By John Armistead
The Sunday School movement was almost a century old when Tom Sawyer disrupted his Sunday School class by “showing off” in an effort to win Amy Lawrence’s “loving gaze” in Mark Twain’s 1876 classic. The class’ teacher, like most Sunday School teachers before the Civil War, was a man, “a grave, elderly man,” in fact.
By the close of the century, however, the task of working with children in Sunday School was more and more relegated to women. It was not so in the beginning.
Robert Raikes (1736-1811), a newspaper publisher in Gloucester, England, is credited with being a principal influence in getting the modern Sunday School movement under way. A keen interest in prison reform led Raikes to the idea that young children (especially those of the poor) could be steered away from lives of crime if they were given a solid religious education. Most of these children worked in factories every day except Sunday.
In 1780, Raikes opened the first of his “Ragged Schools.” His goal was not only to teach the children about religion, but to teach them to read and write as well. Sunday was the only day the children were free for such instruction.
The teachers were lay people, and classes were usually held in the teachers’ homes. Most of the teachers, especially of the boys, were men.
In spite of opposition (some church officials thought the schools interfered with the observance of Sunday, and others thought if the poor learned to read they might take part in a revolution), the concept spread. By the time Raikes died in 1811, over 500,000 children in the British Isles were enrolled in Sunday Schools.
The movement never gained much ground in Europe, probably because religious instruction traditionally was included in the curricula of state schools. However, in the United States where there was an emphasis on separation of church and state, the movement found fertile ground. After the Revolutionary War, Sunday Schools blossomed in all denominations. In 1824 the American Sunday School Union was formed, and its missionaries planted schools throughout the country. By the close of the 19th century, most U.S. Protestant denominations offered some type of Bible study program designed for children.
The most famous American evangelist of the 19th century, D.L. Moody, began his ministry as a Sunday School teacher of a boys’ class. Moody, a shoe clerk at the time, had been converted to Christ by his own Sunday School teacher.