Sunday Schools. The religious revivals sweeping the nation from 1800 through 1860, which historians have labeled the Second Great Awakening, had a direct and lasting impact on education in the West. In the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, as many as twelve to twenty-five thousand settlers flocked to hear itinerant ministers. Converted in the revival, sixteen-year-old Peter Cartwright began his long career preaching on the Methodist circuit, culminating in the vigorous camp meetings he led in the new state of Illinois in the 1820s. Yet lay leaders of the Protestant Crusade in the East were fearful that rapid westward movement created a vacuum in civic order and moral restraint. One of the new national voluntary associations of the 1820s, the American Sunday School Union, gathered enough strength by 1830 to plan an operation in the Mississippi River valley, determined to plant a Sabbath school wherever there were settlers. Sunday school missionaries and materials disseminated evangelical values in the West, advocating Protestant nationalism and internalized restraints. As Sunday schools spread from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio into Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, teachers instructed children in reading and orderly selfregulated behavior. Yet they also sought to elicit conversion experiences in children as young as seven or eight, even four or five years of age. Initially the British tracts used in the schools sought to awaken children to religious instruction by evoking the emotions of pity and terror. By 1830, however, Eastern managers of the American Sunday School Union preferred instructional materials that followed the current pedagogical trends through teaching methods that emulated parental affection and evangelical children’s literature that mingled its religious message with instruction in literacy, patriotism, and natural science.
A Sunday School Primer
In 1826 Joseph Dulles of Philadelphia, an active member of the Committee of Publications of the American Sunday School Union, prepared a primer that he hoped would be used to teach every American child to read. Its educational message combined literacy with moral instruction. For example, the children were taught the sentence, “Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” Each child was instructed to spell one word aloud while the teacher explained the meaning of the sentence and impressed the lesson on the hearts of the children. Stories in the primer contrasted tamed with untamed animal nature. An engraving of a sheep illustrated an animal useful and helpful to man. By contrast, an engraving of a fierce and shaggy bear depicted the destructive untamed animal. Yet the primer offered children the hope that animal nature could be tamed. It ended with an engraving of the lion lying down with the lamb, the millennial promise of the peaceable kingdom. And to help children tame their own animal natures, the schoolbook reminded them that God watched them all the time: “In every place, by night and day, He watches all you do and say.”
Source: Joseph Dulles, The Union Primer or First Book for Children, Compiled for the American Sunday School Union and Fitted for the Use of Schools in the United States (Philadelphia: The American Sunday School Union, Revised by the Committee of Publications, 1826).
Beecher. Evangelical education in the West also was influenced by the career of Lyman Beecher, a dynamic Congregational minister who graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1797 determined to fight religious infidelity and the declining status of the New England clergy. Although a Calvinist, Beecher responded to the democratic forces in post-Revolutionary society by allowing individuals enough free agency to choose to repent, a shift away from predestination and an arbitrary God. In 1832, after a career in the Northeast in which he conducted revivals, contested Unitarian doctrine, and advocated such evangelical causes as temperance, Beecher focused his energy on the West, accepting the positions of president of Lane Seminary and minister of the Second Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati. Two years later Lane was engulfed in controversy when students led by Theodore Weld held protracted meetings on
slavery and sought to educate members of Cincinnati’s free black community. Rebuffed by the response of the school’s trustees, fifty-three students left Lane and joined the newly founded Oberlin Institute, where rival revivalist Charles Grandison Finney was on the faculty and blacks and women were admitted as students. Following this defeat Beecher traveled east to preach about the West, proclaiming the need for Protestant education. In his influential Plea for the West, published in 1835, he proclaimed his faith that the millennium could commence in America if only the nation understood its divine calling. According to Beecher, the battle would take place in the West. He called for institutions to train ministers who would distribute religious tracts, establish Sunday schools and public schools, and found churches and colleges to lead the region to true religion and republican values. For Beecher the adversary was the Catholic Church, which also was founding denominational institutions in the West. For him the solution was a Protestant education, which would cultivate the intellect, form the character, and regulate the affections of the potentially unruly Western population.
Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876 (New York: Harper & Row, 1980);
Milton Rugoff, The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).