Hieroglyphic Bibles became en vogue in late 18th century England as a means for teaching Bible stories to a new audience: children from poor and working-class families. They came on the heels of the changes being made to the education of children in Industrial Revolution England and on the need to improve quality of life and crime rates amongst factory and farm worker’s children. Robert Raikes, a Gloucester philanthropist and editor of the Gloucester Journal, saw the opportunity of opening a school on Sunday (the only day on which the Industrial Revolution’s children would not be working) and began teaching children how to read and write using the Bible. The Sunday School movement became very popular and by the 19th century hundreds of thousands of children across England were receiving education never before available to them.
The first hieroglyphic Bible printed in England was Thomas Hodgson’s 1780 edition, of which no copy survives (only a record of which is held at the British Library) and this was followed by Hodgson’s 1783 edition, of which only one copy survives, but it was reprinted at least ten times over the span of eight years in London and Dublin: this new pedagogical tool was very popular indeed.
This week’s illustration post, however, is on A new hieroglyphical Bible, for the amusement & instruction of children printed in London by George Thompson in 1794. This was the first competition to Hodgson’s most popular edition, and it was printed at least three times in 1794.
St Andrews purchased this copy in 2008 as a touchstone for the beginnings of the Children’s Book Collection. This collection is slowly growing and features many titles from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Our copy is bound in near contemporary decorated papers and the frontispiece and engravings in Genesis and Exodus have been coloured in.
Each hieroglyphic passage features at least four or five engravings, with a key at the foot of each page. These woodcuts, although crude in some places, draw a reader in and make reading a fun puzzle to work out. At the end of the text is a series of questions (pictured above) and a selection of saints which are reminiscent of the trading cards that I collected growing up.
Holding this small little Bible makes it quite clear how useful a tool this was in teaching reading and writing to the Industrial Revolution’s youth. These engravings inspired a new generation to learn how to read and write and communicate, a new generation which would see the reform of England’s educational systems.