Abbott, Jacob, 1803-1879

Titles by this author
Early piety
The young Christian : or, A familiar illustration of the principles of Christian duty

Son of Jacob Abbot 2nd and Betsey Abbot, and older brother of John Stevens Cabot Abbott, Jacob Abbott was born in Hallowell, ME and attended school in Brunswick, ME and the Hallowell Academy. He entered Bowdoin College and graduated in 1820. He then taught for two years at Portland Academy where the young poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of his pupils. Abbott studied theology at Andover Seminary from 1821 - 1822, and in 1825, he became a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Amherst College. He was licensed to preach by the Hampshire Association and occasionally preached in the college chapel and in the Congregational Church of Hatfield. He founded the Mount Vernon School in Boston in 1828, one of the first institutions in America for the education of young women. Here, he pioneered many modern disciplinary procedures in making the school largely self-governing and abandoning traditional disciplinary techniques. Resigning as principle of the school in 1833, he became minister of the Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury, Mass. In 1835, he gave his pastoral charge to his brother, John Steven Cabot Abbott and helped his brothers, Gorham D. Abbott and John S.C. Abbott found the Abbott's Institution in New York City which was a seminary for young ladies (Chase and Snyder 21). Jacob Abbott was an enthusiastic advocate for the education of young women, and his schools offered advanced academic training, instruction in moral values, and information on child rearing (Gay 10).

After 1848, Abbott devoted the remainder of his life to literary work. His first important work was The Young Christian Series which grew out of Saturday morning lectures given at the Mt. Vernon School (Abbott, Lyman 337). The Young Christian, the first in the series, was published in 1832 and was immediately successful, remaining his most widely known book in America and the British Isles with translations in French and Dutch. The Corner Stone (1834) was the next book in that series but was criticized by those hostile to Unitarianism, especially in England. The book became the subject of one of the Oxford Tracts for the Times (No.73) by J.H. Newman. Abbott later changed many passages of The Corner Stone so that his beliefs, which were largely those of the more liberal Evangelicals of his period, would not be misunderstood. He wrote 180 volumes and collaborated on 31 more securing him international renown and contemporary reputation. His diverse interests included religious, educational, literary, and historical fields. The Rollo series, begun in 1834, was a collection of simple stories meant to provide instruction for children in ethics, religion, natural science, and travel. For example, Rollo Learning to Talk (1868) is a collection of pictures that are to be shown and described to a child. The mother or older child that Abbott states as being best fitted to use the book is to act out all motions and read distinctly so that children learn the moral lesson of the pictures at the same time they are learning to speak. Rollo in London (1858) is written for an older audience. The history of London, details of the city, and the appropriate ways to travel are all described. The way to manage and maintain money while travelling is a primary concern of the book. His stories were read by an entire generation of American children who enjoyed the author's "gift for homely anecdote and illustration" (Chase and Snyder 21).

In the preface to The Young Christian, Abbott states, "This book is intended to explain and illustrate, in a simple manner, the principles of Christian duty, and is intended, not for children, nor exclusively for the young but for all who are just commencing a religious life, and who feel desirous of receiving a familiar explanation of the first principles of piety" (3). Abbott believed that it was not difficult to make children understand religious truth but that the challenge lay in sparking their interest (4). Abbott's refusal to simplify the teachings he directs at children is exemplified in the chapter entitled "Difficulties in Religion." Here, he presents problematic questions such as how God can grant an ill person's prayer without interfering miraculously with the laws of nature. Abbott responds: "No, undoubtedly God, in some secret way that we cannot now understand, can without disturbing the laws of nature, grant our requests. The difficulty is merely one to our limited powers; but to these powers it is insurmountable" (118). His son, Lyman Abbott, describes his relationship with children, writing: "This spirit of respect which my father had for children interprets his literary method. He never condescended to children, never talked down to them or wrote down to them" (334). In his juvenile literature, Abbott hoped to overthrow the New England Primer as the dominant influence on child-rearing and children's literature (Gay 10).

Early Piety is a slim volume directed at parents, instructing them regarding their parental obligations "as guardians of the spiritual and eternal interests of your children" (10). He states his purpose in the book as being: I. To describe the way by which you may endeavor to win the hearts of your children to God. II. To caution you against some dangers which lie in the path. III. To urge you to fidelity in the discharge of these duties" (11). Abbott hoped to counteract the seventeenth century notion of the depravity of children (Gay 10).

Chase, Stanley P. and Jacob Kimball Snyder. Dictionary of American Biography. Volume 1. Johnson, Allen, ed. New York: Scribner's. 1936.

Abbott, Lyman. Silhouettes of My Contemporaries. Toronto: Doubleday, 1992.

Gay, Carol. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 42. Glenn E. Estes, ed. Bruccoli: Detroit, 1985. 3 - 11.

Other sources:

Memorial Edition of "The Young Christian" (1882)

Essay by Lyman Abbott: "Jacob Abbott, Friend of Children" in Silhouettes of my Contemporaries (1921). Abbott Room of the Bowdoin Coll. Lib.

Abbott, Lysla I. "Jacob Abbott: A Goodly Heritage." Horn Book Magazine 30 (April 1954): 119 - 131.

Osgood, Fletcher. "Jacob Abbott, Neglected New England Author." New England Magazine. (June 1904): 471 - 479.

Written by Stephen Rachman