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Questionable Quotes: William McGuffey and American Religion

Posted by sbh on Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Did William McGuffey, educator and author of the McGuffey readers, once used extensively in American schools, write:

The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our nation, on the character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free Institutions. From no source has this author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. From all these extracts from the Bible, I make no apology

in an 1836 essay?


This version comes from a Christian website; another version is found in the internet scam document often called “Forsaken Roots”. The actual quotation runs

The christian religion, is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions.

It can be found in a piece called “Duties of Parents and Teachers” that appeared in Transactions of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Western Literary Institute, Cincinnati, 1836, pp. 129-152. This quotation appears on p. 138. The last two sentences appear nowhere in this article, nor do they sound much like McGuffey’s prose style.

As I remarked in an earlier piece on this subject:

Little as I like McGuffey’s turgid prose style, I’m quite positive he would not have written of himself in the third person like this—“the author”, phooey. And I’m sure he wouldn’t have written “From all these extracts” instead of “For all these extracts”.

I’ll also repeat myself on the overall content of the piece:

In reading McGuffey’s piece I was continually reminded of Samuel Schoenbaum’s line, “A penalty of the scholar’s vocation … is the reading of rubbish”. At the time, when the issues in question were live and a matter of some import to educators, it probably made interesting reading. No, I take that back. Even then it must have been mind-numbingly dull. The context for the given quotation is a section developing McGuffey’s concern about “the great variety of intellectual and moral character, found among [a teacher’s] numerous pupils.” It’s necessary for a teacher, he observes, to fit his approach to each individual student, and to modify it as necessary. Students should neither be pushed too fast, nor held back unnecessarily to make the teacher’s life easier. And while teachers may have their own speculative opinions on morality, those opinions should not be brought into the schoolroom. Christianity is the basis of American culture; it is the only guarantee that people will tell the truth under oath, and the belief in an all-seeing entity is the only way to make them behave themselves. Without this supernatural guarantee, everything “that is beautiful, lovely, and valuable in the arts, in science, and in society” would be at risk. For this reason the “revolutionary principles of modern infidelity” should not be taught; neither, however, should “sectarian peculiarities in religion”. McGuffey seems to have in mind a sort of bland, generic christian morality as the basis of character formation in schools.


Dubious Documents: The Case of the Fractured Founders part 3 (sbh)

Duties of Parents and Teachers (Wm. H. McGuffey)

Forsaken Roots (author unknown)


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