How the Sunday School Began


How the Sunday School Began



Clate Raymond director of the National Sunday School Association, reports that on the average Sunday morning an estimated 45 million Americans attend Sunday school. Among these is an army of more than four million officers and teachers who lead the 290,000 Sunday schools across America.’ Yet Dr. Carl F. H. Henry notes that ‘there are ninety million adults in the United States not registered in any type of Bible study . . . a larger unreached population than all other age groups combined. Other authorities report that only 20 percent of all children and youth in our country attend Sunday school. These statistics offer a dramatic challenge to evangelical Christians when we realize that “more than 80 percent of new members in evangelical churches come through the ranks of the Sunday school.

Since the Sunday school exercises such a crucial influence on church growth and national morality, let’s explore the past to discover just how this powerful movement began.


I. Ancestors of The Sunday School

In Deuteronomy 31:12, Moses gave an accurate description of the Sunday school concept:

Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do a// the words of this law.

E. M. Brawley, writing some 100 years ago, adds, ‘From the time when Moses gave the command found in the text, up to the present, under varied conditions and surroundings . . . Sunday school work in some form has been substantially done.” So the question before us is: ‘Exactly when and where are the roots of the movement?”

Many claims have been made for the actual origin of the Sunday school. H. Clay Trumbull lists 20 in a footnote of Yale Lectures on the Sunday School.’ One such claim is made by citizens of Savannah, GA. They declare that the school was begun in Christ Church Parish by John Wesley in 1737 and predated the effort of those in England during the 1780s. Six other claims like these indicate a clear need to define exactly what we mean when we use the term Sunday school.

One widely accepted definition is given by H. Clay Tremble in the Yale Lectures on the Sunday School. He recognized four unique characteristics:

A Sunday school is an agency of the church, by which the Word of God taught interlocutorily, or catechetically, to children and other learners clustered in groups or classes under separate teachers: all these groups or classes being associated under a common head.

Using this description, the work of John Wesley in 1737 and others of the same era were worthy ministries: but they cannot be called Sunday schools due to the absence of one or more of the above characteristics.

C. B. Eavey, who served as chairman of the Department of Education and Psychology, Wheaton College, has identified the actual founder of the modern movement . . . In nearly all of them the work was catechizing by the minister instead of Sunday school teaching. To Robert Raikes, beyond all doubt, belongs the credit for founding the modern Sunday school…


II. The Successful Experiment

Robert Raikes (1736-1811) was a second-generation printer and editor of the Gloucester Journal. The city of Gloucester, located 100 miles west of London, occupied itself with the making of pins. Josiah Harris, a biographer of Raikes, knew the city and reports that ‘whole portions of the city were devoted to ‘pinners’ and child labor was largely employed . . . whole families worked at pin-making at home.”

The social conditions of Gloucester in 1780 were deplorable. Dwellings were rudely constructed and were often inhabited by both families and the poultry. J.H. Plumb, the British historian, records, ‘Ignorance of the most elementary facts of the Christian religion was astonishingly widespread. . . .” There was no system of public education, and even elementary education was uncommon to most homes,

As an editor, Robert Raikes made genuine efforts to fight the social and moral decay that surrounded him. He visited adults in the jails but was soon impressed that, for many, it was too late to recover the lost years. He concluded that change could best be brought about by reaching children.

After careful study he developed a plan and shared it with Thomas Stocks, the local parish pastor. Together they gathered names and addresses of 90 children and began a tireless house-to-house visit to each child.

The first Sunday School was gathered at Sooty Alley; the first class was made up of chimney sweeps who inhabited the area. 10 to 14 boys (ages 6 to 14) were among the first pupils. This class of .urchins’ met in a Mrs. Meredith’s kitchen, across the street from the city prison. However, after several months of constant discipline problems, she resigned. The class was relocated to Mrs. King’s kitchen opposite the Raikes home.

At this new location Mrs. Mary Critchley taught Sunday School for more than two years. Raikes made a special effort to give this second school his closest attention. It prospered and had only five teachers in 20 years; two of them were his own daughters.

Raikes determined from the beginning that it would be crucial to teach the ‘scholars” to read and write if his efforts were to endure. About 1785 he wrote four textbooks as auxiliary tools to Bible study.

Edwin W. Rice, noted chronicler with the American Sunday School Union, comments:

School was from ten to twelve o’clock in the morning. On Sundays the scholars returned at one, and often a lesson was taken to church. After church service they were taught the catechism, and sent home about five o’clock, charged not to play in the streets. Good behavior was rewarded by Bibles, Testaments, books, games, shoes, and clothing. The mistress was paid a shilling a day, which sometimes included the rent of the kitchen.”

Even during the period of Raikes’s experimentation (1780-83), fierce opposition made his work difficult. Throughout the country it was illegal to own a school, teach in a school, or even tutor unless one was an active subscriber to the teachings of the church of England. Then, in 1779, the Enabling Act became law and allowed dissenters the freedom to teach their beliefs publicly. Though now legal, there remained resistance from loyal Anglican church leaders and their followers. It was in this kind of economic, political, and religious atmosphere that Robert Raikes began his experiment.

Edwin W. Rice comments on the explosiveness of the situation: In England the objection to Sunday schools was that they were dangerous, demoralizing, bad institutions, and agents of the devil.” Attacks came from at least three groups: church leaders, English nobility and carnal citizens.” The church leaders accused Sunday schools of assassination attempts against pastors, encouraging sedition, inciting attempts on the king’s life, serving as a secret front for extending the French Revolution on English soil, and attempting to split the Anglican church. The English nobility feared that their servants, who came from poorer families, would want higher wages and demand more freedom. Men of powerful political influence such as the bishop of Rochester and the archbishop of Canterbury, discouraged their pastors from cooperating with Sunday schools. Their argument was that such help might aid the rapid growth of dissenters like Wesley.

Despite the deluge of complaints and insults Raikes could name among his supporters the pastor-hymn writer John Newton, whose hymn ‘Amazing Grace” appeared in print in 1779: William Cowper, the poet; John Howard, philanthropist; John and Charles Wesley; several bishops; and the queens of both England and Russia.”

Finally, after three trying years (1780-83), Robert Raikes publicly recommended the Sunday school concept to all of Gloucester and England. The biographer, Josiah Harris, gives an interesting summary: Mr. Raikes generally dates the movement from November 3, 1783, when he stood committed to the plan by its publication . . . He never contested or challenged honors claimed by or on behalf of anyone prior to 1783, after which date he was the ‘Organizer’ by international consent.”

Within four years from the first announcement of the successful experiment a letter appeared in the influential Gentleman’s Magazine about Sunday school growth. In this letter, dated November 13, 1787, Raikes disclosed a total attendance of 250,000 throughout England.” During the five-year period, from 1780 to 1785, a Sunday school was established in every major English town.

Within the first 30-year period, from 1780 to 1810, an estimated 1.3 million were enrolled in Sunday school: a population equal to one-third of England’s total census.” More than 100,000 new Sunday schools were created during the first century of the movement. (This equals an average of 1,000 new units each year for 100 years.)”

John Wesley adapted the Sunday school concept of Raikes and tremendous growth resulted. Before 1780 the total Methodist membership was about 50,000. Trumbull comments that within four years after the public announcement, Methodist Sunday schools registered 250,000 members, most of whom were Wesleyan.

Robert Raikes died in his house at the end of Bell Lane on Friday, April 5, 1811. He was buried eight days later in the cemetery next to his house.


III. The First Sunday School Society

Just as Wesleyans would benefit directly from the influence of the Sunday school movement by their early support of Raike’s vision, so Baptists would have a legacy because of a wealthy merchant from London named William Fox. Fox led others to form the first society for the support of Sunday schools. Again, a real key to the success of the movement was the voluntary involvement of laymen!

Constituted on September 7, 1785, the new organization was named the Society for the Support and Encouragement of Sunday Schools in the Different Counties of England. The title was soon altered but not shortened when new schools were established in Wales, Ireland, and the British colonies.

During the following 27 years it assisted or established “3,730 Sunday schools with a membership of 303,981; gave away 8,001 Bibles, 70, 537 Testaments and 329,695 spelling and reading books. It discontinued paid teachers in 1810….” The spellers were crucial tools since not 1 in 20 persons could read.

After 1803 several other Sunday school societies were organized. These include: the London Sunday School Union (1803), British and Foreign School Society (1808), Hibernian Sunday School Society of Ireland (1809), National School Society (1811), and others. Soon the movement became an international enterprise as Sunday schools were begun in Scotland (1796), Germany (1834), Sweden (1851), the Netherlands (1865), France (1812), Denmark and Norway (1877), and during the same general period in Italy, Austria, Spain, Russia, and India.


IV. The Sunday School in America

The oldest Sunday school in America, many believe, is the Oak Grove Sunday School in Accomac County, Virginia. Dr. Clarence Benson of Dallas Theological Seminary points out that ‘Both whites and Negroes were taught, but at separate hours., The second Sunday school also has the distinction of having been established in Virginia. It was begun in the house of Thomas Crenshaw of Hanover County, Virginia, by Francis Asbury in 1786 for the instruction of slaves.”

John Wesley appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as bishops of the church in the United States in 1784. They found the one Sunday school already in operation. As in England, few churches knew what to do with a Sunday school; so most of them met outside the churches and without their support. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, the wealth of Christian philanthropist was beginning to be directed to education and improvement of the common people through Sunday schools.

Whereas, the schools in England began to decline as they shifted from the goal of evangelism to education, Sunday schools thrived in America as the evangelistic focus was maintained.

With 11 years after Robert Raikes began the first Sunday school in England, a new Sunday school society organized in Philadelphia in 1791. Within three months they raised $3,968 for the establishment of Sunday schools. Sunday school societies appeared in other cities.”

The First Day Society was followed by the Union Society of 1804 and the Evangelical Society of 1808. As in the earlier schools, these societies were voluntary association of men from various denominations, Active in their churches, they were interested in supporting this orphan organization looking for a church home. In 1816 women also organized to assist; they met in a lecture room of the Wall Street Church in New York City and formed the Female Union Society for the Promotion of Sabbath Schools.

The idea of a national society became a reality in 1824 through a merger between the Philadelphia Sunday and Adult School Union and the Sunday School Society of 1791. The new organization was incorporated as the American Sunday School Union.


V. Sunday School Missionaries

The imagination of Sunday school leaders was stirred by the challenge of the four million people who lived in the vast territory between the Alleghenies and the Rocky Mountains. The American Sunday School Union spearheaded a massive evangelistic thrust. In May 1830 they made a resolution to start a Sunday School in every town in the Mississippi Valley. They wanted to complete the project in two years. Two thousand people unanimously voted and subscribed over $17,000 to the project.

Great conventions were assembled and with them nationally known leaders like Daniel Webster and Francis Scott Key gladly gave their support. Three locations included Boston, Washington, and Charleston. Approximately 80 missionaries were funded to carry out the master strategy of establishing 50-book libraries throughout the valley at a cost of $10.00 per set. An estimated one million volumes were distributed by these missionaries. Dr. Elmer Towns reports that “. . . a Sunday school could not be certified unless it had a library. In 1859 over 30 thousand of the 50 thousand libraries in the U.S. were in Sunday schools.””

Ten of the 80 missionaries are described by Edwin W. Rice as each having formed 1,000 or more Sunday schools. These outstanding missionaries merit special attention.

The American Sunday School Union during its first 50 years, chronicles, the following results:

During the next 50 years 805 of all churches in the Mississippi Valley came out of Sunday Schools. In one year alone 17,000 people made professions of faith. From 1824 to 1874 there were 61,299 Sunday schools organized with 407,244 teachers and 2,650,784 pupils. The total amount spent on this endeavor was $2,133,364 (i.e., $1 per person).”


VI. The Development of Literature

The Bible and the catechism were the major curriculum used in Sunday schools from 1790 to 1815. Since all Bibles were still imported from England, the catechism was much more readily available. Most scripture verses to be memorized came from the catechism. Bible memorization replaced the catechism during the years 1816 to 1840. Benson indicates that the plan proved popular, especially after it was stimulated by a system of prizes and rewards. Both children and adults memorized verse. The fourth annual report of the New York Sunday School Union says:

In many schools individuals ten or twelve years of age have committed to memory in a single quarter from 800 to 1,350 verses. An amount of 18,859 verses has been recited in one school during the past year. In another instance a boy of seven years had recited 1,003 verses in eight weeks, and a boy of eleven years, 400 verses in six weeks.

The period of 1840 to 1872 came to be known as the “Babel Period,’ since there was no uniform curriculum. Hence the search continued for a plan of systematic Bible study. Denominational publishers and private publishers produced a variety of books filled with the question-answer format. There was a serious absence of graded material to meet age level needs. Few pastors had been equipped in seminary to deal effectively with the needs of children in their churches.

In 1866 a publication, The Sunday School Teacher, began to be circulated by John H. Vincent, a Methodist minister, and B. J. Jacobs. Both men were Sunday school leaders in Chicago. Clarence H. Benson notes:

The first issue contained a newly conceived lesson series entitled ‘A New System of Sunday School Study.’ The Vincent system was the first in the world with analytical and illustrative helps for the teacher and lesson helps for the pupil.

Meanwhile, the Fourth National Convention was about to meet in Newark, NJ (1869). Three previous conventions were held in New York (1832), Philadelphia (1833), and Philadelphia (1857). During the Fourth Convention the groundwork was laid for adoption of a uniform lesson system to be presented at the Fifth National Convention at Indianapolis in 1872.

This plan was adopted in 1872 with great enthusiasm, and the convention rose to sing the Doxology. The denominations, not having a better plan, soon accepted the plan. Nineteen other countries also adopted the plan within three years of the Indianapolis Convention. A committee of 10, composed of five ministers and five laymen, formed the first Lesson Committee. This group was later enlarged to 15.

The uniform lessons helped to create a common bond not previously known among Sunday schools around the world.

This interest and enthusiasm precipitated a series of nine international Sunday school conventions. Some 463 delegates attended the first held at Baltimore in 1875. The statistical secretary reported a total Sunday school membership for United States and Canada of 6,850,834 in 74, 272 schools.

Other conventions included those at Atlanta (1878), Toronto (1881), Louisville (1884), Chicago (1887), Pittsburgh (1890), St. Louis (1893), Boston (1896), and Atlanta (1899). The opening session each day at the Boston convention was led by D. L. Moody.

The logical step after the development of a unified curriculum seemed to be teacher improvement. Dr. John H. Vincent produced plans in that direction by 1866, and ‘teachers’ institutes’ with elaborate study guides became popular. By 1874 the teacher training movement blossomed into the now famous Chautauqua movement that combined study with vacation for teachers on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. One by-product of this period was a graded curriculum.

Dr. Robert B. Boville saw the need for reaching children in the summer when school was closed. This young Canadian pastor was called as superintendent of the Baptist City Mission Society in New York. He used empty church buildings and several college students as they reached out to an average of 200 students at each location. That hot summer in 1901 the vacation Bible school movement was born. By 1912 vacation Bible schools were operated in 141 cities.

Meanwhile, the Sunday school world began to feel the strong influences of secular education. In 1903 the Religious education association was founded. As liberalism made advances, the Sunday School Convention progressively evolved by means of several name changes from the International Sunday School Council of Religious Education to the International Council of Religious Education (1924) to the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. The Sunday school movement went into decline after 1916.

During this period of religious recession, denominations began to develop their own Sunday school curriculum. In addition several private publishers began during this period. Included among these publishing houses were David C. Cook, Gospel Light Press, Scripture Press, and Union Gospel Press.


VII. The Revival of the Sunday School (1968 to Present)

Wesley Shrader, writing for Life magazine in 1957, called Sunday school ‘the most wasted hour of the week.’ About that time articles appearing in the New York Times and reports form surveys taken by Gallup polls noted the same -symptoms.

The year 1968 was a turning point; the National Sunday School Association (NSSA) announced a 3.5 percent growth increase among its member denominations. That year also Christian Life magazine began its annual profile of the 100 largest Sunday schools. Attendance began to climb noticeably.

Prominent among the churches experiencing steady growth were Nazarenes, Southern Baptists, and Independent Baptists. Nazarenes today have approximately 7,486 Sunday schools with an enrollment of 1,213,878 (i.e., approximately twice the existing church membership). Only 30 Sunday schools in America averaged over 2,000 in attendance a decade ago, while today there are over 60.

The past returns to encourage us to make evangelism of the masses our major priority, to avoid liberalism that minimizes the authority of Scripture, and to claim the harvest of souls that perish as you read these very words. Remember the urgency of Deuteronomy 31:12.

Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law.