The Origin of Sunday "Schools"

Did you know that Sunday School began as a way to teach poor children living in the slums of England how to read and write? Sunday schools began during the Industrial Revolution before working hours in factories, mills, and sweatshops were regulated. Actually, it wasn't until 1802 that working hours were restricted to twelve hours a day, which meant that before then, adults and children alike often worked more than thirteen hours a day, six days a week, with their only day off being Sunday. It was Robert Raikes, owner of the "Gloucester Journal," who upon visiting the local communities where he saw slum children fighting and pick-pocketing in the streets, decided to open a school on Sundays in order to prevent illiteracy and reduce crime. With many of the kids' parents either in prison or dead, and with no one to teach them, Raikes set his goal on preparing the next generation for a better society. To that end, Raikes introduced reading, writing, and spelling into one long Sunday session, with hymn singing, prayer, and lessons on Christian morality and virtue taught in a second session. Also noting that the children came dirty and in ragged clothes, he cleaned them up and included good hygiene and citizenship into their curriculum. The Bible was the primary textbook. Not only was it used for learning to read, but the children also copied passages from Scripture in order to learn writing. Hopefully, during the process they would internalize what they were reading and writing, and thus become better individuals. The Sunday School movement quickly spread to the U.S., where clergymen and churches also caught the vision.

By 1895 the Society for the Establishment and Promotion of Sunday Schools had begun. Soon, enough denominational and non-denominational churches had subscribed that there was funding for buildings large enough to house several classrooms and lecture halls. Now, not only children could attend, but poor adults were welcomed right alongside the children, as both needed literacy instruction.

It was the working class that needed empowerment. The wealthy educated their children privately with hired governesses or tutors. Older boys were sent to boarding schools, while girls (if permitted) could learn from the books housed in their fathers' libraries. As for the town-based middle class, those parents sent their sons to grammar schools, while their daughters learned by working beside their mothers, learning to cook and sew and generally manage the household. It wasn't until the 1870s when compulsory state education was established, that the Sunday School curriculum began to be limited to religious education.


Connie M.

Retired English Professor and published author, writer, & editor

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