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!


  1. says

    Can you possibly supply me with the name of the studies that you reference in your History of Sunday School, which find that where Sunday Schools are successful, the churches are growing?


  2. Linda Osborne says

    I think you are right, and many capable children are playing away in “nursery” settings rather than being fed the real meaning, message, and modeling of “church.” We are working on making a change at our church for exactly the excellent reasons you state. Thanks for the well stated agreement. Linda

  3. Debbie Hobbs says

    Very challenging article. I am a state representative. Yesterday, an education committee discussion centered on the culture of communities that have great poverty and the poor performance of the schools. Many looked to our education commissioner to fix broken communities and thereby improve education. Perhaps it is time to return to the early model of Sabbath school wherein our churches fill the vacuum of changing a culture and the schools return to educating.

  4. George says

    we as americans and Christians…need a revival in Sunday School ..Many times chieldren don’t always recieve Christian teaching in the home!…so…why not Sunday School?…Thanks…George…Tacoma WA…Suffer the little children to come unto me And forbid them not.(says the LORD)..draw near unto GOD and he will drea near unto us.

  5. Jeanne says

    I think Sunday School as it is currently being used, is not working. I think in many places it is a form of babysitting so that adults are not bothered by children. I see this as contradicting Jesus words to “let the children come to me and forbid them not” and contradicts God’s mandate in Deut. 6 to teach God’s commands to your children. Children learn from example. There are many good skills taught in church – how to sing and praise God, how to listen and sit quietly, how to amuse oneself quietly. Children are far more capable of learning about God and knowing Him. Psalm 8:2 says “out of the mouths of infants and children is my praise perfected to the tearing down of strongholds” In this day and age, it is clear we do not battle against flesh (Eph. 6:10) We need to unit in including children in our worship and training. Mentoring takes time, energy and creativity. That is how Jesus did it and is the model.

  6. Abino says

    Thank you for this history of Sunday School. I searched through many pages until i got here and found what i wanted! Really helpful.. Keep up the good work!!

  7. says

    For an excellent history of the teaching of both children and adults

    “Grounded in the Gospel” by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett

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