The History of Sunday School in America

The American Sunday school system has a long and interesting history. It was first initiated by Samuel Slater at his textile factories in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the 1790s. The English evangelical Anglican Robert Raikes (1725-181) was the main promoter of the movement, and it soon spread to the United States. Denominations and nondenominational organizations caught the vision and began vigorously creating Sunday schools.

Within a matter of decades, the movement had become extremely popular. In the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was an almost universal aspect of childhood. Even parents who didn't attend church regularly usually insisted that their children go to Sunday school. Working-class families were thankful for this opportunity to receive an education, as well as for the year's biggest events, such as award days, parades and picnics, which marked the calendar of their lives as much as the more traditional seasonal festivities. The approach was intentionally evangelical, so over the next 100 years, Sunday School became the main outreach branch of the church.

For many of us, Sunday school is a deep-seated tradition, although it's actually quite a modern institution. In Europe, since religious teaching was normally provided 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. Robert Raikes and Thomas Stock first established a Sunday school for the poor and orphans in Gloucester in 1780. After that, reading and writing were learned Monday through Friday in school and the Sunday school curriculum was limited to religious education. Sunday schools quickly became popular and effective because they were simple, they became a distraction for children and a means for parents to socially uplift the family as a whole. Sunday school also became an important center of social interaction for a class of children and parents who were rapidly moving away from small rural communities linked to large, overcrowded urban centers.

In the late 19th century, Sunday school was considered the main hope for church growth, a vision that continued until the middle of the 20th century. Sunday school became a way for unbelievers to learn about church life and then assimilate to it. Sunday school students often graduate to become Sunday school teachers, thus acquiring leadership experience not found anywhere else in their lives. Although religious education of various types was previously known in Christianity, the beginning of modern Sunday school dates back to the work of Robert Raikes (1736-1781), editor of newspapers from Gloucester, Eng. Even some Marxist historians have attributed the empowerment of the working classes to Sunday schools in the 19th century. Students were expected to attend school for four to five hours a week, and it was the only education most working-class children received. However, the tendency toward permissive parenting in the 1960s led to the abandonment of the widespread culture of insisting that children go to Sunday school whether they wanted to or not (especially when parents didn't go to church).

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.