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The Origin of Sunday Schools

    All institutions change over time.  This is due in large part to the reaction of institutions to shifting situations.  A prime example of that is Sunday school.  Sunday schools developed for one reason, but over time have morphed into many different uses, or even disappeared altogether in some churches.  But now for the story of how it developed.

    The idea for schools on Sunday developed out of a concern for the welfare of children.  In the 1700s most if not all poor children worked, which for many meant factory or other dirty work such as cleaning chimneys or working in mines.  Plus the only days those children had off was Sunday.

    The person given credit for popularizing Sunday schools is Robert Raikes (1735-1811) who lived in England.   His father owned a paper called the Gloucester Journal, which was established in 1722.  Raikes the son inherited the paper upon the death of his father in 1758.  Prior to becoming involved in Sunday schools, Raikes had championed other causes such as prison reform. 

    One eyewitness account of Raikes may help explain his drive to help underprivileged children:  a man who lived in the area remembered this about Raikes:  “An excellent man.  I think of him with gratitude and mention his name with respect almost bordering on admiration.  Oft have I seen him walking to church at seven in the morning followed by at least 100 children, who, but for him, might have lived and died in ignorance.” 

    To be clear, Raikes was not the first to begin Sunday schools.  Hannah Ball began a Sunday school as early as 1769, and shortly afterward Thomas King began one as well (both in England).  Raikes began his Sunday school in July of 1780.  Yet he was the one to bring the idea into the public sphere.  In the November 3, 1783 edition of the Journal (which he owned), Raikes explained the details of his Sunday school.  By the next year, the number of students in the Sunday schools in that area numbered over 1000 with some adults taking part as well.  Why adults you might ask?  It was the only way many of the adults could learn to read.  After all, this was a time before public schools were mandated. 

     His first Sunday school included topics other then religious instruction.  While reading the Bible was an important part, another aspect was learning to read itself, which many people in the 1700s lacked.  Other emphases were teachings in morality and discipline. 

    A nondenominational Sunday School Society was founded in England in 1785.  This Society purchased textbooks and offered funding for the establishment and development of Sunday schools.  Eventually it would help produce over 3000 Sunday schools.  Many of these schools were located in churches, but it was not usual for them to be held in other buildings or even in the work place.

    The idea of Sunday school made the jump over the Atlantic to America around the same time.  A Sunday school was held in Virginia in 1785 and by the 1790s the idea had spread to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Rhode Island.  Eventually, as the church-going population dwindled in America (due most likely to the move westward into new territories), the Sunday school became more religious in nature.  1824 saw the first American nondenominational group, the American Sunday-School Union.  As public education spread throughout America in the mid-1800s, the Sunday school idea developed into a purely religious meeting.  And along the same time period, the denominations began producing literature for the Sunday schools and it morphed again into a denominationally-controlled institution.

©2008 Mark Nickens

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