A Brief History of Sunday School

For many of us, Sunday school is a deeply rooted tradition, although it is actually a rather modern institution. Have you ever wondered about the origins and history of Sunday school? If so, here are a few facts you may find interesting.

The idea of a “Sabbath school” for poor and uneducated children began in England in the late 18th century. Visionary evangelicals like Robert Raikes devised a plan to gather poor, uneducated working children into education classes on Sundays, the children’s only day off. Clean clothes and learning materials were provided, and instruction given in reading, writing, hygiene and good citizenship. The churches hoped that this effort would serve the dual purpose of bettering the future of society and curbing the rampant delinquency.  Though neither evangelism nor religious training were the expressed goals of the new schools, there was the hope that the morality taught, being based on the truths of Scripture, might bring about a transformation in the hearts of the children. And so the Sabbath or Sunday school was born.

By the early 1800’s, the goals of the Sunday schools were changing. Young, newly converted Presbyterians saw the Sunday School as an opportunity to teach the gospel and doctrine to children; in fact, many Sunday School leaders began to lobby for free public schools for the needy, so that they could concentrate on religious instruction. The regeneration and conversion of children now became the goal. As this focus grew, Sunday school students were often encouraged to memorize large portions of the Bible, earning prizes and incentives for doing so. This idea was dropped when it was realized that the students were more interested in the prizes than in God’s word!

In America, the first national Sunday School effort began in 1824; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize and civilize. The focus was intentionally evangelical, and so within the next 100 years the Sunday School had become the primary outreach arm of the church. The Sunday School organization now expanded to include all ages. Sunday School became a way for unbelievers to be introduced to, and then assimilated into, the life of the church. By the late 1800’s, Sunday School was looked to as the main hope for church growth, a view that continued until the mid-twentieth century.

Sunday School attendance has seen a slow decline in the last 50 or so years. One factor generally agreed to be a reason for this is the shift away from evangelism and toward discipleship and fellowship over the last half century or so. Studies do indicate that where Sunday Schools are thriving and growing, church membership increases.

The idea of Sunday School as a primary opportunity for evangelism may be new to some of us. Is it possible that a return to that model could help revitalize our churches? Has Sunday School attendance declined in your church, or is it thriving? One thing is certain, much has changed since the idea of a Sunday school for the reform of unruly street children was first envisioned!