Letter Writing, Book Reading, and World Literacy Day

Biblical reflections on secular holidays

by Troy Lacey and Angela Carlisle on September 1, 2022
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September has several national and international holidays associated with reading and writing, and we thought it fitting to cover these in a biblical and historical context. September 1 is World Letter Writing Day, September 6 is National Read a Book Day, and September 8 is World Literacy Day. So why cover these holidays? Because they are topics either addressed, modeled, or commanded in Scripture, once again showing both the authority and sufficiency of Scripture in our everyday lives.

World Letter Writing Day

In 2005, Australian author, artist, and photographer Richard Simpkin published Australian Legends. This book was prompted by his experience writing letters (in the late 1990s and early 2000s) to famous Australians, whom he eventually got to meet and photograph for his book. In 2014, he launched World Letter Writing Day upon the release of his updated book, and many countries have adopted the day as an unofficial holiday.

In the Bible, there are many letters, mostly written to nations (in the Old Testament, Nahum was written to Nineveh and Obadiah to Edom, with many of the prophetic books written to Judah or Israel), but none of these were written to individuals as we associate letter writing today. In the New Testament, there are many letters written by the apostles, but most are written to churches, not individuals. However, there are definitely five books written to individuals—Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, Philemon, and 3 John. Some theologians think 2 John was written to an individual woman (and her children), while others believe it was written to a church.

While the letters to Titus and Timothy contain some personal information from Paul, much of the letters are instructions on managing and caring for the respective churches they led. However, Philemon and 3 John are of a different category—they are personal letters to an individual that offer greetings, well-wishes, and heartfelt feelings to the recipient. They also contain personal appeals. In the case of Philemon, Paul is asking him to welcome back Onesimus, a former runaway slave. Paul even offers to pay back Philemon for anything Onesimus might have stolen. The extremely personal nature of the letter is captured in these words,

I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. (Philemon 12–17)

In the case of 3 John, the letter begins with John’s greetings to Gaius and a commendation of his testimony and hospitality among the Christian brethren. Like Paul, John encourages Gaius to do good works (though this is worded in verse 11 as a general call to do good, the context indicates that John may have had a continuance of Christian hospitality in mind). John then concludes his letter by expressing his desire to come to see Gaius. “I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. Peace to you. Our friends greet you. Greet the friends by name” (3 John 13–15 NKJV).

Scripture: Equips Us for Every Good Work

The Holy Spirit, in his wisdom, knew that as Christian brothers and sisters, we could also use instruction in this area of personal letter writing.

These two letters were written friend (and Christian brother) to friend. They were written as personal correspondences to praise, encourage, and appeal to their brothers in Christ and contain information that only the writer and individual reader would know about. Although all the New Testament epistles contain some aspect of these criteria, none are as expressive of one-on-one (phileo) brotherly love. While the other New Testament epistles give insight into how the apostles instructed the various local churches, Philemon and 3 John tell us how they felt about their closest friends. The Holy Spirit, in his wisdom, knew that as Christian brothers and sisters, we could also use instruction in this area of personal letter writing.

The sending of personal letters has become increasingly rare in our digital age where shooting off an instant message or text (or email if we’re feeling generous with our time) is so easy and convenient, but the value of an actual letter remains. Think of the last time you opened your mailbox to find a note from a friend hidden among the bills and junk mail. If you’re anything like the authors, just the sight of the envelope brought a smile to your face—not to mention the contents of the letter itself.

Maybe it’s been a while since you received a personal letter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take an opportunity like World Letter Writing Day to provide that encouragement to someone else. If you don’t know where to start, give Philemon and 3 John another read (both are quite short) and consider using them as a pattern or launch point. A few handwritten lines of greeting, an encouragement to good works—perhaps inquiring about the recipient’s passion or calling—and a promise to keep them in prayer might seem small, but these things have the potential to make a lasting impact on another’s life. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” and Hebrews 10:24: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”)

National Read a Book Day

The US has been celebrating National Read a Book Day on September 6 for over a decade. The origin is a bit murky, but most sources suggest a librarian in 2008 or 2009 started it. The Bible even mentions reading books (and not just Scripture); for example, Numbers 21:14 mentions the Book of the Wars of the LORD, Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18 mention the Book of Jashar, with both Joshua and the author of 2 Samuel assuming that their audience knows or has access to that book. 1 Kings 11:41 mentions the Book of the Acts of Solomon, again assuming the reader could find a copy and verify his statements. Several passages in 1 and 2 Kings mention the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, again with the expectation that their audience knew or knew of these books.

Of course, the most-cited book in Scripture is the Book of the Law of God (sometimes called the Book of Moses), referring to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The book of Psalms (Acts 1:20) and the book of the prophets (Acts 7:42) are also mentioned, which together comprise all the books of the Old Testament.1 But apart from the Bible itself (both Old Testament and New Testament), the most important book of all is mentioned in Philippians 4:3 and several times in Revelation—the book of life. Those true Christians whose names are written there will be welcomed to heaven and the New Jerusalem, and Jesus tells us, “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5).

The Accessible Word of God

The Bible is usually cited as the most-read book of all time and was also one of the first books printed by Johannes Gutenberg on his movable-type printing press in Mainz, Germany. Likely started in 1454, the first copy of the Gutenberg Bible was available for sale in March 1455. Gutenberg’s Bible was a copy of the Latin Vulgate. In the 1500s, William Tyndale was firmly convicted, despite tremendous opposition, that the common man should have access to Scripture in his own language and translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament into English. Though he was martyred before completing his work, two of his friends are credited with finishing the Old Testament translation. The first book ever printed in the American colonies was the book of Psalms, printed in 1640 with the fanciful title The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre.2 But the first Bible printed in America (1663) was not an English translation but John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into Algonquin.

In fact, the printing of an English translation of the Bible, or even just the New Testament, did not occur in America until 1771, when Robert Aitken printed his first edition of the New Testament. It was not until 1782 that the first entire Bible in English was printed on American soil. England had previously forbidden the printing of English-language Bibles in the Americas in order to give a monopoly to the British printers licensed by the Crown. Ironically (for those who insist the founding fathers wanted a separation of church and state), this first American Bible (termed the Aitken Bible) was officially endorsed by Congress (text below) on September 12, 1782.

Whereupon, RESOLVED,

THAT the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an influence of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this Recommendation in the manner he shall think Proper.2

With modern printing methods, copies of the Bible are more plentiful than ever before and, at least in the US, can be found in nearly every bookstore today. However, many Christians often neglect it, instead getting caught up in busyness and entertainment to the exclusion of this precious and powerful Book. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with busyness or entertainment, the problem is when they are allowed to take the place of more important things—and certainly, reading the Word of God falls into the “more important” category. How might our hearts (not to mention the church and the world around us) be impacted if, on this National Read a Book Day, we intentionally dug into the Book of books and determined to make time in God’s Word an integral, daily part of our lives?

World Literacy Day

The idea for a World Literacy Day was conceived during the World Conference of Ministers of Education for the Eradication of Illiteracy in Tehran, Iran, in 1965. On October 26, 1966, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated September 8 as World Literacy Day to address global illiteracy. The first World Literacy Day was held in 1967, and it has been an annual event since.

Biblical Examples

It should be no surprise that the Bible has much to say about literacy.

It should be no surprise that the Bible has much to say about literacy. The first mention of reading comes from Exodus 24:7 when Moses wrote down and then read to the people the words of the covenant between God and Israel that God had told him at Sinai. In Deuteronomy 17:18–19, God tells Moses to write that any future king of Israel must write a copy of the Law of Moses and read it throughout his life. In Joshua 8:34–35, we read that Joshua wrote a copy of the Law of Moses and then read it to the people on Mt. Ebal.

In 2 Kings 19 and Isaiah 37, Sennacherib, ruler of Assyria, sent messengers with a threatening letter to King Hezekiah of Judah. In 2 Kings 19:14 and Isaiah 37:14, we read that “Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD and spread it before the LORD.” Reading that letter caused Hezekiah to plead with the Lord to exonerate his name upon the Assyrians and to request that God save them from the hand of Sennacherib. Later that night, the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians.

King Josiah (2 Kings 23:1–23) and Ezra (Nehemiah 8:2–8) are recorded as having read from the Law of Moses and then reading it to all the people. And, of course, one of the more withering replies of Jesus to the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees of Israel, who were supposedly experts on Scripture, was, "Have you not read?” Paul summarized this thought when he said in Acts 13:27, “For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”

And Paul, when writing an epistle, expected that most people would either read it or listen to it when it was read to them. Three times he emphasized the importance of literacy regarding his letters to churches:

“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4).
“And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16).
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5:27).

Examples from Church History and Missionary Organizations

This encouragement of literacy has continued to be an important part of the church’s work. For example, the original Sunday school—founded by Anglican Robert Raikes in the late 1700s—more closely resembled an actual school than our modern version does. This “school,” held on Sundays, was formed to teach reading as well as spiritual instruction to children in Gloucester, England. Eventually, the concept spread not only to the rest of the country but internationally as well.

Christian missionaries have also historically promoted literacy within the people groups they served. There are too many to list in this article, but one of note is William Carey, a missionary to India, who started both Sunday schools (using the Bible to teach reading) and schools for primary and higher education in India. In addition, Carey translated Scripture into multiple Indian languages and was involved in printing Bibles, religious literature, textbooks, dictionaries, and other literary works, among other endeavors.

Although there are many more examples of missionaries who taught reading and writing (either in the missionary’s native language or the student’s) for the primary purpose of making it possible for their students to read Scripture for themselves, there are also many like William Carey who took things a step further: translating the Bible into various native languages (as organizations such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators and Tyndale Bible Translators continue to do today) and in some cases, even developing a written language for people who previously had none.

The work of these men and others not only expanded access to the Bible but also served to help preserve languages and provide a means for many people groups to become literate in their native tongues.

The development of the Gothic alphabet in the fourth century is credited to Ulfilas, a bishop and missionary who oversaw the translation of the Bible into the language of the Goths. The previously mentioned John Eliot did much the same in the 1600s—developing a written form of the Algonquin language using the English (or Latin) alphabet and translating the Scriptures into it. The work of these men and others not only expanded access to the Bible but also served to help preserve languages and provide a means for many people groups to become literate in their native tongues.

Examples in US History

The Bible itself was often used as a textbook in early American schools, and other popular textbooks of the day drew heavily from its teachings—often quoting verses or whole chapters of Scripture as well as applying its concepts in practical ways. The purpose of education in colonial and early America was to lead one to a belief in God as well as to a shared understanding of civic order and proper community morals. Literacy was essential because it allowed people to think for themselves, read for themselves, and engage in trade and business.

The New-England Primer, first compiled and published about 1688 by Benjamin Harris, became one of the most successful children’s textbooks published in America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with an estimated three million copies in print by the early 1800s. Less than 100 pages long, the primer included the alphabet, spelling lists, and moral instruction based on Scripture. It quoted the King James Bible frequently, including the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

Harris incorporated woodcut illustrations and biblical content to teach reading skills and encourage memorization of biblical doctrine and catechisms. Couplets for each letter of the alphabet were an important part of children’s learning, and the couplet for the letters A and B showed that biblical authority was paramount—“In Adam’s fall We sinned all” and “Thy Life to Mend, This Book Attend.”

While it is hard to fathom in our current culture, literacy was once taught in the US by books that quoted from the Bible, used biblical illustrations about morality, taught catechisms, and encouraged study, work, and honest trade. Far from a “separation of church and state” in public schools, the schools relied on the Bible to educate boys and girls and taught them to be good citizens. And isn’t this the practical exhortation that Paul addresses in Ephesians 4:28, Colossians 3:23, 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12, and 1 Timothy 2:1–2? Through the Holy Spirit, Paul commanded Christians to be honest, hard-working, modest, hospitable, respectful of authority, and, most importantly, knowledgeable of God and his Word.

Footnotes

  1. Sometimes the OT is spoken of as being a two-division book, the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12), while other times noted as a threefold division book made up of the Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44).
  2. Jeremy Norman, “Stephen Daye Issues ‘The Bay Psalm Book’, the First Book Written & Printed in North America, North of Mexico,” Exploring the History of Information and Media through timelines. Last modified November 23, 2013. https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=380
  3. “First Bible PRINTED in America in English language,” American Minute with Bill Federer, accessed August 31, 2022. https://myemail.constantcontact.com/First-Bible-PRINTED-in-America-in-English-language.html?soid=1108762609255&aid=hrMC4VqkJQI

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