The History of Sunday School: From Robert Raikes to the Present Day

The first recorded Sunday school opened in 1751 at St. Mary's Church in Nottingham, England. This was the beginning of modern Sunday school, and it was the work of Robert Raikes (1736-1781), editor of newspapers from Gloucester, Eng. He believed that young children, many of whom worked in factories every day except Sunday, could be deterred from a life of crime if they received basic and religious education on Sundays.

The first school was opened in 1780 with the collaboration of the Anglican parish minister, although lay people were in charge. The classes were held in the teachers' homes. After three years, Raikes's writings about Sunday schools in Gloucester in his newspaper aroused interest and the system was copied throughout the British Isles. Some church officials opposed schools because they thought teaching interfered with the proper observance of Sunday, and others didn't believe in educating the poor because that could lead to revolution. However, over time, Sunday schools became closely associated with churches. When Raikes died, 31 years after the first school opened, some 500,000 children from the British Isles were reported to be attending Sunday schools.

Sunday schools were originally schools where poor children could learn to read. The Sunday School movement began in Great Britain in the 1780s due to the Industrial Revolution causing many children to spend the whole week working in factories. Christian philanthropists wanted to free these children from a life of illiteracy. Even parents who didn't attend church regularly usually insisted that their children go to Sunday school. Sunday school, also called church school or Christian education, is religious education usually for children and young people and is usually part of a church or parish.

Generally, Roman Catholics have not adopted the Sunday school system, but have provided religious instruction along with general education in their own church-affiliated schools. Sunday school was only part of reformers' efforts to improve the lives and morale of children during this period, along with public schools, orphanages and reform schools. However, in Europe, since religious teaching was normally taught in regular schools, Sunday schools were not as important as they were in the United States, where the separation of church and state prohibited religious teaching in public schools. The teaching schedule follows the school year, and holiday Bible (or religious) schools are held for one or two weeks during the summer. Sunday school teachers lobbied for the expansion of free public schools, freeing them from the responsibility of teaching children to read. However, many parents still believed that regular Sunday school attendance was an essential component of childhood.

One of my favorite observations about Sunday School is that there is an answer to every question in Sunday School that can never be wrong. The tendency toward permissive parenting in the 1960s led to a decrease in parents insisting that their children go to Sunday school whether they wanted to or not (especially when parents didn't go to church). Despite this shift away from traditional values, many students still graduate from Sunday school to become teachers themselves, thus acquiring leadership experience not found anywhere else in their lives. The Philadelphia Sunday School Union, the first interdenominational Sunday school association in the United States, was organized in 1791. Denominations and nondenominational organizations caught on quickly and began vigorously creating Sunday schools. In the late 19th century, Sunday schools focused on molding children to be good Christians instead of saving them from sin through conversion. Today's Sunday schools are still a popular way for children and young people to learn about Christianity and gain leadership skills.

Although attendance is no longer mandatory for most families, many parents still believe that regular attendance is an essential part of childhood development.

Terence Wedgeworth
Terence Wedgeworth

I love the Bible and love sharing God's truth with others! I dream of being a full-time evangelist, but for now it's Bible college and blogging for me. I also teach 4th grade Sunday School at my church. Click here to see my kids Bible lessons.