Three women countered the trashy paperbacks of their day with a flood of Christian literature.

Evangelical Christianity has always fostered the making and reading of books. More publications appeared in the first two years of the Reformation than in the preceding century. Robert Raikes (1735–1811), editor of the Gloucester Journal and better known as the founder of the Sunday school in England, became impressed with the needs of ragged and neglected children in his city. He decided that their greatest need was to read, write, and learn of God. Schools for the poor were so scarce as to be virtually nonexistent. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. In their search for cheap labor, employers hired children as young as five or six to work in their factories.

Sunday was the only day the factories were not open. Released from the restraint of the 16-hour workday, the rowdy young laborers thronged the streets, scandalizing respectable citizens with their cursing, gambling, and irresponsible behavior. Raikes thought, “It would at least be a harmless attempt … should some little plan be formed to check the deplorable defamation of the Sabbath.”

His “little plan” was the Sunday school. By 1811 when Raikes died, 400,000 students were enrolled in Sunday schools. But Raikes’s founding of Sunday schools to teach children to read was only the beginning. A vast market for reading material was created that had not existed before.

These new readers were easy prey for the chapmen or peddlers who had been hawking their crude “chapbooks” to the lower classes for generations. (Shakespeare refers to them in his plays.) These were the only books readily accessible to the poor. They were extremely cheap and their quality matched their price. ...

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