May 16, 2016

Who Invented Sunday School?

by Clint Archer

Robert Raikes was born in Gloucester, 1736. He became a Christian as a young boy, and at the age of 21 inherited his father’s publishing business. Many boys in the UK at that time were so poor that they had to work in dangerous coal mines from as young as 4 years old. Those who were too weak or scared to work in the dark were interned in a prison-like poor house or turned to crime, as exposed by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

Robert RaikesRobert Raikes was challenged by Scriptures referring to children, such as Matt 10: 42 … whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Raikes believed that education was the silver bullet that would prevent children being trapped in a life of poverty and crime. He committed to teach as many children as he could how to read and write, do basic arithmetic, and about Jesus and the gospel.

The problem was that the minor miners and factory workers labored six days a week 12-16 hours a day. The only time off they had was Sunday when the mines and factories were closed. So, Raikes invented something he called “Sunday School.” Every Sunday he offered free courses in literacy and numeracy. The text book he used was the Bible.

As the movement grew, he kept the education free by enlisting Christian volunteers who would give their time between morning and evening church services to teach the children. These sacrificial and dedicated men and women did this free every Sunday, often on a rotation with other volunteers. Raikes also used the newspapers he published to advertise the Sunday Schools, and within two years there were dozens of similar programs popping up all over.

The original schedule Raikes assigned was, in his words:

The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.”

Apparently kids were noisy in those days. Imagine that.

As is common in church life, there was opposition to the movement from some within the churches. One objection was that it would make parents lazy to teach their children the gospel at home since they knew the kids were learning the Bible, prayer, and the gospel at these schools. Another objection was that the teachers were working on a Sunday, which was viewed as Sabbath breaking! Interestingly, no one seemed to care that pastors had to work on Sundays! Just saying.Raikes tombstone

Another objection was that the schools were proving so good at teaching the children about Jesus that they posed a threat to the political stability of the country if the movement got used for political propaganda.

But Adam Smith offered this commendation:

No plan has promised to effect a change of manners with equal ease and simplicity since the days of the Apostles.”

By 1831, Sunday Schools were teaching a quarter of all children in the UK, numbering 1,250,000 children per week.

The movement spilled over into the USA where it soon became a universal aspect of the childhood of nearly all children, rich or poor in all 50 states. To this day Sunday School is still considered one of the best ways to ground children in the truth of Scripture, to expose them to the gospel, and to teach them how to conduct themselves in the family, society, and the church.

Our church takes this legacy seriously. We are happy to be part of this heritage. Next week Monday I’ll share my notes from a talk I gave to your Sunday School teachers.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Todd

    Extremely helpful Clint!!! I have been wondering why we do certain things the way we do in our local church. Thank you so much!!!

  • Johnny

    It can be difficult to find good Sunday school teachers for the kids. I’m very happy with one we have now who is working through the WCF with the class.

  • Still Waters

    I knew of the educational origin of Sunday Schools, which is part of the reason why I question their usefulness now. Most of the Sunday School curriculums I’ve encountered are a) geared towards entertainment, not education, and/or b) give random moralistic lessons based loosely on Scripture. A recent example of point b that I came across was a very orthodox curriculum teaching about David and how he helped Mephibosheth. The story concluded with words to this effect, ‘…and David was always kind to people and helped them.’ My thought was, when the child reads the Biblical account of David’s life after hearing that lesson will be in for a shock.

  • Ahasuerus Christian

    Children like adults need the gospel Taught in the power of the Spirit. Mothers are great for in home study, but in the assembly of saints, gifted men should lead the teaching as God ordained. It frustrates me that children are pit in front of the church, who do not believe, and are applauded for cute songs and scripture. We worship God’s way by exalting Christ, not for cuteness and to “get people involved”, but to glorify Him so that others mat be saved and unburdened. I’m pressing for biblical worship that keeps women quiet in public, mighty in the home, and I’ll rejoice with any converted child who confesses Christ, but let everything be done decently and in order.

  • Pingback: Who Invented Sunday School? | Prisoner of Christ()

  • Starrocks923

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to print this and share it with a few church friends who teach Sunday School classes. They might find it useful. 🙂

  • David Bivens

    This is interesting, sounds very reasonable and helpful, yet I am sure you are aware of the movement toward family integrated services. I do not attend a church with that particular persuasion, but I have read and studied their insight into the Sunday School movement and seems to me they have merit. Not to say I am convinced all Sunday Schools are not useful, and no room here to go into an explanation of what and why a Sunday School might not in all cases be considered Biblical Worship. I am of the persuasion that there is enough merit from family integrated circles that their views should also be presented and much consideration made upon their premise.

    (The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.) Proverbs 18:17 ESV