- From Christian Conversion to Children's Crusade:The Left Behind Series for Kids and the Changing Nature of Evangelical Juvenile Fiction
You ask why I cannot keep my religion to myself? I will tell you, my dear brother. Because I see you are in danger of eternal damnation.(Lewis Tappan, nineteenth-century American abolitionist and evangelical Christian)
Both past and present critics have commonly attributed the rise of modern-day children's literature in the United States to a complex constellation of authors, eras, and events. Greta Little, for instance, has identified the importance of St. Nicholas Magazine (1873-1941), given its massive national circulation. Similarly, Ken Donelson and Deidre Johnson have discussed the impact of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, with its popular series novels like The Hardy Boys (1927-59) and the Nancy Drew Mysteries (1930-56). Finally, Leonard Marcus has written about the significance of the Little Golden Books, whose titles like The Poky Little Puppy (1942) democratized young people's access to reading materials on a scale previously unforeseen in the history of the nation.
While these events were certainly significant, another historically important but less frequently cited phenomenon was also instrumental: the narratives published by the American Sunday School Union (ASSU). The ASSU was founded in Philadelphia in [End Page 84] 1824 after nearly half a century of the rapid growth and increasing cultural influence of small, faith-based Sabbath schools. Comprised of five evangelical denominations—Baptist, Congregationalist, Low Church Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian (Boylan 1)—the organization sought to increase its social efficacy by focusing on larger and shared ecumenical goals rather than discrete and more divisive denominational ones.
One of the first tasks that the newly incorporated ASSU identified was to consolidate its publishing efforts. As Anne M. Boylan and George A. Schneider have written, almost from their emergence in the United States during the late-eighteenth century, Sunday schools had been printing various books, pamphlets, and articles to support their curricula and for distribution during missionary efforts. The newly formed Committee on Publications from the ASSU sought to streamline these items, eliminating ones that overlapped and releasing only the most spiritually uplifting new titles. Indeed, as historians Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright have noted, at its first meeting, "the Union's Committee on Publication admitted to being 'dictators to the consciences of thousands of immortal beings'" (30). Although the Committee later dropped this phrase from its reports, members continued to see themselves as "responsible arbiters" with regard to the religious development of the young (Lynn and Wright 30). In this way, the publications of the ASSU had the same objective as that of the Sunday schools themselves: moral suasion and Christian conversion. According to historian Jack L. Seymour, the Sabbath-based instructional sessions quickly became "the nursery of the church." By 1880, in fact, the "denominational leaders had statistics that showed that 80 percent of all new members came into the church through the Sunday school" (34). It is a safe estimate that nearly all of these individuals had encountered at least one ASSU publication.
From its origins, the American Sunday School Union released materials in a wide range of literary genres and narrative subject matters. Titles possessing the ASSU imprint numbered into the thousands and emerged from the fields of history, biography, travel, poetry, music, and—later—fiction. As David Paul Nord has written, "In 1825, its first full year of operation, the society published 224 separate editions of books, pamphlets, and periodicals, amounting to more than 14 million pages" (81). These publications were as popular and pervasive as the Sunday schools with which they were affiliated. Earl R. Taylor has documented that by 1830—a mere six years after it was founded—"the Committee of Publication published six million copies of its various titles, many of which were for children" (13). Especially during these early days before the widespread proliferation of print materials fueled by the Industrial Revolution and, in many areas, the founding of a public school system and the [End Page 85] creation of free public libraries, books from the ASSU were among the first and sometimes the only narratives that young people encountered. Moreover...