The history of Sunday school
In the 1780’s, poor children in England were more likely to be found working 12–hour shifts on dangerous factory jobs than at comfortable desks in nicely–appointed classrooms. Well into the 19th century, the thought of educating them enough to read even the simplest literature remained a distant dream. Big business had sacrificed these disadvantaged children by feeding them to an emerging Industrial Revolution.
Denied the innocence of childhood and burdened by the responsibilities of adulthood, these children expressed their despair and frustration in the streets. Fighting, cursing, and gambling among them was commonplace.
Their behavior caught the attention of Robert Raikes, an English Anglican evangelical. Horrified, he asked a local woman standing outside her door about it. She said, “This is nothing [compared] to what goes on Sundays. You’d be shocked indeed if you were here then.” *
The woman told Raikes people couldn’t even read the Bible in peace at church due to the chaos caused by the children. They, along with their parents, worked at a factory every day of the week except Sunday. So, on that day “they behaved in a most unrestrained way.”
The first Sunday school
Raikes returned home determined to help these children. He was the publisher of a local paper, so his mind probably went quickly to literacy and education, which during that time, was primarily the realm of the middle class or higher.
Raikes opened his Sunday school in July 1780 and spent the next week inviting children from poor families to participate. Many parents lamented that their children lacked proper clothes for school. Raikes said, “if the children’s clothing is fit for the streets, it is fit for my school.”
Those first school days began at 10 a.m. with teaching. The students were dismissed for lunch and came back around 1 p.m. After a reading lesson, they would go to a church service. That was followed by another round of classroom instruction until 5:30 p.m. when they were sent home.
After more than three years of Sunday school, Raikes published a small account of its successes in his newspaper, making no mention of his own involvement. Others had started similar programs in previous decades, but papers in London picked up Raikes’ story and the idea began to spread.
By this time, the number of children in Raikes’ program had grown to several hundred and increased weekly. Employers began to notice a change in the children’s behavior. “They have been transformed from the shape of wolves and tigers to that of men,” said one manufacturer.
A movement begins
Other Christian philanthropists joined the movement to free these children from a life of illiteracy. But legislative efforts, which came in 1802, were modest. Saturday remained part of the children’s regular work week. Therefore, Sunday was the only available time they could enjoy some education.
Although originally hailed as a great and noble achievement, Sunday schools constantly struggled for survival because there was often church pressure to not teach writing on Sunday. Debates also raged as to whether teaching the lower classes was, in fact, a good idea; there were worries that such education would lead them to desire a higher station in life.
Consequently, the schools were financed by subscribers who nominated children for enrollment. They also visited the schools in order to hear the children repeat their lessons. These donors, as such, were the forerunners of school inspectors. The teachers, both men and women, were paid and classes were often held in a person’s home or in rented rooms.
Nonetheless, the movement spread to the United States. Denominations and non–denominational organizations caught the vision and energetically began to create Sunday schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular. By the mid–19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood.
A better life
Even parents who did not regularly attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday school. Working–class families were grateful for this opportunity to receive an education. They also looked forward to annual highlights such as prize days, parades, and picnics, which came to mark the calendars of their lives as much as more traditional seasonal holidays.
The Bible was the textbook used for learning to read. Likewise, many children learned to write by copying passages of Scripture.
The Sunday schools were simple, became a diversion for the children, and a means for parents to socially elevate the family as a whole. They were often also a means of education for adults, who occasionally attended the schools; children were actively encouraged to take lessons and books home to share with their parents.
The Sunday school also became an important hub of social interaction for a class of children and parents who were rapidly moving away from small, close–knit, rural communities to large, over–populated, urban centers. Lastly, the schools taught Scripture to a population that, until that time, only learned it via a tedious and rote memorization system.
Today, Sunday school continues to evolve, aided by new technologies and social innovations. Recently in The Salvation Army’s USA Eastern Territory, Orange has become the new Sunday school. The Army has recently formed a partnership with Orange, an organization that has helped to better impact children, teenagers, and families. Its message is based on the Bible and its ministry is motivated by the love of God.
by Warren L. Maye