recess radio program

03/07/06
19th Century Environmental Books
    by Rita Smith

Beginning in the late 1700s, social, moral and particularly religious precepts began to be woven into science and natural history books for children. Most authors made at least some mention of the importance of studying nature as God's creation and often the explicitly stated reason for writing the book was to provide a means of leading young children to an understanding of God as Creator. Such is the case with Sarah Trimmer's book, An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature, published in 1780. In this book, the whole point of science is, as she says in the preface, "to lead to knowledge of the Great Creator and the study of his works."1

Throughout the book she points out objects and forces in nature and discusses their origins and characteristics in a style and at a level she believes the children can understand. A narrator goes on rambles with two young children, Charlotte and Henry, expounding on natural phenomena, moving haphazardly from subject to subject. In one chapter, she talks about bees and wasps. In another chapter, she discusses ships' compasses and then metals and precious stones; then she remembers that she promised to relate the history of caterpillars. Her aim is not to build a systematic rational structure of scientific knowledge, but to create a sense of awe at the Creation. She ends the book with a long chapter on the soul, which is what she has been leading up to all along. "I have informed you," she writes, "that there is a Divine Being called God, who made you and all things in the world. I forbore to say much to you concerning Him, because I knew the subject was too sublime for your tender mind. I flatter myself, [that] you are now able to understand something of the nature of God, now that I have shown you the products of God's work."2 She urges them to continue to increase their knowledge of God by reading both of His books: the Bible and Nature.

Starting in the mid-19th century, professional scientists moved toward scientific realism, but, as scholar Bernard Lightman, points out, "middle class writers of science books for children and their audiences remained enthralled by the moral and divine qualities of the natural world."3 Evidence of this appears in Charles Kingsley's book, Madam How and Lady Why or First lessons in Earth Lore for Children, published in 1869. In the preface, Kingsley suggests that, by studying nature, the reader will come to a greater understanding of God, but he goes even further than Trimmer and suggests that there is redemptive power in such study. "By studying nature, and by understanding nature's mysteries,"he writes, "you will begin to learn that far Diviner mystery that you have a Father in Heaven, and [you will] be delivered out of the tyranny of darkness into God's free kingdom of light, faith and love."4

Notes:
1 Trimmer, p. iii.
2 Ibid, p. 173.
3 Lightman, p. 188.
4 Kingsley, p. xiii.

Sources:
Lightman, Bernard, "'The Voices of Nature': Popularizing Victorian Science" in Victorian Science in Context, Bernard Lightman, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. pp. 187-211.
Kingsley, Charles. Madam How and Lady Why: First Lessons in Earth Lore for Children, London: Bell and Daldy, 1870.
Trimmer, Sarah. An Easy Introduction to the Knowledge of Nature, London: Printed for T. Longman, etc. 1789.

Copyright 2006 Rita Smith

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