Sunday schools

Sunday schools
   Beginning as a small ministry of an English newspaperman in the late 18th century, Sunday schools became in the 20th century one of the major structures for passing protestant teachings from one generation to the next. Robert Raikes (1735-1811) began the movement in 1780 in response to the widespread employment of children in British factories, mines, and other businesses for long hours six days a week. Sunday became a day for rowdiness that for many youths became a prelude to a life of crime. Owner of the Gloucester Journal, Robert Raikes at first considered the problem a social nuisance. He wanted to give the young people an education and a sense of moral involvement in society.
   Raikes decided to set up a school on Sundays, the only day many children were free. He paid for four female teachers to teach the children to read. With the assistance of a local pastor, Rev. Thomas Stock, Raikes had soon enrolled some 100 children in these schools. They met from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for reading lessons and then received instruction in the catechism at church through the late afternoon.
   Observers believed the school was soon working a marvelous transformation on the pupils. City leaders noticed a drop in the local crime rate. Raikes mobilized public support and used his printing press to publish needed school materials. By 1785, Londoners formed a Sunday school society to assist the cause. By 1786, the first such school was opened in Virginia; soon similar schools were functioning throughout the United States. The first in Canada opened in 1811.
   The movement got a significant boost in 1817 with the founding of the Sunday and Adult School Union of Philadelphia, which in 1824 evolved into the American Sunday School Union, a national organization designed to found Sunday schools in needy communities and distribute literature to the teachers and their pupils. Beginning in 1844, the movement received the support of most Protestant denominations and spread to every part of the growing country.
   In the last half of the 19th century, with the introduction of child labor laws and the spread of elementary public education, the nature of Sunday schools changed. They became primarily an instrument to instruct the next generation in the Bible, church teachings, and religious piety. For many churches, it was where children had their first religious experiences.
   Among the leaders in this transformation was Methodist John Heyl Vincent (1832-1920). As a pastor, Vincent developed a variety of innovative educational techniques including the use of normal (teacher training) classes. His Sunday school teacher training spread through the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1860s. In 1866, he published the first periodical of Sunday school lessons. His work led in 1872 to an interdenominational Uniform Lesson Plan. He soon became active in the Chautauqua movement, an early adult education effort based at Chautauqua Lake, New York, where he established a Sunday School Institute that offered two weeks of intensive leadership training.
   Church Sunday schools were particularly important in the United States, where the separation of church and state kept religious education out of the public schools (a major structure for passing the faith in most European countries). The Sunday school (now generally called the church school in most denominations) has continued to evolve but remains a solid part of congregational life.
   An initial World Sunday School Convention was held in London in 1889, out of which came the World's Sunday School Association, which evolved into the World Council of Christian Education in 1947. In 1971, the council merged into the World Council of Churches' Office of Education. The broad acceptance of the Sunday school and the acceptance of denominational responsibility for publishing Sunday school literature made the American Sunday School Union obsolete. In 1974, it reorganized as the American Missionary Fellowship and reoriented its program to the evangelizing of unchurched persons in the United States.
   Primitive Baptists rejected Sunday schools as an unbiblical modern innovation. A variety of Mennonite groups rejected them as well.
   Further reading:
   ■ Frank Booth, Robert Raikes of Gloucester (Surrey, U.K.: National Christian Education Council, 1980)
   ■ Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990)
   ■ John T. McFarland and Benjamin S. Winchester, eds., The Encyclopedia of Sunday Schools and Religious Education, 3 vols. (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1915)
   ■ Leon H. Vincent, John Heyl Vincent: A Biographical Sketch (New York: Macmillan, 1925)
   ■ Anne S. Wimberly, Soul Stories: African American Christian Education (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1994).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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