gospel of Matthew for words spoken by Jews before Pilate about Jesus’s blood being upon them and their children, a phrase that justified persecution and pogroms for centuries. The Holocaust sensitized editors to the murderous consequences of fomenting anti-Jewish sentiments in prose sacralized by its children’s Bible setting, and after 1945, the language of children’s Bible accounts of the trial of Jesus changed materially in most but not all Western countries (Bottigheimer, 2007).

The feminist awakening of the 1980s, which led to Mary Daly’s attacks on traditional biblical exegesis, were echoed in feminist children’s Bible scholarship in the 1990s. Story choice once again emerged as a pressing question, with a new insistence on restoring the Bible’s long-absent heroines to children’s Bibles and expunging remaining traces of male privileging. The overarching role of gendered discourse, reception, and story choice in religion and education informs Gender—Religion—Bildung (Pithan et al., 2009). Acknowledging the effect of historical context on understanding biblical text and creating children’s Bible texts comes into focus in Retelling the Bible: Literary, Historical, and Social Contexts (Doležalová and Visi, 2011).

Children’s Bibles and Children’s Literature.

Children’s Bibles are deeply embedded within children’s literature as a genre that also includes fairy tales, so that the authors of Stories of Heaven and Earth (Person and Person, 2005) locate their discussions of Moses stories, for instance, within the fairy tale theories of Joseph Campbell and Bruno Bettelheim. The psychological complexity of many Bible stories makes similarly relevant the maturational and psychological growth theories of Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, both for the stories’ editing and for guiding readers’ understanding of the resulting texts.

In every country in which children’s literature emerged in the eighteenth century, Bible histories meant for adult and child alike had long been part of prosperous families’ children’s culture. Bible histories specifically for child readers, however, became a recognizable publishing phenomenon only in the second half of the seventeenth century, first in Germany, then in France with Fontaine’s Histoire, and finally in England in 1688 when Fontaine’s Bible stories began to be translated into English.

Until 1700, chivalric romances had been staple leisure reading for simple readers, a group that included not only adolescent and adult servants, apprentices, or journeymen, but also literate children (whose literacy identified them as part of the employing classes) whose parents apparently made few qualitative judgments about the suitability of cheap print for young minds. The author of the English preface to The History of Genesis, an English adaptation of Nicolas Fontaine’s Histoire, harbored neither ambivalence nor indecision. He fulminated against popular print and advocated removing it from children’s hands and replacing it with Bible stories:

"How often do we see Parents prefer Tom Thumb, Guy of Warwick, Valentine and Orson, or some such foolish Book before the Books of Life! Let not your children read these vain Books, profane Ballads, and filthy Songs; for these fill them with wanton Thoughts, and nasty and obscene Discourse. Throw away all fond and amorous Romances and fabulous Histories of Giants, the bombast Achievements of Knight Errantry, and the like, for these imprint false Notions, and irregular Conceits, and fill the Heads of Children with vain, silly, and idle Imaginations." (The History of Genesis, 1690, pp. vi–vii)

It was precisely the moral crudities of such street literature that late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century children’s Bibles were meant to supplant and, in so doing, to break the past reading habits of prosperous families’ children. Because so many children’s Bibles preceded the mid-eighteenth-century emergence of children’s literature (first in Britain and soon all over Europe), central issues that children’s Bible authors had previously dealt with underlay the understanding and composition of the newly emerging genre of children’s literature itself.

Class was the first of five issues common to early children’s Bibles and to mid-eighteenth-century children’s literature. Acknowledged implicitly in the differing composition of Bible stories for poor children of the employed classes on the one hand, and for prosperous children of the employing classes on the other, social class expressed itself for the well-off readers of early children’s literature as gratitude for not being poor.

Moral content was a second category whose meaning changed significantly between 1670 and 1770. In children’s Bibles, salvation was central: newly imbued with concepts of childhood innocence (Locke’s blank slate), however, authors eschewed the earlier detailed depictions of sin (Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the carnal lust of Potiphar’s wife for Joseph, Schechem’s for Dinah, and David’s for Bathsheba, Noah’s and Lot’s drunkenness, Lot’s and Amnon’s incest, Joseph’s brothers’ brutality, and Jacob’s fratricide) considered necessary for a recognition and consequent avoidance of sin. Instead, from the late seventeenth century onward, a conscious bias emerged among Bible story authors in favor of stories of innocence. The first to recommend this transition was the Catholic François Fénelon (1651–1715) in his 1687 Éducation des Filles (Girls’ Education), closely followed by the Protestant John Locke (1632–1704) in his 1690 On Human Understanding, whose compelling image of the newborn child’s mind as an empty chamber changed to a tabula rasa in his 1693 Thoughts on Education. Fénelon’s and Locke’s perceptions entailed a monumental shift in theorizing the child, and by extension child readers, as spiritually “innocent” creatures who were not yet schooled either in sin or in letters, while adult but simple readers became “ignorant,” that is, unschooled in letters but all too well schooled in life. From about 1700 onward, newly composed children’s Bibles (that is, excluding Fontaine’s 1670 Histoire, which continued in print for more than two centuries) began to delete many explicitly described sins, yet habitually retained instances of childhood disobedience and its consequences. Moral content was thus a fundamental issue that children’s Bibles resolved before children’s literature emerged in the 1750s and that remained central in early children’s literature. Children’s literature followed the same moral imperative, excising the bawdry of cheap street literature in favor of secular tales of diligence, honesty, and gratitude.

In a third issue, Protestant children’s Bible authors increasingly dissociated morally questionable episodes from males after 1700, communicating a patriarchal supremacy based of moral preeminence, validating Adam’s superiority by virtue of his immediate creation by God (Eve’s creation having been mediate), and rejecting the Genesis creation story of Adam and Eve’s having been created simultaneously in favor of Eve’s having been created from Adam’s rib. Male-centeredness led directly to the gradual elimination of Old Testament heroines like Moses’s sister Miriam and the judge Deborah and to the abbreviation of stories that showed Old Testament patriarchs in an unflattering light, such as Noah’s drunkenness. Stories too important to be omitted such as David’s double crime of adultery and murder were reoriented in Protestant children’s Bibles, so that, for instance, David’s mediate murder of Joab was made to precede his lust for Bathsheba, with the result that Bathsheba’s widowhood removed the taint of adultery from David, Jesus’s revered progenitor. By clever editing and occasional wordplay, women’s sexual transgressions were desexualized (to make them conform to requirements for child minds newly declared innocent) and redefined as asexual transgressions like lying, as in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, to maintain a sense of women’s moral inferiority. When text alone could not communicate women’s greater sinfulness, illustrations did so. Male authors’ overall male-friendly editorial tendency produced a gender-specific cleansing of inherently multivalent Old Testament stories and sacralized a gender hierarchy that would remain implicit in children’s literature as it emerged in the 1750s.

In the course of the century between the 1650s and the 1750s, children’s Bible authors addressed a fourth issue common to both children’s Bibles and children’s literature by adding textual construal to their rewritings. Stories that made fools of the wisest would surely be questioned by the simplest, and so authors inserted internal interpretation to the stories, “such pious and edifying Explications, as serve to illustrate every Story, and make them intelligible to the meanest Capacity” (The History of Genesis, 1708, A4). England’s Compendious History of the Old and New Testament, Extracted from the Holy Bible, and Adapted to all Capacities (1714–1725) noted similarly that its author had “interspers’d as often as we could, brief Observations and Reflections upon the Histories recited, in order to lead ductile Minds into a Way of Thinking suitable to the Designs of each particular Relation” (1726, A4r). The great benefit of textual construal within the body of a text, whether a biblical story or an entertaining one, was that young readers could not avoid it, as John Marchant wrote in Lusus Juveniles; or Youth’s Recreation (1753): “I have so interwove the Moral with the Tale, that they must necessarily be read together; and as the one, as it were, flows into the other, it’s presumed it will leave the most lasting Impression on the Mind” (p. vi). The quality of internal commentary similarly characterized early children’s literature.

Evident truth, the fifth important issue in children’s literature that was earlier resolved in children’s Bibles, was the most complex issue with which children’s Bible authors had to deal, as it rested on making the “truth” of each story evident to child readers in terms that the author perceived to be not only religiously but also socially and culturally true. Marie Leprince de Beaumont assisted her readers with a sweeping definition: Bible stories were true “histories” and purveyed virtues, whereas chapbooks and fairy tales were fictional and therefore untrue “contes” (stories, tales) meant solely for entertainment. When children’s fictions emerged as a meaningful commercial genre in the 1750s, what was regarded as social truth guided most plots: hard work and literacy led to prosperity; telling falsehoods led directly to the gibbet. Children’s Bible authors from the mid- to late-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century thus resolved fundamental issues foundational for the earliest entertaining literature written for children: social class, moral content, paternal roles, internal exegesis (construal), and evident truth. In children’s Bible stories, authors identified these five issues, refined their expression and developed forms of presentation that could be copied into eighteenth-century secular fictions for children.




  • Adam, Gottfried, Rainer Lachmann, and Regine Schindler, eds. Das Alte Testament in Kinderbibeln: Eine didaktische Herausforderung in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. Zurich, Switzerland: Theologischer Verlag, 2003.
  • Adam, Gottfried, Rainer Lachmann, and Regine Schindler, eds. Illustrationen in Kinderbibeln: Von Luther bis zum Internet. Jena, Germany: IKS Garamond, 2005.
  • Adam, Gottfried, Rainer Lachmann, and Regine Schindler, eds. Die Inhalte von Kinderbibeln: Kriterien ihrer Auswahl. Göttingen, Germany: V & R Unipress, 2008.
  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. “The Child-Reader of Children’s Bibles, 1656–1753.” In Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, edited by Elizabeth Goodenough, Mark A. Heberle, and Naomi B. Sokoloff, pp. 44–56. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. “Children’s Bibles: Sacralized and Problematic.” In Expectations and Experiences: Children, Childhood, and Children’s Literature, edited by Clare Bradford and Valerie Coghlan, pp. 97–110. Litchfield, U.K.: Pied Piper, 2007.
  • Doležalová, Lucie, and Tamás Visi, eds. Retelling the Bible: Literary, Historical, and Social Contexts. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011.
  • Elsenbast, Volker, Rainer Lachmann, and Robert Schelander, eds. Die Bibel als Buch der Bildung. Forum Theologie und Pädagogik 12. Vienna: LIT, 2004.
  • The History of Genesis: Being an Account of the Holy Lives and Actions of the Patriarchs; explained with Pious and Edifying Explanations, and illustrated with near Forty Figures, Fitted for the use of Schools, and recommended to Teachers of Children, as a Book very proper for the learning them to read English, and instructing them in the right understanding of these Divine Historys. The Third Edition Corrected. London: Andrew Bell, 1690, 1708.
  • Körtner, Ulrich, and Robert Schelander, eds. Special issue: Gottes-Vorstellungen: Die Frage nach Gott in religiösen Bildungsprozessen. Religionspädagogik (1999).
  • Lachmann, Rainer, and Gottfried Adam, eds. Kinder- und Schulbibeln: Probleme ihrer Erforschung. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.
  • Person, Hara E., and Diane G. Person. Stories of Heaven and Earth: Bible Heroes in Contemporary Children’s Literature. New York: Continuum, 2005.
  • Pithan, Annebelle, Silvia Arzt, Monika Jakobs, and Thorsten Knauth, eds. Gender—Religion—Bildung: Beiträge zu einer Religionspädagogik der Vielfalt. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2009.
  • Reents, Christine. Die Bibel als Schul- und Hausbuch für Kinder: Werkanalyse und Wirkungsgeschichte einer frühen Schul- und Kinderbibel im evangelischem Raum: Johann Hübner Zweymal zwey und funffzig Auserlesene Biblische Historien der Jugend zum Besten abgefasset … Leipzig 1714 bis Leipzig 1874 und Schwelm 1902. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984.
  • Reu, Johann Michael. Quellen zur Geschichte des kirchlichen Unterrichts in der evangelischen Kirche Deutschlands zwischen 1530 und 1600. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1976.
  • Saint-Martin, Isabelle. “The Attraction of the Picture: The Iconography of Children’s Versions of the Bible in 19th- and 20th-Century France.” In Religion, Children’s Literature and Modernity in Western Europe 1750–2000, edited by Jan De Maeyer et al., pp. 250–261. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2005.
  • Schlag, Thomas, and Robert Schelander, eds. Moral und Ethik in Kinderbibeln: Kinderbibelforschung in historischer und religionspädagogischer Perspektive. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011.
  • Tschirsch, Reinmar. Bibel für Kinder: Die Kinderbibel in Kirche, Gemeinde, Schule und Familie. Gütersloh, Germany: Kohlhammer, 1995.
  • Vander Stichele, Caroline, and Hugh S. Pyper, eds. Text, Image, and Otherness in Children’s Bibles. What Is in the Picture?? Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
  • V#x00F6;lpel, Annegret. “Religion, German Jewish Children’s and Youth Literature and Modernity.” In Religion, Children’s Literature and Modernity in Western Europe 1750–2000, edited by Jan De Maeyer et al., pp. 108–123. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2005.
  • Wunderlich, Reinhard. Johan Peter Hebel’s “Biblische Geschichten”: Eine Bibeldichtung zwischen Spätaufklärung und Biedermeier. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990.

Further Reading

  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. “Moses Mordechai Büdinger’s Kleine Bibel (1823) and Vernacular Jewish Children’s Bibles.” Jewish Social Studies 3 (1995): 83–98.
  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. The Bible for Children from the Age of Gutenberg to the Present. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Reents, Christine, and Christopher Melchior. Die Geschichte der Kinder- und Schulbibel: Evangelisch—katholisch—jüdisch. Göttingen, Germany: V&R Unipress, 2011.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer