Benjamin Harris’s Protestant Tutor (1679): Teaching Religion, Reading, and Writing in a Time of Crisis

Soft metal cut from the T. Norris and A. Bettesworth edition, ca. 1715. Cotsen 2039.

Late seventeenth century journalist Benjamin Harris probably would have gotten his bearings pretty quickly in our toxic media environment.   Familiar with bad actors, feverish conspiracy theories,  succession crises, bitter factional combat, and brutal rhetoric, only the technologies would have been new to him. As a channel for rumors and gossip, he surely would have quickly grasped how much mightier social media was than the coffee house.  His fellow bookseller John Dunton remarked that, “I should have been much concerned if Ben Harris had given me a good word, for his commendation is the greatest reproach that an honest man can meet with. He is so far from having any dealings with truth or honesty, that his solemn word, which he calls as good as his bond, is a studied falsehood, and he scandalises truth and honesty in pretending to write for it.”

Title page of the 1707 edition. Cotsen 379.

Someone with these particular gifts would not seem especially well-suited for a sideline writing children’s books. Examine the contents of his Protestant Tutor, Instructing Children to Spel and read English, and Grounding them in the True Protestant Religion, and Discovering the Errors and Deceits of the Papists, and his loudly proclaimed priorities have quite a bit in common  with those of contemporary American authors on the right who have self-published children’s books than one might suppose.   Harris was, like many of them, neither a professional educator or writer, but he felt confident enough to offer the public a book that would challenge dangerous mainstream ones circulating pernicious ideas and values.

He abhorred Roman Catholicism with the deadly fury of a conspiracy theorist and a cultural warrior.  A member of the Particular Baptists, who believed Christ died only for the elect like Calvin, he rejoiced in the letter dedicatory that the Papists’ diabolic strategy “ to  destroy King Charles II, his government and the Protestant religion by disseminating “their cursed Opinions among the Ignorant, as they have demonstrated by vast numbers of Popish Primers, Catechisms, Manuals, and a multitude of such Romish Trash and Trumpery, which they intended to have dispersed like a General Infection  among the youth of this nation” had been foiled.

Cotsen 2039

To convince parents and heads of school “to strengthen and confirm this young Generation in Protestant Principles, by the methods whereby they [the Roman Catholics] intended to Debauch them,”  he argued that now was the time “to arm our Innocent Children against the cursed and continual practices of our Romish Adversaries, who designed not only the Murder and destruction of the bodies, but the ruin and Damnation of the souls of our poor Children with the utter Extirpation of the Protestant Religion from under Heaven.”  Better they die than “be bred up in Popish Superstition and Idolatry, or otherwise to be Imprisoned, Rackt, Tortured and Burnt at the stake as our Fathers have been before us.”

Harris attempts to plant seeds of hate so deeply in his young readers’ minds so that they will never forget the horrors Protestants suffered.  The reading lessons retelling the scriptural accounts of Moses, Christ’s  crucifixion, and long quotations from Revelations invite children to identify with God’s chosen ones and turn fear ears to the call of Babylon.  The blatantly sectarian catechism says little about  justification by faith alone, its chief preoccupation being to list all Romish practices to be shunned, like obeying the Pope, worshipping images or saints’ relics, praying to the Virgin Mary, and buying pardons.

The martyrdom of John Rogers, better known from its inclusion in The New England Primer. This version of the scene is more detailed and better executed than most. Cotsen 2039.

Cotsen 379.

The minister John Roger’s exhortation to his wife and nine children days before he was burned at the stake leads off the history of “Cruelties, Treasons, and Massacres committed by the Papist” since Bloody Mary’s reign illustrated with ghoulishly crude but effective cuts of the faithful being disemboweled upside down,  the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the Irish atrocities against the Protestants in 1641, the Huguenot massacre in Paris, the great fire of London of 1666 supposedly Papist arson.   Rome is ridiculed through the account of the pope-burning procession through London in 1679.   It took place on November 17, the day Elizabeth I ascended the throne which was observed as a Protestant holiday. The description of the order of the groups in the parade, their costumes, the exchanges between the Pope and his privy counsellor the Devil, the crowning of Elizabeth’s statue, the fireworks, and great bonfire are  drawn from the explanation on the satirical print “The Solemn Mock Procession of the Pope, Cardinals, Jesuits, Fryers” published by Jonathan Wilkins in 1680.   In spite of having to reformat the procession from the print’s much larger horizontal format to a small vertical one, Harris’s cutter preserved a remarkable amount of detail.Even after the tumult of the Exclusion Crisis died down, the explosive mix of faith, fear, and ridicule in The Protestant Tutor remained available for another forty years: the English Short Title Catalog lists editions in 1680, 1683, 1685, 1690, 1707, 1713, 1716, and ca. 1720.  One factor could be the way Harris bulked up the sections of reading instruction to make it more widely useful without cutting the anti-Catholic propaganda.. Attractive additions to the 1707 edition include two engraved leaves of writing samples, directions for cutting pens, and a section of model letters for business correspondence, while ca. 1720 featured an engraved alphabet lottery plate.  He also brought the little book of martyrs down to the present day, there being plenty to document since 1679 when the book first appeared.A greater motivation to keep the Protestant Tutor in print must have been Harris’s fear of a Stuart restoration to the English throne, a fear that was not groundless in light of Irish and Scottish Jacobite activity from the 1690s into the 1700s.   The title page of the 1713 edition states bluntly that the text will inform readers of what can be expected from a “Popish successor” to the ailing Queen Anne, who had failed to produce an heir, then throws its support behind the future George I.   The anti-Jacobitism is even stronger in the last known edition, issued by Thomas Norris and Andrew Bettesworth, which includes a new section,  “A Timely Memorial to all true Protestants, Demonstrating the Certainty of a horrid and damnable Popish Plot carried on in Great Britain, in order to destroy his Majesty King George, and Royal Family, introduce a Popish Successor, and involve these Kingdoms in blood and Fire.”  It contains a passage on the 1715 Jacobite uprising in Scotland with an explicit reference to its leader,  John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar, suggesting that it may have been issued as earlier than the date the English Short-Title Catalog proposed.  If Benjamin Harris had lived to see the Jacobite army headed up by Bonnie Prince Charlie defeated at the Battle of Culloden, (or his sons shared in his anti-Papistical fervor), perhaps another edition would have been issued in 1745…

For such a notorious children’s book, Harris’s Protestant Tutor has not received much serious attention, perhaps because it has been hard for us in the 20th and 21st centuries  to believe that it was actually put into children’s hands. Indeed it was, as this opening from Cotsen’s 1707 edition with the illustration of London on fire shows, the blank filled up with annotations in a childish hand.  Its preliminary pages are likewise filled with signatures of its owners, as are the ones in the ca. 1715 edition.    While not as famous or influential as The New England Primer, in which Harris was also supposed to have had a hand, this preliminary look at the contents, illustration, and publication history of the much more radical Tutor demonstrates why it is important to understand, not dismiss, the motives and methods of authors who believe children (or at least those of their tribe)  must be saved from the dark forces of their times.

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