2015 marks the tercentenary of the publication of Isaac Watts’ Divine songs attempted in easy language for the use of children. First published in 1715, it was one of the most reprinted English children’s books of the eighteenth century and still widely read in Victorian times. To coincide with this significant anniversary, the current Reed Gallery exhibition explores Christian books written with the primary intention of instilling in children a strong faith through robust religious education.

The donor of the Reed Collections, Alfred Hamish Reed, began his distinguished publishing career as a small-time supplier of imported Sunday school materials in Dunedin in the early 1900s. His Sunday School Supply Stores boasted that they offered “everything for the modern Sunday school”.

Reed’s early ventures into religious education were essentially a hobby with minimal profits gained. Alfred and his wife Isabel were devout Christians with immense enthusiasm for doing what they felt was God’s work.

From 1922, the company became A.H. Reed and expanded into secular works as a source of income. Yet Alfred was driven by his desire to improve the effectiveness of Sunday school teaching and began his Sunday school progress periodical. In 1934, when Alfred teamed up with his nephew Alexander Wyclif (‘Clif’) Reed to form A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd., their first and many subsequent publications were aimed at Sunday schools. Through his wide research, Alfred played a major role in the modernisation of religious education in New Zealand.

Alongside this merry toil, Alfred devoted significant time and money to build up his collection of rare books and manuscripts, chiefly of a biblical hue. His original 1948 gift to the Library was followed by further donations until his death in 1975. In 1981, the Library welcomed the opportunity to complement its collection of Bibles with a gathering of work frequently based on scriptural texts – the Colin Gibson Hymnology Collection, which continues to grow through further donations and purchases.

The exhibition Children of God: the Christian education of young people through books thus features a diverse range of children’s religious books from the Reed and Special Collections, including some of Reed’s own publications in Christian education. Displays are organised into broad genres including children’s Bibles, biblical stories, catechisms, liturgies, devotional literature, instructional works, moral stories, Christmas carols, and hymns and sacred songs.