William Holmes McGuffey is best known for the reader textbooks he wrote. They became the virtual universal readers in the expanding public school system of 19th century America. More than 122 million copies were sold in many editions.
The McGuffey readers had a profound impact on the moral teaching of school children of the time because of their high ethical tone stemming from McGuffey's strict Calvinistic faith.
McGuffey was born September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania, a descendant of the Scottish pioneers who flowed into the Quaker state throughout the 18th century. With little formal schooling, he learned rapidly and by age 13 was teaching in a rural Ohio school. He received his bachelor's degree with honors from Washington College in 1826. McGuffey went to Miami University, Oxford Ohio, as a professor of foreign languages. During the 11 years he was at Miami, he took a great interest in public education. He assisted local teachers and set up a model elementary school.
In 1835 he contracted with a Cincinnati publisher to write four school readers published in 1836. A fifth reader was published in 1844. A sixth was added in 1857. His brother, Alexander Hamilton McGuffey, added a spelling book to the McGuffey series in 1864. The books were an astonishing success.
McGuffey served as president of Cincinnati College during the years 1836-39. He left Cincinnati to become president of Ohio University , staying there until 1843.
McGuffey was one of the three founders of the common school system of Ohio. In 1845 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, a post he filled with distinction until his death May 4, 1873.
In 1827, he married Harriet Spinning of Dayton, Ohio, and they had 5 children. In 1829, he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. His first wife died in 1850 and a year later he married Miss Laura Howard, daughter of Dean Howard of the University of Virginia. They had one child who died at the age of four.
He wrote: "The christian religion, is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions."
"From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. For all these extracts from the Bible I make no apology."