The Sunday School Movement

views updated

The Sunday School Movement

The tradition of Sunday schools, while familiar in the early twenty-first century as places where the children of churchgoing families are taught the tenets of their faith, was not part of the popular lexicon prior to the late 1700s. Once organized, however, Sunday schools quickly grew in popularity and influence, spreading literacy and moral values while also providing evangelical Christianity with young converts. The strength of the Sunday school movement inspired some of the greatest minds of the age—among them the economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), the philosopher Thomas Malthus (1766–1836), and the Methodist theologian John Wesley (1703–1791)—to note its virtues in promoting popular education generally. As Smith noted, "No plan has promised to effect a change of manners, with equal ease and simplicity" as did the morals-based literacy training provided in the eighteenth-century Sunday school (Trumbull 1888, p. 118).

Although the first actual Sunday school was established by Hannah Ball in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1769, the systematization of faith-based education for children is credited to one of one of Ball's countrymen. As publisher and editor of the Gloucester Journal, Robert Raikes (1736–1811) viewed with concern the many poor children living in England's slums who found their way into crime. "The world marches forth on the feet of small children," the editor was known to proclaim in the pages of his newspaper. As the parents of these children were forced by necessity into factory jobs, Raikes realized that the task of instilling positive moral values in these children must be taken up by others.

Working with a local pastor, Raikes established a Sunday school for the poor and orphaned in July 1780. Promoted in his newspaper, Raikes's school soon had hundreds of students. At first only boys attended, but within a year, girls were also invited. As word of his work spread, Sunday schools soon appeared in other communities throughout England. By 1800, 200,000 children were enrolled in English Sunday schools, and the number had risen to 1,250,000 by 1830. By 1850, approximately two million British children attended weekly religious classes (Laqueur 1976, p. 44).

Because facilities were not available in most English parish churches, the first Sunday school classes were held either in the homes of paid teachers or in rented rooms. Some were free while others charged a modest tuition, although promising but needy students often gained a financial sponsor from the upper classes. The instruction included reading, rudimentary mathematics, and catechesis; it usually lasted four or five hours each week. For many children, Sunday school was the only education they would ever receive.

The Movement Comes to America

Like other aspects of British culture, the Sunday school movement quickly jumped the Atlantic. While the Sunday instruction of children was probably ongoing in the New England colonies by 1670, the first school modeled on Raikes's system was begun by William Elliott in Accomac County, Virginia, in the mid-1780s. The philanthropic Elliott hosted the children of poor white families in his home for Bible study, and also established a second school for slaves. The instruction of slaves became a unique outgrowth of the Sunday school movement in the United States as Elliott's efforts inspired others in the antebellum South, such as the Methodist bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816), to establish schools for black slaves. White adults also benefited from the Sunday school system by either learning basic skills from their children or attending the schools themselves.

Many supporters of Sunday schools came from the reform-minded upper classes. Many hoped to instill discipline, a work ethic, and literacy in the working-class families that now crowded into the cities as a result of industrialization. Teachers, both men and women, also dedicated themselves to this task. James M. Garnett, a Sunday-school teacher in Virginia, reportedly encouraged his young students to "become more dutiful and affectionate children; more kind and loving brothers and sisters; more friendly and benevolent to your companions … and more devoted to the constant discharge of all your duties in relation to both this word and the next" (Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer, July 12, 1821). As Raikes had also reported, the crime rate among young people who attended a Sunday school dropped significantly, improving the safety of the community at large. Remarking on the effects of the first session of a Sunday school established in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1817, one correspondent reported in the Daily National Intelligencer that "this experiment," in which "the improvement of the scholars was generally great, and in some instances astonishing," demonstrates "conclusively that these schools may be rendered as useful in our small towns, as in our large cities" (November 26, 1817).

Part of the success of the Sunday school movement was its voluntary nature. Young participants, some of whom worked long hours in factories and lived in squalor, cherished their half-day of focused study. The Rev. J. Fisk may have been only slightly overdramatizing the situation in his speech before the Vermont Sunday School Union in the winter of 1827 when he recalled one boy, "whose parents were too poor to provide him with shoes, who was found by his teacher on one snowy Sabbath in autumn, sewing old rags upon his feet, 'because,' said he, with tears in his eyes, 'I cannot stay away from the Sabbath School' " (Vermont Watchman and State Gazette, December 4, 1827). Referring to the pervasive state of "unbelief and error" that the Rev. Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), a leader of the Second Great Awakening, had famously confronted over a half-century before in his "Waste Places of New England" sermon, Henry Clay Trumbull contended in 1888 that "America has been practically saved to Christianity and the religion of the Bible by the Sunday-school" (Trumbull 1888, p. 122).

Educating the Urban Poor

Fuelled by the country's growing nationalistic fervor, the Sunday school movement of the early 1800s established its deepest roots in America's most established towns and cities. In Boston; Baltimore; Hartford, Connecticut; Charleston, South Carolina; and New York City independent schools were soon replaced by schools organized and monitored by societies and unions. One of the first, the First Day School Society, was established in Philadelphia in 1791 for the purpose of providing for the education of impoverished girls. In 1824 the American Sunday School Union (ASSU) was formed. The first National Sunday School Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1832, with 15 states represented among its 220 delegates (Brown 1901, p. 71). The efforts of organizing bodies such as the ASSU were reinforced by the many books and periodicals that soon appeared to guide both students and teachers: The Baptist Teacher, Sunday School Journal, Sunday School World, Sunday School Helper, Earnest Worker, and the Philadelphia-based and nationally circulating Sunday School Times. Bible societies, which sprang up during the late 1800s to facilitate international Christian outreach, often set as their first task obtaining copies of the Holy Bible for every Sunday school student who desired one and showed dedication to its study. To create a uniform common curriculum for American Sunday schools, the National Sunday School Convention adopted the International Uniform Lesson in 1872. This curriculum did not find favor with all schools, however, and soon there were other similar lesson systems available, such as the International Graded Series (also known as the Closely Graded Lessons), and the Group Graded Lessons (also known as the Departmental Graded Lessons), which provided teachers with age-appropriate curricula.

Although the Sunday school movement rode the positive spirit of social reform characteristic of the Industrial Revolution, the movement also had its detractors. Raikes was hailed for his achievement, but those in class-conscious England who were concerned by the nation's upwardly mobile middle class also expressed concern as to whether a literate and intellectually stimulated lower class would be satisfied with their so-called proper station in life. Some U.S. churches also regarded the secular origins of Sunday schools with the same suspicion as Bible societies, tract societies, temperance societies, the Masonic order, and other similar groups. For Christian reformers such as Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), this secularism posed a different kind of threat: it opposed his effort to encourage all Christians, whatever their denomination, to unite under one single creed based in the New Testament. In January of 1827 Campbell warned in the pages of his periodical The Christian Baptist: "If children are taught to read in a Sunday school, their pockets must be filled with religious tracts, the object of which is either directly or indirectly to bring them under the domination of some creed or sect."

Sunday Schools and the Civil War

In the United States, the Sunday school movement travelled along with the tides of migration to points west and south, and within four years of its founding the ASSU had shepherded the spread of Sunday schools across twenty-eight states. In addition to producing Christian literature attractive to younger children, the organization also sent missionaries into the Mississippi Valley, one of which, Stephen Paxson, traveled by horseback throughout the region, organizing more than 1,300 Sunday schools. The distribution of Sunday schools between the North and the South, however, was uneven in the years leading up to the Civil War. As the Massachusetts statesman, Charles Sumner (1811–1874), reported while arguing for the admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state in June of 1860: "In the Free States the Sunday-school libraries are 1,713, and contain 474,241 volumes; in the Slave States they are 275, and contain 68,080 volumes" (Sumner 1872, p. 42).

After America became fractured by the Civil War, the effects of the Sunday school movement reached the battle lines. Among the many male Sunday school teachers to enlist in the service of their country was an Ohio Baptist, Thomas Shaw, who fought for the Union Army. Called "one of the most pious and devoted [of] Christians" by the memoirist Rev. James B. Rogers, Shaw, "as a poor young man, an orphan," … "was greatly loved for his simple, fervent piety. He was a devoted and faithful Sunday School teacher" and "his influence in the regiment was most blessed. He had more spiritual power over the men than almost any chaplain; held prayer-meetings and exhorted his fellow soldiers to come to Jesus and follow him." Noting Shaw's death on the battlefield, Rogers added that "among both officers and men there is the savor of the true Christian salt. The fact may encourage those who … have mourned over the ungodliness that too much prevails in the patriot army" (Rogers 1863, p. 242). In his Army Life in a Black Regiment, Thomas Wentworth Higgin-son also attested to the dedication on the part of many soldiers to provide education among the Negro troops, noting in one entry: "This afternoon our good quartermaster establishes a Sunday-school for our little colony of [ black] 'contrabands,' now numbering seventy" (Higginson 1870, p. 119).

Although the Sunday school movement had reached its zenith by the 1840s, its after-effects reverberated throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Noting the power of organized morals-based education to instill "the democratic sentiment" of compassion in even the youngest future citizens, the Pennsylvania congressman William D. Kelley (1814–1890), a Quaker, stated in a speech before the House of Representatives in 1863, "Once in seven days comes the Sabbath; and from hillside and valley, from the lanes and alleys, as well as from the broad streets of the city, the children gather in the church and Sunday School: there they learn that Christianity enforces while it refines … ; thus the religious sentiment adds its great power to the political" (Kelley 1863, p. 24).


Brown, Arlo Ayres, A History of Religious Education in Recent Times. New York, NY: Abingdon Press, 1901.

Campbell, Alexander. Christian Baptist, January 1827.

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, DC), November 26, 1817.

Garnett, James M. "Address to a Sunday School in Essex County, Virginia, on Distributing Bibles to the Scholars." Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer, Issue 28, July 12, 1821.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston, MA: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870.

Kelley, William Darrah. The Conscription. Also Speeches of the Hon. W. D. Kelley of Pennsylvania, in the House of Representatives. Philadelphia, PA: privately printed, 1863.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1976.

Rice, Edwin Wilbur. The Sunday School Movement 1780–1917, and the American Sunday-School Union. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1971.

Rogers, Rev. James B. War Pictures: Experiences and Observations of a Chaplain in the U.S. Army, in the War of the Southern Rebellion. Chicago: Church & Goodman, 1863.

Sumner, Charles. Works of Charles Sumner, vol. 5. Boston, MA: Lee & Shepard, 1872.

Trumbull, Henry Clay. The Sunday-School: Its Origins, Mission, Methods, and Auxiliaries. Philadelphia, John D. Wattles, 1888.

Vermont Watchman and State Gazette (Montpelier, VT), issue 1102, December 4, 1827.

Pamela L. Kester

About this article

The Sunday School Movement

Updated About content Print Article


The Sunday School Movement