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  • God and the Bourgeoisie:Class, the Two-Tier Tradition, Work, and Proletarianization in Children's Bibles
  • Ruth B. Bottigheimer (bio)

Children's Bibles—that is, collections of Bible stories—are of considerable interest within children's literature; historically they comprise the first body of extended narrative writing composed specifically for children.1 Touted as "true" in book after book, the prose of children's Bibles nonetheless more nearly approximated that of the fiction that developed from the mid-eighteenth century onward, and children's Bibles predated fairy tales and belletristic children's literature by one or two generations all over Western Europe.

Because of the relatively large expense involved in purchasing a children's Bible, questions of social class are prominent with respect to first-generation ownership. The earliest children's Bibles were illustrated books, about four inches wide by six inches tall by one and a half inches thick. Books of that format and thickness were costly, and, between 1656 and about 1750, they could only have been purchased by families of considerable means. The early development of the genre is thus inextricably linked to an affluent buyership and readership. Social questions that have long interested historians emerge from, and on, the pages of children's Bibles, and the way they are treated by their authors almost always throws new light on these subjects. In this article, I will discuss one of them, a class-conditioned presentation of the concept of work between 1750 and 1850.

Between about 1750 and 1850, a two-tier tradition developed in the genre. In this period, there were children's Bibles that were written for children in households of means, and there were other children's Bibles written for the poor. Their titles indicate clearly who the intended readership was: For Carefully Reared Children (Seidentopf) or For Country Children (Müller). Their texts were different, and the places they were used were different—bourgeois children's Bibles were generally meant for home use and proletarian children's Bibles for school use until about 1850. In conjunction with work, the social messages embedded in those texts were also different; the wealthy observed the poor at work, and the [End Page 124] poor themselves were admonished to work and to be grateful that, unlike the rich, the sweat of their brow would ease their way into heaven.

After 1850, however, textual patterns in children's Bibles shifted a second time; they amalgamated the two textual traditions, and the patterns that had been set in the children's Bible texts meant for the poor became the dominant text for all children's Bibles with the result that, from 1850 onward, the children of the rich read the same exemplary tales and memorized the same verses enjoining virtuous labor.

Work in Children's Bibles

Work, as a virtue to be inculcated, made its initial appearance in children's Bibles in Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century in a book for the lower end of the social scale, when the sour-tongued Johann Peter Miller implied that God had imposed industriousness upon people in this world as part of his plan for their spiritual redemption (Miller 1779, 9).2 Miller's Bible was a Schoolbook for the children of the employed, not of the employing classes. In his Bible for children, Miller reduced the narrative fate of numerous Old Testament cities and characters to a functional index of their evident industriousness: Sodom fell because of its loss of industrious behavior, and Moses led his "diligent" people out of bondage in Egypt (Miller 1785,19,47). Within a few decades of Miller's introduction of "industriousness" into children's Bibles, a general vocabulary of work had developed all over Europe in children's Bibles to express the mandates for industry, diligence, and utility.3

Miller meant his Bible to replace Johann Hübner's best-selling book of Bible stories that had been in print for about 40 years when Miller's volume first appeared. Work as a theme had barely been evident in Hübner's first edition, but as the century wore on and Hübner's book was issued and re-issued all over...


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