The History of the Sunday School Movement

The American Sunday school system was first initiated by Samuel Slater at his textile factories in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the 1790s. This marked the beginning of modern Sunday school, which was inspired by the work of Robert Raikes (1736-1781), a newspaper editor from Gloucester, England. Raikes believed that providing basic and religious education to young children, many of whom worked in factories every day except Sunday, could help deter them from a life of crime. In July 1780, Raikes opened the first Sunday school with the collaboration of the Anglican parish minister, although lay people were in charge.

Classes were held in the teachers' homes. After three years, Raikes wrote about Gloucester Sunday Schools in his newspaper and this aroused interest, leading to the system being copied throughout the British Isles. Although 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, 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.

In 1791, The Philadelphia Sunday School Union was organized as the first interdenominational Sunday school association in the United States. It was driven by a growing nationalist fervor and established its deepest roots in America's most established towns and cities. The crime rate among young people attending Sunday school dropped significantly, improving the safety of the overall community. Bible societies emerged at the end of the 19th century to facilitate international Christian dissemination and often made it their first task to obtain copies of the Holy Bible for every Sunday school student who wanted it and showed dedication to their study.

Teaching slaves became a unique consequence of the Sunday school movement in the United States, as Elliott's efforts inspired others in the antebellum South, such as Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury (1745—181), to establish schools for black slaves. Smith pointed out that no plan had promised to effect a change of habits with the same ease and simplicity as the moral-based literacy taught in 18th century Sunday school (Trumbull, 1888, p.).Sunday school became a way for unbelievers to learn about church life and then assimilate to it. Among the many male Sunday school teachers who enlisted in the service of their country was a Baptist from Ohio, Thomas Shaw, who fought for the Union Army. For many of us, Sunday school is a deep-seated tradition, although in reality it is a fairly modern institution.

Sunday school students often graduate to become Sunday school teachers, thus acquiring leadership experience not found anywhere else in their lives.

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.