Since the 1870s, the Sunday school in Protestant churches has been called the nursery of the church. It has been a primary means of growing children into church members. Estimates from the 1890s in mainline denominations in the United States (i.e., Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian) were that over 80 percent of all new members were nurtured through the Sunday school. Today the Sunday school continues to encourage membership and denominational formation. Throughout the twentieth century, approximately 60 to 70 percent of church members in mainline denominations were nurtured through the Sunday school; in evangelical denominations (like the Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist), the percentage was even higher.
Begun in the latter half of the 1700s, Robert Raikes, an English prison reformer, is credited with inventing the Sunday school. Raikes and other philanthropists sought to provide basic education, particularly in reading and religion, for children of the working poor. The hope was that education on Sunday, often extending to morning and afternoon sessions, would provide the children who worked in factories with the basic skills and character to become contributing members of society. This same vision of character reform and basic education fueled the Sunday school in industrial American cities and on the American frontier.
By the 1830s, this social outreach purpose was expanded to include the children of church members. Therefore, through the nineteenth century, Sunday schools were sponsored by both churches and philanthropic agencies for two purposes: (1) mission, the character building and evangelization of unschooled children, and (2) congregational education, the denominational formation of the children of church members. Most Sunday schools in the United States used a uniform lesson curriculum (cooperatively approved in 1872 at a meeting of denominational leaders, the National Sunday School Convention) that consisted of a seven-year pattern of biblical study studying each week the same lesson across age groups. Because the uniform lesson was also used in worldwide church missions, many proclaimed that the same text was studied throughout the world each Sunday.
In the early twentieth century, the educational tasks of the Sunday school were enhanced. Renamed the church school, significant teacher training, increased pedagogical sensitivity, additional educational programs for youth and adults, and curricular resources emphasizing religious development were added. Sunday church school instruction grew uniformly throughout Protestant education into the 1920s until a division of churches occurred resulting from conflict over methods of historical biblical scholarship (the fundamentalist/modernist controversy). Two major forms resulted: mainline denominations emphasized a school teaching theology and biblical scholarship while evangelical denominations focused on appropriating the witness of the biblical story.
In the twenty-first century, complemented by family education, youth and children's ministries, nursery schools, music ministry, and intensive biblical and theological studies of the issues of faith and living, the Sunday school continued as a primary setting of congregational education. Curricula were diverse, produced by denominational and interdenominational publishing houses, ranging from Bible study (including lectionary studies complementing the biblical texts defined for worship) to sophisticated studies addressing ethical issues. Sunday schools provided their members education and spiritual growth, personal support and community, and evangelism and social outreach.
See also: Youth Ministries.
Seymour, Jack L. 1982. From Sunday School to Church School: Continuities in Protestant Church Education, 1860–1929. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Wyckoff, D. Campbell, ed. 1986. Renewing the Sunday School and CCD. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
Jack L. Seymour
SUNDAY SCHOOLS first appeared in American cities in the 1790s. Following the example of British reformers, American organizers hoped to provide basic literacy training to poor children and adults on their one free day. Typical of these schools were those begun in Philadelphia in 1791 by the First Day Society, a group of clerics and merchants who paid local schoolmasters to teach "persons of each sex and of any age … to read and write," using the Bible as the central text. By 1819 the last First Day school had closed, and by 1830 Sunday schools of this type had virtually disappeared from the American scene, although traces of their pattern remained visible for decades in "mission" Sunday schools found in impoverished urban neighborhoods, in rural areas lacking permanent churches, and among newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction. A new-style Sunday school arose in their place, taught by volunteer teachers (a majority of them women) and providing a specifically evangelical Protestant curriculum. By 1832, nearly 8 percent of free children were attending such schools; in Philadelphia alone, the figure was almost 30 percent.
Evangelical Sunday schools grew rapidly as Protestant clergy and lay people molded them into key elements in an institutional network designed to make the new nation Protestant. (Although some Catholic and Jewish congregations established Sunday schools, the institution itself never assumed the significance it acquired in Protestant religious education.) New ideas about children's needs and potential also fueled their growth, as did congregations' embrace of Sunday schools and the development of common schools in urban areas. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, Sunday schools and public schools grew in tandem, developing a complementary relationship.
Sunday school societies played important parts in the schools' proliferation. The American Sunday School Union, a cross-denominational national organization founded in Philadelphia in 1824, was the largest of these, publishing curricular materials and children's books and sponsoring missionaries to remote regions. Denominational agencies, such as the Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Union (1827) and the Sunday School Board of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1884), followed suit. After the Civil War, denominational interests came into increasing conflict with the American Sunday School Union, especially in the area of teacher training and lesson writing. Gradually, denominational organizations and teachers' conventions became the organizations of choice, and the American Sunday School Union's preeminence declined. It was at a national Sunday school teachers' convention in 1872 that delegates and publishers adopted plans for a systemof "uniform lessons," standardizing the Biblical texts studied each week but permitting each denomination to shape the lessons' contents. And the origins of the Chautauqua Movement idea can be traced to a Sunday school teachers' summer institute organized by the Methodist bishop John Heyl Vincent in 1873.
In the twentieth century, Sunday schools were primarily church institutions, recruiting the next generations of members. Although teaching remained volunteer labor performed mostly by women, the work of managing became professionalized, many congregations hired directors of religious education, and new agencies took on the tasks of multiplying the number of Sunday schools and shaping teachers' preparation.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Sunday school attendance had declined overall. Nevertheless, Sunday schools remain a significant institutional tool for the religious training of succeeding generations, as many a child could testify.
Seymour, Jack L. From Sunday School to Church School: Continuities in Protestant Church Education in the United States, 1860–1929. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
See alsoProtestantism .
The Idea . Fear that people without education would form a lawless mob and upset the established order motivated reformers in the late eighteenth century to establish a broad system of education and to institute schools on Sundays. The Sunday school idea had been imported from England, where the industrial system had taken women and children from their homes and put them to work in factories, making it impossible for them to enjoy the traditional home-based education. Sunday schools gave these working people a chance to learn to read and write.
Philadelphia . In 1791 Sunday schools were opened in Philadelphia to persons of all ages, both men and women, who could not afford to educate themselves. The schools were supported by charitable donations and were run by religious societies, though they were nonsectar-ian. The Philadelphia school required its students to attend public worship on Sundays, though it did not matter which denomination. Within two years over eight hundred students had attended this Sunday school.
Working Girls . In 1791 the Duck Manufactory, outside of Boston, opened a Sunday school for its employees, particularly the young girls working in the factory. These “young daughters of industry” were prevented from studying on any other day, so the Sunday school, run by Oliver Lane, allowed them to pay “attention to the morals and instruction” offered by their employer, whose example, the papers said, did him “infinite honor.”
Churches. While some Sunday schools were opened by businesses, most were sponsored by churches. In Philadelphia virtually every religious denomination had a Sunday school, conducted by “pious young Ladies” who formed an association for this purpose. Each would instruct between ten and twenty students who met in the various churches of the city. People of all colors, ages, and social classes attended these schools, whose lessons were drawn from the Bible. Most noted by contemporaries were the older African Americans in attendance. The Sunday school in Newark, New Jersey, launched in May 1815, had over four hundred students by the end of summer.
Making Better Servants . Though originally drawing both upper and lower classes, the Sunday school’s main focus quickly became the poor. It was noted in Newark that the “improvement of the blacks is said to be extraordinary and that they display as much intellect as white children could do in similar circumstances.” As important to their employers, their “behavior as servants has much improved since the institution of the schools; they are tractable and sedate, and some have been reclaimed from habits of profaneness and intemperance.” The Sunday school movement after 1815 continued to offer instruction to working people, though the movement itself, in the fervor of the second Great Awakening, became part of a broader evangelical movement.
Sun·day school • n. a class held on Sundays to teach children about their religion.