Children’s Bibles in America

Russell W. Dalton, Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah’s Ark in US Children’s Bibles (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)


Russell W. Dalton, Children’s Bibles in America: A Reception History of the Story of Noah’s Ark in US Children’s BiblesDr. Russell W. Dalton is Professor of Religious Education at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He was educated at Central Michigan University (B.A., 1984), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1988), Harvard Divinity School (Th.M., 1990), and Union Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (Ed.D., 1998). He was called to Brite in the fall of 2004 from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the G. Ernest Thomas Professor of Christianity and Communication.

His previous books are Video, Kids, and Christian Education (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), Faith Journey through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), and Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Heroic Living in the Real World (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2011).  

This review is important for three reasons. First, it highlights a unique introduction to the history of Christianity from colonial times to the present by examining the Noah story in children’s Bibles. Second, this book costs over $100, so a description of it, even in summary form, is an important resource if one cannot own it or read it in a library. Third, the book raises important questions concerning the spiritual guidance of children today, even in this abbreviated form.

The Goal and Structure of the Book

The book’s goal is to provide the reader with a “reception history” of the Noah story from colonial times to the present. The interpretation of the Noah story in children’s Bibles provides a unique window into the history of Christianity in the US.

Dr. Dalton writes, “Many children’s Bible authors claim that they are merely simplifying Bible stories for children and not changing the substance of the stories in any way. The wide variety of ways in which they consciously or unconsciously revise and adapt these stories, however, provides a striking illustration of the multivalence and malleability of these texts and reflects and reveals America’s changing assumptions about the Bible, religion, the nature of childhood, and what beliefs and values must be passed on to the next generation (3).”

An early source for “reception history” was the German theologian Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). His masterpiece Warheit und Methode (1960) was translated into English as Truth and Method in 1975. Among other things, it was about interpreting texts. We normally go behind the text to study the cultural, historical, and linguistic background of the author to understand what it means. Gadamer, however, argued that we also need to look in front of the text. The reader and the influences on the reader also contribute to its meaning. How the text is “received,” then, is actually very active in the creation of the text’s meaning and the history of this reception provides significant perspectives on its “truth.”

Six chapters structure the book. The first chapter describes how the re-telling of the Noah story has changed since colonial times. The middle four chapters then describe in detail how children’s Bibles have viewed the “character of God,” the Bible as a “sourcebook of salvation,” the Bible as a “book of virtues,” and the Bible’s relationship to changing views of children and children’s literature. This history puts today’s method of Biblical interpretation, which features Scripture as amusing stories with cute art for children, into perspective. This perspective in turn helps choose what children’s Bible one ought to read to children or invite them to read on their own and raises questions about how and what we need to pass on to our children for their spiritual guidance.

The book is beautifully illustrated. Pictures are inserted at key moments in the text to show what is being described. This is important, because it is hard for us to imagine a children’s Bible in 1843, illustrated with crude woodcuts of “Bears Tearing Children,” because we are not accustomed to seeing children’s Bibles display such violence (54). We also need a picture to fully realize how small the early 19th century thumb Bibles and chapbooks (13) were, as compared to our large, colorful, publications today. Pictures are also needed to show how the story of Noah and the dove was handed on in 1796 (11) when the text, considered as valuable in itself, was made more memorable by filling in blanks left in the text with pictures. An example is a face instead of a word, which fills in the phrase: “for the waters were on the _______ of the whole earth.”

The illustrations show how the views of God, salvation, virtue, and child development have changed. They are needed to fully appreciate the contrast between the art of Gustave Dore, used in many children’s Bibles in the 19th century, with modern illustrations. Dore showed horrific scenes in graphic detail such as naked men, women, and children clinging to a rock before being swept away by the deluge. He also showed piles of nude, dead bodies strewn across the earth as the ark comes to rest in a new dawn after the flood waters begin to subside (64-65).  It is a shock to lay these pictures alongside a 1944 Disney-like cartoon of Noah playing marbles with smiling animals on the clean floor of the art (252). The jarring contrast raises important questions about the meaning and integrity of Scripture.

Pictures are also needed to show dramatically how theology, such as supersessionism (replacement or fulfillment theology), can be inserted indirectly but in a heavy-handed way into the text of a children’s Bible. For example The Wonderful World of the Bible, published in 2003, shows a fairly realistic picture of Jesus and Noah looking at the plans for the ark together (148).

This is a careful, scholarly work that provides a balanced history of children’s Bibles in America. It patiently and insightfully assembles the information needed to show how children have been taught about God, salvation, the virtues, and the nature of the Bible over the last two and a half centuries. Professor Dalton tells this story by layering example after example from Bible storybooks to make his conclusions. The book’s formal bibliography includes approximately 400 children’s Bibles (269-282), but hundreds more from the 1800s to the present were consulted that are not listed in the bibliography (5). The mastery of these primary sources is evident in the book’s text, which we turn to now.

Chapter 1, Retelling Bible Stories for Children: Changing and Reframing the Story of Noah

The book begins by describing how authors and illustrators have reframed Bible stories for children since colonial times in what is now the US. They consciously or unconsciously have used “embellishments, abridgements, direct commentary, and illustrations to craft new versions of the story of Noah, that speak to their time and place (44).”

Children’s Bibles were written and printed because the act of reading the Bible is of value in itself. This is because God speaks to us through its language. Some authors have taken the actual text more seriously than others, but they all claim that they have changed nothing but only clarified the story for children. At the same time nearly all authors and illustrators have changed things. The most widely used embellishments in the Noah story are how God warned the people about the flood through Noah’s preaching and how they jeered at his warning and laughed at him for building such a big boat on dry land, far from any water. In children’s language, as was sometimes used, Noah’s neighbors refused to “mind” him, so they were “punished.”

Another common embellishment turns the story into a carnival of the animals. Genesis does not actually name any of the animals. The emphasis was on Noah and his family. The animals, two by two, male and female, were referred to only in broad categories as “clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground (Genesis 7:8).” The smiling, silly, talking animals seen in children’s Bibles today show how, Dr. Dalton suggests, “a serious and profound account of an epic event” can be turned into “a fun and amusing romp with silly animals on a boat (18).” What is odd about this is that many publishing houses, where respect for the Bible is absolutely unquestioned, sell less than deeply respectful interpretations of the Bible for children.

It is worth noting that selling children’s Bibles is big business. Dr. Dalton notes at the beginning of his book that “Publisher’s Weekly reported that in the year 1990 Americans spent over $40 million on children’s Bibles, and the demand for children’s religious products continued throughout the decade (1).” The latest financial figures for sales were not provided, but it would be interesting to compare today’s figures with the 1990s.

Chapter 2, The Bible as the Revelation of God: The Story of Noah and the Character of God

The first prose children’s Bible printed in America was published in Philadelphia in 1763.   On the cover was a rough woodcut of a man reading to a boy and girl, who are drawn in the same proportions and dress as adults (51). Like other children’s Bibles of that time, this one helped children prepare for death and spoke to them as if they were adults and familiar with adult thinking and behavior. The discussion of death was to warn children about God’s judgment, as Noah warned his evil neighbors to prepare for the flood, before death takes them away. This was not an idle threat. Death was more familiar and imminent to children then than now, since most people in those days died at home and infant mortality was much higher than today. Reading or listening to the Bible was a matter of existential interest to children.

The prayer I learned as a child came from a time of life and death concern about children. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.” I don’t remember worrying about my own death each night when I prayed this prayer, but these words made the prayer serious and about ultimate matters such as God “keeping my soul” no matter what. Perhaps, praying this prayer with my mother sitting on my bed made it safe as well as serious.

The God of the early children’s Bibles in America was a God of wrath and judgment. The Calvinists wanted the children to know with certainty that they had been born in sin and that Jesus was their only salvation from an early death and eternal suffering. This vision of God began to change by the 1830s. Authors began to represent God as “patient and long-suffering (67).” The theological model was no longer like that found in Jonathan Edward’s famous, 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In that sermon he addressed children directly, “And you, children, who are unconverted, do not you know that you are going down to hell, to bear the dreadful wrath of that God, who is now angry with you every day and every night (quoted 49).”

During the revivals of the 19th century there was less emphasis on “frightening children about death and God’s judgment than there had been during the Puritan era (52-53).” The God of the revival preachers in the 19th century emphasized choice instead of utter depravity and predestination. They called for children to choose Jesus, as they told winning stories about conversion and its benefits.

Horace Bushnell published Views on Christian Nurture in 1847, which partially reflected this change and encouraged nurture instead of fear and conversion. He thought that children should never think of themselves as not being Christian. It was the parents’ and church’s calling to nurture the potential of this identity into full bloom. He faced terrible attacks from the predestination and depravity-espousing clergy, especially among his Congregational colleagues. They argued that children are born totally depraved. Since God is sovereign, Christian nurture was not in human hands. It was in God’s hands. Children should be left to stew in their own sin, which made them more open to God’s grace, so that if among the elect, they could approach the altar of salvation. After judgment and conversion, when the process of sanctification began, one might begin to talk about nurture and human agency.

From about the 1830s the interpretation of Noah’s story became less concerned with images of death and devastation although many illustrations still carried this concern forward. Children’s Bibles placed more emphasis on the choices made by humans in the story of Noah. The common embellishments about scornful neighbors and Noah’s effort to warn them remained, but a new strategy developed to bring direct teaching into the stories. A loving parent or grandparent was added to the narrative to answer questions and to teach (69-70).

One of the reasons the mocking neighbors remained part of the story was to appeal to children’s natural sense of fairness. If the neighbors were bad they deserved punishment. The punishment of those, who “gloried in their riches and strength, and did not believe that God could destroy them,” was also linked to Matthew 24: 37-39, which warned of the coming of the Son of Man. Sometimes the violence of the language seems to tip away from justice for the neighbors toward revenge.

There was also the embellishment of scornful laughter to deal with. “Grandpa” Reuben Prescott wrote in 1887 in Grand Father’s Bible Stories that the reason for this laughter was that Noah and his neighbors lived a long way from any water and they had never seen such a big boat. Still, they should have listened to God through Noah. An illustration in Grandpa Prescott’s story “shows adults attempting to pass small children up high into the trees and trying to rescue an old man who is struggling in the waters. As with other illustrations, the floodwaters apparently make people’s clothes fall off them, with one woman’s breast bared (79).”

At the end of the story we find an effort to soften the devastation with trust and fairness by saying that “God never fails, but what he promises that he performs (quoted at 80).” God destroys the wicked and preserves those, like Noah, who believe and obey. The story was told like this, the author writes, “to remind us of God’s power and goodness.” The juxtaposition of the violent art, the story of the just God punishing the evildoers, and the kindly adult, inserted into the story, shows the transition from the harsh Puritan God to the more kindly God of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. This God became sad rather than angry, patient rather than quick to judge, and the animals become more the focus of the story to distract the children from the violence and death outside the ark.

Evasion was also used to distract children from the suffering and death in the story. In Little Truths for Little Folks: Bible Stories (1877) a mother and her sweet daughter were talking about the dove. Goldlocks (not Goldilocks) asks, “Did the dove find any live folks?” The mother tells her daughter that all the people drowned except Noah’s family and that God did this to punish the wicked. Little Goldlocks asks, “Be all the wicked folks drowned (sic.) now, mamma?” The mother responds “No darling. God promised never to destroy the people by flood again.” This is ambiguous. It comforts Goldlocks and distracts her from her concern about the death of so many, but it also warns her that there are still evil people roaming the earth. The next time, this infers, they will be punished by fire at the Last Day, since water was no longer available.

Dr. Dalton writes about this softer and kinder interpretation by saying, “Perhaps, the most common use of a euphemism regarding the flood is the word ‘wash’ or ‘washing.’” The authors avoided “saying that God brought a flood and killed flesh and blood people but instead describe the flood as washing away evil (92-93).” The world was cleansed of abstract evil rather than evil people. The flood also becomes the Christian baptism of the world and the rainbow becomes the “archway to heaven.”

In the first half of the 20th century Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson, among others, formulated theories of child development and the culture took their ideas to heart. G. Stanley Hall, John Dewey, and the spread of the public schools worked together to promote new ideas about children that helped shift the culture to view of God as loving and patient. Death was no longer an intimate part of the lives of most children, who read children’s Bibles or had them read to them. Images of happy families prevailed after World War II. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) painted this for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963 and Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) advised on ways to accomplish this in The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. He advocated for more flexibility and affection with children in his book, which was one of the best sellers of all time.

By the 21st century religion had changed, yet again. The religion of teenagers had become more like the message of the children’s Bibles. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton reported on this new religion in their Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). They found that religion had shifted from judgment, repentance, sin, keeping the Sabbath, saying one’s prayers, observing holy days and building character through suffering to the “doctrine” of “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” God had become a power that wanted people to be nice to each other and would help in times of trouble (101).

Children’s Bibles began to be published for younger and younger children from the mid-20th century on. This resulted in an increased emphasis on God as a friend who would keep you safe. Children’s Bibles no longer mentioned that God caused the flood or that anyone died. “The story is simply about how God keeps Noah and the animals safe (103).” The Adventure Bible Storybook (2009) for example begins the story with “Noah already on the ark, relaxing in a hammock and listening to the rain (105).”   One wonders how much of this emphasis on safety is coming directly or indirectly from Erik Erikson’s description of the first crisis, needing resolution in an infant’s life, is trust versus mistrust. If this is so, then, the interpretation of Scripture is coming from psychology as much as it is from theology.

Chapter 3, The Bible as a Sourcebook of Salvation: The Story of Noah as a Story about Salvation in Jesus Christ.

Professor Dalton begins this chapter by saying, “Throughout American history, a significant number of children’s Bibles have transformed the story of Noah’s ark into a story about salvation in Jesus Christ (119).”  The rationale for this is that Noah is a type of Christ. The nature of Noah and his ark’s salvation prefigures that of Jesus. The story of the deluge in these terms begins to act like an altar call to come to Christ. It is a call to repentance and salvation, like the preaching of Noah to his evil and scornful neighbors.

One might think that in the 21st century with its strong historical sense, finding Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures might have disappeared in children’s Bibles, but it has not. In The Wonderful World of the Bible for Children (2003) we find the author telling how only one family in the world, the family of Noah, loved Jesus and prayed to him every day (147). A less overt way of signaling Jesus’ presence in the Old Testament was by calling the whole of a children’s Bible “one cohesive story about salvation in Jesus Christ (149).”  All 39 books of the Old Testament and all 27 books of the New Testament are part of “one unified story of redemption history.” The Big Picture Story Bible (2004) presents God’s plan of Salvation through Jesus Christ as the “big picture (149)” of which the Old Testament is a part.

In 2013 The Big Picture Interactive Bible Storybook, not to be confused with The Big Picture Story Bible, mentioned above, “describes itself as “Connecting Christ throughout God’s Story.” Dr. Dalton writes, “Every story is followed immediately with a ‘Christ Connection.’” The specific “Christ Connection” for the story of Noah is Jesus. The story “points ahead to a greater rescue! Jesus, the only perfectly righteous person (quoted 154).” His perfection allowed him to bear the punishment for sin for us. This act of obedience saved us from “the punishment our sin deserves (154-155).”

As in all the chapters of this book, Professor Dalton patiently builds up this historical description with example after example of specific children’s Bibles across the centuries. This provides a kind of detail and richness to his history of children’s Bibles that this review can only faintly suggest.

Chapter 4, The Bible as a Book of Virtues: Noah as a Model of Virtues and Vices.

As this chapter begins, Professor Dalton reminds us:

In the Puritan era in America, most children’s Bibles were designed simply to transfer knowledge of the words and stories of Scripture to children. During the time of the revivals, many children’s Bibles presented the stories of the Bible in ways that called children to salvation. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, however, while Americans have used children’s Bibles to serve a wide variety of purposes, the most common way that children’s Bibles have used Bible stories has been to pass on specific moral virtues that the dominant culture of America (read ‘middle-class and upper-class white Protestants’) agreed was necessary to make children good citizens. These virtues included spiritual values such as praying regularly and showing devotion to God, but more often the virtues they have taught relate to broader, secular public values such as obedience, hard work, and loyalty (160).

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the dominant Calvinistic view of children was that they “were not capable of learning to act morally prior to conversion. As a result, adults believed there was little value in trying to teach children moral values before they reached the age of accountability and came to a saving faith in God (161).” This assumption shifted in the decades that followed, because Calvin was abandoned as a way to understand young children and John Lock was adopted. Locke’s famous “blank slate” view of children, which the environment writes on to shape the child, forced parents to think more creatively about how to nurture their children. This was reinforced by the educational reform that established public school education, spearheaded by Horace Mann (1796-1859) and theological reform led by Horace Bushnell (1802-1876). Both rejected the view that children were utterly depraved and shared the belief that an education in morality was possible.

By the turn of the 20th century more and more school districts enforced laws that required children to attend schools and part of that schooling was imparting a morality “that factory owners and heads of industry valued such as punctuality, obedience, and hard work (162).” These virtues worked their way into the children’s Bibles. Specifically, we find Noah being represented as someone obedient to God, who is a hard worker, and got right to work on his task when God called him to it, so he would be ready before the flood came. These are all virtues his neighbors scoffed at.

Dr. Dalton asks us to consider that:

Up until the late 1800s, some Sunday School curricula contained moralistic short non-fiction stories to impress morals on children. Many Christian leaders and educators, however, maintained a prejudice against storybooks in general, and taught American parents to be suspicious of fictional literature of any kind. Fictional tales were, by definition, untruths, and many considered reading stories a form of idleness in which the devil could find a foothold (163).

“In 1872 Jacob Abbot, one of America’s foremost parenting experts of the day, wrote Measures in the Management of the Young in which he argued against teaching children through corporal punishment and argued for teaching children moral values through literature (164).” Many evangelical and liberal parents took note and soon an “extremely moralistic children’s literature” was being published and purchased to guide children toward proper behavior.

Almost all children’s literature advocated for children to be good instead of bad and that bad children should be punished. This theme had almost always been present in Noah’s story, but now something new appeared. The Noah story stressed standing apart from evil society. The wicked will try to bring you down to their level and one must struggle to remain virtuous. Miss Bettie’s Book of Bible Stories (1939) told how Noah always remembered to keep the Sabbath Day holy, as he worked, while his neighbors did not. The virtue of obedience continued to be emphasized but sometimes in surprising ways. The Veggie Tales Bible in 2009 presented Junior Asparagus, a talking stalk of asparagus who wears a baseball cap, advising children that Noah did what God told him to do, even though people thought he was crazy. This sticking to one’s principles saved the lives of his family (176).

Children’s Bibles in the modern era of psychology and education stopped talking about doing what was right in God’s eyes or being punished in absolute terms. They began to talk about “trying” to do what is right, so Noah was rewarded for his attempt to be virtuous. This shift began in the middle of the 19th century and rose to ascendency in the 20th century. Dr. Dalton concluded that this emphasis on trying to be moral might come from “some pessimism about Christian progressivism and human perfectibility” that had “emerged earlier in the public mind.” Some authors may have been “reacting to the more liberal theology of their time (180).” They had realized that morality and happiness was not as easy to achieve as some progressive educators and theologians had led them to believe.

Through many changes of view, the primary virtue of Noah remained obedience. A modern example is My Good Night Bible, published in 1999. This story is headed by a Bible verse that neatly translates Jeremiah 7:23 to say: “God said, ‘Obey me.’” This concisely sums up Jeremiah’s counsel to obey God’s voice “that it may be well with you,” but despite Jeremiah’s prophecy people walked “in their own counsels” and followed their “evil hearts,” which caused them to go “backward and not forward.” The author of My Good Night Bible taught obedience through “Night-Light,” who is a “firefly.” The firefly asks the children to reflect on the following questions:

  • Why did Noah obey God?
  • What did God say?
    Obey me.”
  • Who can you obey (quoted 183)?

Dr. Dalton writes, “We can presume that the answer to the final question is ‘God,’ but the wording of the final question allows children to think of others whom they might obey as well. The ‘Sleep Time’ section of the story reminds children, ‘Tonight’s Bible word is obey. Think about how happy you feel when you obey God. Night-Night (183-184)!” In 2005 My Favorite Bible Storybook for Early Readers calls the story of Noah “Obeying Pays Off (187).”

Professor Dalton catalogued other virtues taught by the Noah story. Noah is a hard worker (190). He is a man who cared for animals and the environment (202). He is also a model for controlling one’s anger, bravery, prayer, positive thinking, kindness, peace and harmony, trust, thankfulness, patience, and fulfilling traditional gender roles. In The Little Girls Bible Storybook for Mothers and Daughters (1998) the story of Mrs. Noah is titled “Whatever You Say, Dear.” The title page bears the cheerful illustration of Mrs. Noah baking bread while Noah is sawing a board (216).

The historian Seven Mintz called attention to another cultural shift, especially in the 19th century American urban middle class. It was “a Romantic vision, which viewed children as symbols of purity, spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness, who were free from adult inhibitions and thus required parents who would ensure that their innocence was not corrupted (quoted 216).” This kind of thinking encouraged children’s Bible authors to limit the story of Noah to safe and spiritually uplifting behavior, which meant that the drunken, naked Noah was seldom mentioned (Genesis 9:20-27).

Before the modern era Noah’s drunkenness was used as proof of our sinful nature. He could not maintain his goodness. The author of Grand Father’s Bible Stories (1897) used the child’s dialogue with “Grandpa” to address this. Noah was foolish, he said, and wicked to drink too much wine. Others, as early as 1850, tried to redeem Noah with an embellishment of Scripture suggesting that he thought he was drinking grape juice, but it had grown old and fermented (223). His drunkenness was not intentional.

The story of the naked Noah and his son Ham led to another embellishment, which had Ham laughing at his father’s drunkenness and nakedness while his two brothers did not. When Noah awoke from his drunkenness he knew what his youngest son had done, so he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan. Ham had four sons (Genesis 10:6), so it is curious that only Canaan was cursed. Ham’s two older brothers, Japheth and Shem, had solemnly covered their father’s nakedness with respect, so Noah blessed Shem, but not Japheth. No explanation was given why Japheth was not blessed. The curse of Canaan was that he would be “a slave of slaves.” Noah fulfilled this himself. He gave Canaan to Shem as a slave. Much of this does not make sense, which adds to the reasons for leaving it out of children’s Bibles.

Most of the children’s Bibles that included Noah’s drunkenness and nakedness were written before the 20th century. The additional embellishment that Noah’s curse turned Ham’s skin and/or Canaan’s skin black. This addition to the story was carried forward, sometimes as an unwritten tradition, into the 20th century as a reprehensible “explanation” about why the black races have “always” been slaves. It is seldom if ever written or heard today.

Chapter 5, The Bible and American Children’s Literature: The Story of Noah as History and Amusement

In 1763 The Children’s Bible announced, “The BIBLE is no fit PLAY-THING FOR CHILDREN. In contrast to that in 1952 we have Walt Disney’s Noah’s Ark announcing the flood’s threat through a bluejay with a tiger responding by snarling that such a thing had never happened before. In 1996 we find In the Days of Noah telling us that when Noah saw “behemoths lumbering over the hill” he burst out in laughter. He had just realized that God was sending “the young ones of all the large beasts” because their larger parents would not fit between the decks of the ark (237).

In 1814 False Stories Corrected was published to trumpet the dangers of fiction for children because fiction was lying. What was not based on truth was evil. One of the reasons for the popularity of children’s Bibles, perhaps, was that they were true, so their interesting stories could be read and told without lying. The truth of Bible stories was still emphasized in 1909 by the title of the children’s Bible, Tell Me a True Story. The truth of Bible stories was confirmed by specifically dating them for children. The dates came from Archbishop James Usher (1581-1656). He was the Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, from 1625-1656. He calculated that the earth was created at nightfall on October 22nd 4004 BC.

A 1790 Thumb Bible, The Bible in Miniature, said the flood took place “in the year of the world 1656, the 600th of Noah’s age, and before CHRIST 2348. The space from Noah’s entering the ark, according to our account of time, October 29, to his coming forth of it, November 8, the following year, was one year and ten days. Now the life of man was afterwards shortened (quoted 240).” This last comment was needed because children had never met anyone who had lived for 950 years, like Noah did (Genesis 9:29).

In the 20th and 21st century questions about the veracity of Scripture, the role of God in the stories, the stories’ relation to redemption, and the virtues taught by them began to be ignored. What mattered most now was that the stories were entertaining. “Gradually, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, efforts to compete with cartoons and animated films and fit in with other children’s literature pushed children’s Bibles towards becoming less somber religious education texts and more fun and amusing storybooks complete with smiling, colorful, cartoon-like animal friends (245).”

The entertainment approach to portraying Scripture to children was greatly influenced by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which first screened in 1937. “The first of the Little Golden Books went on sale in 1942, less than a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, coinciding with the start of the baby boom in America (245).” The first Golden Book devoted to retelling the story of Noah’s Ark was Walt Disney’s Noah’s Ark in 1952. A new version came out in 1969 that had no involvement with Disney Studios. The influence of Disney and other cartoons opened the floodgates to a deluge of children’s Bibles that turned Noah’s story into “a fun boat-ride with animal friends who act as cartoon characters (247).” The suspicion of the 18th and 19th centuries about fiction and departures from Scripture was forgotten in favor of embracing the amusement of children. Christian publishers feared the influence of comic books and movies, so they joined in their ethos to compete with them on their own ground for children’s attention and, of course, to sell their products.

Chapter 6, The Remarkable Multivalency and Malleability of Bible Stories and Religion in America

In the last chapter Professor Dalton returns to the theme of the Bible’s “remarkable multivalency and malleability.” This feature of Scripture allows authors and illustrators of children’s Bibles to “adapt, edit, and reframe the story in very diverse ways and to use them as the basis for a wide variety of theological and moral lessons (259).” He goes on to write, “These children’s Bible versions of the story of Noah also help index America’s changing and diverse religious beliefs and values from throughout its history (259).” He then turns to describing alternatives for choosing children’s Bibles.

There are four traditional approaches to choosing a children’s Bible. One view is that the Bible is not intended for children, so it is inappropriate to turn Scripture into a children’s version that has been cleaned up and reoriented for a young audience. A second approach is that if you are going to give Scripture to children you need to use a full translation of the canonical text of the Bible itself. A third alternative is to choose an abridged children’s Bible that attempts to stay close to the text of the Bible. The fourth approach to choosing a children’s Bible is to choose one that agrees with your theological perspective, since theological interpretation is indirectly and sometimes directly inserted into the story.


My first comment is to confirm what has been said above about the usefulness of this richly detailed study. It would lack its usefulness if it lacked the details lavished on it about how the authors and illustrators of children’s Bibles interpreted Scripture since the 18th century in America.

My second comment is to say that there is a fifth alternative to the four traditional approaches to choosing a children’s Bible not mentioned above. This is the cuteness test, used today. Children’s Bibles are not primarily chosen today for their accuracy, beauty, depth, or ability to evoke wisdom in children. They are chosen by how cute they are. This test is unique to the 21st century, as Dr. Dalton’s study shows.

The question the cuteness test raises is how such an approach to the Bible can be un-learned, as children get older? How can Scripture be un-trivialized? Is there any way to outgrow the narrow, superficial horizon given to the Bible’s existential drama by silly cartoons that clutter the liminal doorway into the presence of the mystery God?

We may abhor the Puritan approach of the 17th and 18th century or the views of the revivalists approach in the 19th century, but what is the benefit of the 20th and 21st century approach that turns what is holy and sacred into the humorously exaggerated, brightly colored, and simple drawings of a cartoon? It is almost as if Noah’s neighbors have finally won!

All of this is to say, that Professor Dalton’s historical study, is far removed from a dusty tome to be placed on a shelf in the history section of some library. It is a lively and exciting, thought-provoking, living document that demands an answer to the questions it raises.

Jerome W. Berryman
Senior Fellow
Center for the Theology of Childhood
Denver, Colorado
May 21, 2016

1 thought on “Children’s Bibles in America

  1. Cathryn Hoard

    Thank you so much for your review of Dr. Dalton’s book on the history of Children’s Bibles in America after which my husband, son and his wife and I had a lively discussion about how (and if) Children’s Bibles should be chosen. As I read your very thorough review I saw my own journey as a child pouring over the beautifully detailed, definitely ponderous paintings in my parents’ Bible, then later being drawn to and comforted by Francis Hook’s warm color pencil illustrations including that of the Good Shepherd rescuing the lost sheep. These are the ones my own children grew up with in their Story Bible. I have to admit, my youngest son (now 21) got a full dose of Veggie Tales (though not as a Children’s Bible) because honestly, we all enjoyed watching the creative, and humorous presentations of the Bible stories; plus the honest quality silliness of their “Silly Songs.” What I realize now, however, is that such an approach to children’s spiritual development is simply entertainment–which is not bad in itself but cannot nurture the hungry soul of a child trying to understand, as you say, the existential questions of aloneness, freedom, life and death. I also realize now that the present imbalanced emphasis on entertainment has turned children away from their own hearts and soul searching to focus on being passive consumers of entertainment.

    You rightly ask the question, “How can Scripture be untrivialized?” I believe the Godly Play approach to sharing Scripture with children does just that! I see Godly Play not as entertainment but as invitation to children to bring their hearts, souls and minds to God’s story as they observe, think, wonder and discover for themselves that they too are an important part of God’s story. In short, Godly Play is anything but passive consumer entertainment; it is active engagement and worship in the most holistic sense from threshold to threshold. Entertainment has its place, much like a well-made slice of pie with ice-cream after a wonderfully satisfying, tasty and nutritious meal shared with family and friends. But a steady diet of pie and ice-cream to the exclusion of the nutritious meal and real communication with people we love would lead to many emotional, physical, spiritual as well as most obviously physical health problems. So too, children fed on a continual diet of “Christian entertainment” will remain underfed spiritually and constantly hungry, thinking more entertainment, better graphics, “cute-er”, bigger, louder movies, games and presentations will turn them into the Christians their parents hope they will be. Unfortunately, I have seen too often, that as children grow older and “Christian entertainment” is inevitably unable to keep up in volume or innovation with what the dominant culture has to offer, the seemingly trivial answers taught in Sunday School are barely considered worth pursuing as portals to a deeper understanding of themselves, their world and the God who made them. Perhaps it would be helpful to introduce Godly Play to university students and young people newly entering the workforce, young adults whom I believe are still hungry to find out if those mystical words they may have heard from either a Sunday School teacher or Whitney Houston over the radio are true: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

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