Short History of the Sunday school


The following short history of the Sunday school was compiled by students in Keith Drury’s “Local Church Education” course at Indiana Wesleyan University over the years 1996-2010.[1]    


Robert Raikes, Glochester, England—1780’s

At the dawning of the industrial era in the late 1700’s (about the time of the United States Revolutionary war) England had a large underclass of poor people who had moved from the countryside to the city to work in “factories.” There was at least one factory in Glochester that manufactured pins. Children as young as eight years old worked six days a week in gruesome surroundings for a pittance. When their tiny hands (which helped them as workers) got caught in the machinery and got cut off, the children were simply dumped on the streets and new workers were hired. There was no free schooling at this time. Education was considered a family (not a communal) purchase—if you had enough money, you sent your children to school. If you were poor, your children did not learn to read and write, and were probably destined to a life of poverty so they couldn’t even read. In the growing factory society the poor never seemed able to rise out of their abject poverty. 


Sunday was the one these children got off. Many blew off steam wandering around the town breaking windows and robbing homes while the upscale parishioners attended church. The street urchins of the day survived miserable conditions at work and learned how to be pickpockets and thieves at a young age. There was no way out of the poverty cycle for these children.


These “gangs” of street urchins sparked a vision and burden in Robert Raikes. He saw their lack of education, their dead end life of poverty, and their turning to crime as something Christian folk should be concerned about so he got an idea. His idea was simple: why not start a school on Sundays for these poor children where good Christian people would teach them to read and write, teach them the Ten Commandments, and instruct them in moral living? Maybe with a basic education they might be able to escape their dreadful life.


So Raikes started a “Sunday school” for these poor children. Their parents could not pay for school like other better-off people could so Raikes paid for the first school himself—and recruited others to contribute. He became obsessed with reforming the morals of the poor children and the “lower class.”  In 1780 (or maybe 1781) he started this first Sunday school and paid the teacher himself.  She quit soon after but he hired others. Since he was a printer, Raikes published large sheets with the Ten Commandments and other Scripture verses on them so the children could use them for his double-duty aim of learning to read and write—and at the same time learning moral principles to live by. These printed sheet were in a sense the first “Sunday school curriculum.”  Raikes was a devout member of the Church of England.


The idea spreads—London, 1785

Once newspapers got a hold of the story, the idea spread to other cities. By 1785 Baptist William Fox organized a nationwide society to promote the Sunday school in Great Britain. He observed that it was embarrassing that Christians would show so much concern for the “heathen” of other lands but ignore the poor in their own country. The idea quickly caught on and Christians all across England began starting “Sunday schools” for the poor. By 1811 there were more then 400,000 children in these Sunday schools in England. Just 20 years later (1831) England had more than a million children enrolled in Sunday school.


The Quakers in Philadelphia—1790

Just seven years after the end of the Revolutionary War, a group of Philadelphia Quakers founded their “First Day Society and started to teach “the offsprings of indigent parents” every Sunday. They based their design on Quaker George Fox’s plan in England, but kept that quiet since following the Revolutionary War Americans weren’t inclined to copy anything from their former “oppressor.”  From that First Day school grew an entire common school system for children of the poor. The schools were supported by more than just Quakers. This was an interdenominational ecumenical effort getting support from laity as varied as Dr. Benjamin Rush (Universalist), Mathew Garey (Roman Catholic) and (Protestant) Episcopal Bishop William White.  This interdenominational effort was an early example of a pluralistic approach to educating the poor. Eventually the Sunday school would gravitate toward Protestantism in general and evangelicals in particular, and in fact eventually every denomination would have their own Sunday school but at its early stage the movement was interdenominational.


Isabella Graham & Joanna  Bethune in New York—1816

Isabella Graham yearned for revival and collected sermons and articles about revival in England and shared them with her New York friends which spawned a small group that included her married daughter, Joanna Bethune. This gathering of women prayed and chatted about revival until eventually, in 1816, they founded “Female Union for the Promotion of Sabbath Schools in New York City borrowing the constitution for the elaborately named group from England’s Bristol Sunday School Union. In this day when women could not vote and were considered “pushy” if they sought leadership, these women launched a New York movement that led to planting Sunday schools and simultaneously became a way of empowering women. Working with children was one of the few ways woman could lead in most churches at the time.


Opposition from ministers

Opposition arose quickly to Graham and Bethune and their idea of starting Sunday schools. The idea of holding classes on Sunday was called Sabbath-breaking. Isabella’s husband encouraged her not to wait for the male pastors to get aboard but simply start with the women—which is why the word “Female” got into the title of her organization. Meanwhile her husband organized the New York Sunday School Union which tapped male givers who couldn’t bring themselves to support the women’s group. This mother-daughter team faced typical opposition from established pastors (especially the prominent role of women in the movement). For instance, in 1817 in Medway, Massachusetts when the minister and deacons were opposing the women’s idea of starting a Sunday school one male leader complained, “These young folk are taking too much upon themselves.” Others said “These women will be in the pulpit next.[2]


Spreading Sunday schools in the east.

In the first few decades of the 1800s the Sunday school movement spread across east coast cities with dozens of leaders like Isabella and Joanna and a collection of men—mostly laity. Ministers eventually grudgingly accepted the Sunday school—even women teachers—and soon most populated towns had a nondenominational school for children that was especially focused on the poor.  The movement was mostly led by women—many of them young women, though an increasing number of lay men got on board too as they saw the value to the developing nation. Shrugging off criticism and opposition these people planted schools and educated the poor, teaching them to read and write and used their curriculum the Bible and the Ten Commandments. They intended to change the coming generation by raising up moral adults who could escape poverty through education, and would became solid honorable Christian citizens by learning the Bible and moral principles.


Lewis & Clark and the Sunday school

But the attention of the nation was now focusing on the West. Lewis and Clark had successfully made a journey to the Pacific Ocean and returned in 1806. Young couples (and some older ones) felt a yearning to leave the eastern organized states and head west to the rich new territories described by Lewis and Clark.  When the two New York women founded their organization in 1816 only four states had been added to the original 13 states. These were Vermont (1791), Kentucky (formed in 1792 as a split from Virginia), Tennessee (formed in 1796 on land donated by North Carolina) and Ohio (formed with land donated by several East cost states). The “rest of the West” was made up of territories still unorganized as states.


A growing burden for the untamed west

Young couples who wanted their own farmland were packing up wagons and heading into these new rich lands to carve out their own homesteads. Stories of this “wild western frontier” (in places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Arkansas) drifted back to the east coast—stories of “wild unruly people” where children had no schools and the sparsely settled communities were served only by trading post, a tavern and a whorehouse. Youngsters raised in this wild land had no Sunday schools, could not read, and had little moral training. The East coast Sunday school movement quickly sensed a burden for these Western lands and thus morphed from a local missionary movement to a sent-out movement—their goal became to send out Sunday school missionaries “across the Appalachian mountains” into the west. This missionary movement provides some of the most inspiring stories of the spread of the Sunday school movement


Sunday school missionaries go west—1830-1860

In 1824 in Philadelphia, a new organization was organized that collected together the fragments of local Sunday school movements, the “American Sunday School Union.”  Just six years after organizing, in 1830 this Union launched an astounding program to establish a Sunday school in every destitute place in the Mississippi valley—the lands which drained into the Mississippi River, and they planned to do so within two years.  The Mississippi valley to them meant everything west of Harrisburg Pennsylvania to the Rocky Mountains—a gutsy undertaking. The union had only three full time workers and the huge missionary endeavor was to be accomplished by mostly volunteer workers. 


Multiple SS Unions are born

Seldom in American can one organization represent everyone, so other Unions sprang up dedicated to the same task. Eventually at least five organizations were committed to spread Sunday schools into the west and eventually most Western areas even had their own Sunday school union. The movement to educate the children in the west would need books and Bibles—for both were rare in the west.  The newly formed American Bible society got on board and printed print tons of Bibles and the newly formed American Tract Society printed more then 2 million books and pamphlets.  The “union idea” prevailed among all these organizations: Sunday school missionaries would raise their own support and head west to establish non-denominational Sunday schools that focused on areas of agreement between the various denominations—the core truths that were held by all denominations. These “Sunday school workers” or “agents” used the Bibles and books supplied free and they would plant Sunday schools in “every destitute place” in the Mississippi Valley.  Their goal was to bring every child and youth under the influence of the gospel without arguments over baptism, and other issues where denominations disagreed.


Opposition and suspicion

There were detractors of this movement of course. Most of the lay leadership of The Union was Presbyterian and non-Presbyterians worried that the movement might be a plot to bring the western youth into Presbyterianism under the guise of a non-denominational movement. European immigrants could find little land to farm on the east coast so they quickly re-migrated to the west. Many were Catholics so some Catholic leaders saw the Sunday school movement as a Protestant plot to capture the Catholic youth of the west. Politicians got into the act too. Most of the Sunday school workers were conservatives—members of the Whig party, and the Democrats worried that the whole movement might be a plot to convert western youth into political conservatives.  Some politicians from the west resented the description of their people as “unruly barbarian mobs” and their land as “destitute places.” But these missionaries forged on and planted Sunday schools anyway.


Gaining steam in the west

The movement to plant Sunday schools in the west gained a might head of steam in spite of these suspicions. In 1831 a large gathering of senators and congressmen gathered to discuss the movement and gave their support to it—some even serving as officers in the Sunday school union. The movement was unstoppable. At the grass roots, the volunteer Sunday school missionaries had no doubt about their goal: to “Christianize America so America can Christianize the world.” Volunteers—many of them women—stepped up to travel by foot from the eastern towns to the rough western lands to organize a Sunday school in every village and town. Women traveled down the Ohio River to Pittsburg then walked by foot into Ohio and Indiana to organize schools in these new territories.  They went from farm to farm recruiting children to come once a week on Sunday to learn to read and write and to study the Bible. Many of these women were single and later settled down in the community and became the only school teacher in the community—long before there were “one room school houses.” The rest traveled form town to town as itinerant missionaries, founding a Sunday school, training local people to lead it after they were gone, then they moved on and returning later to check up on their fledgling Sunday schools in apostolic fashion.


Take no horse—horses eat but cannot talk

The Sunday school missionaries were urged to not use a horse but to walk from village to village. In their instructions they were told that a horse would tempt them to go too fast and besides, the missionary is generally welcome, because s/he can talk as well as eat but the horse can only eat.  Pioneer families hungry for news invited these missionaries to stay with them and before long the missionary was opening their satchel of books and Bibles to sell or give away. They quickly rounded up children and youth for their new Sunday school and parents were gratified that their children were learning to read and write even if they also got moral and biblical training along with these skills.


John McCallagh

A Scottish immigrant, John McCallagh was a typical male Sunday school agent. He went to the Kentucky hills and became known as the “Sunday school man of the South.”  He was a blunt and rough man but was intent on starting Sunday school throughout the Kentucky hills where there were few churches. McCallagh wandered about looking for young people who would listen to his gospel story and when he had a group of them he organized a Sunday school then moved on to another community before doubling back to check up the schools he had founded. These traveling missionaries often returned to the east to raise their support periodically and became popular speakers at the large Sunday school conventions in the east. Some conventions raised more then $5000 in one day for new efforts. In theory a Sunday school agent was to receive a salary of one dollar a day, but most (especially the women agents) lived on much less and survived on the hospitality of local folk. Many raised their own support by selling books which soon provided the core for the first libraries in the western communities. Some of the single women agents found husbands in the western villages and settled down to lead a single Sunday school in their own newly adopted town.


Steven Paxson

Probably the most famous Sunday school missionary was Stephen Paxson. An unlearned and irreligious man who lived on the prairie in Illinois, his daughter persuaded him to attend one of the Sunday morning classes and while there he was converted. Paxton learned how to read and write and by the mid 1800s began riding his faithful horse “Raikes” to become a “traveling Bishop” of the region, organizing Sunday schools across Illinois and neighboring states. He carried news from one settlement to another, sold books, gave away Bibles and organized more than 1200 Sunday schools, many of which eventually grew into churches. Paxson’s strategy had five steps: “A few papers and books, gather the children, the parents follow, then a prayer meeting, then a preacher.”


Many unnamed women

Fewer names of the host of women agents have survived but there were many. Weary of eastern towns these women felt called to become Sunday school missionaries.  Often with another woman (and often against their family’s wishes) they gathered books and Bibles and headed west by boat then on foot to the communities of Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois. Walking along the route like Johnnie Appleseed, they spread their Bibles and books and gathered children to teach them about God and how to read and write. They slept on floors in rustic cabins, in barns and sometimes along the roadside which struck fear in the hearts of their parents and relatives back east when they told about it in their letters home. When they arrived in a settlement with a dozen families they often settled down and taught the children and youth weekly. Sometimes they married one of the local single men. Others never got married and moved on to nearby settlements to do it all over again. Their names were mostly lost when their eastern families tossed out their letters that had been stored in attics years later, but they left behind thousands of Sunday schools strung across the “western territories” of  Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and neighboring states.


Urban and African American Sunday schools

Everything the Sunday school agents attempted did not turn out as well as the western [Mississippi River] “Valley Campaign.”   The Sunday school movement was supported by generous philanthropy—especially from wealthy easterners. Just seven years after launching their “Mississippi valley campaign” the panic of 1837 broke loose. Of the 850 banks in the United States at the time, 343 collapsed entirely, and another 62 failed partially. Many lost their life savings completely in the ensuing depression.  This panic and depression hit all money-raising organizations hard and the effect on the Sunday School Union was crippling. Poor immigrants from Europe flooded America’s east coast and filled up the urban areas. Some saw the need of this “mission field on our doorstep” but it never had the romance of the western mission so they labored with less support and their names are now lost. Others specialized in starting Sunday schools among African-Americans but they were vehemently opposed by most southern by slave-holders who thought that teaching slaves to read and write would generate rebellion and “uppity hopes” in their slaves. Their suspicion was fed by the slave rebellions of the 1830’s since the leader, Nat Turner, was chiefly educated in a Sunday school. Still, missionaries tried and many succeeded so that an increasing number of slaves and free slaves learned to read and write. The Civil war was looming and the country was increasingly divided. However the movement had succeeded in spreading Sunday schools across the entire Mississippi Valley. Most settlements of a few dozen families had a Sunday school and the enormous “Valley Campaign” dream had largely been realized.


The Sunday Schooling of America

Sunday school was an idea whose time had come. By 1832 there were more than 8000 Sunday schools. The idea spread so fast that by 1875 there were more than 65,000 schools, By 1889 there were ten million children in American Sunday schools and it was performing the heavy task of public education, sponsored by Christians our of their own pockets. The idea was so powerful that soon governments got into the act.


The “Schoolmarm” and public education

Sunday school often was the precursor to the arrival of the schoolmarm. When a community had an operating Sunday school staffed by volunteers they eventually saw the need for more education than just the Sunday morning classes. Their farms were doing better and their children could now be released for learning. Communities were developing and now they even had a sheriff, and several dry goods stores. Families wanted more education for their children than the Sunday school could provide. Their community was becoming a “proper town.”  Families banded together as a community to recruit a permanent teacher who could teach their children through the week, not just on Sundays. Sometimes this was the local Sunday school teacher and at other times they “sent back east”: for a schoolmarm. The Sunday school thus provided the kick-start for the development of “one room schoolhouse” which followed the Sunday school’s pioneering work. The Schoolmarm (almost always a single woman from the east) taught all week but generally had the same aim as the Sunday school: teaching reading and writing and arithmetic in order to make solid Christian citizens of the coming generation. Many of the “common schools” in Indiana started first with a Sunday school planted by a Union worker then later developed into the one room schoolhouse staffed by a schoolmarm the community had pitched in to pay for.  The ministry of the Sunday school and the public “common school” so overlapped for the next few decades so that by 1858 the American Union was selling hundreds of thousands of its spelling books to both Sunday schools and public common schools as if they were doing the same thing. They were.



Books were rare in the western settlements. Families were absorbed in the hard task of cutting down trees to clear the land, building cabins, breaking the land, plowing the fields, and bringing in their crops. In packing for their migration west there was little room for books—a plow was more important than a book for their survival. But once they began to thrive they hungered for books. Besides the supply of tracts and Bibles, the Sunday school agents carried Union catalogs offering a “Sunday school library” for a community. Ten or twenty families in a settlement would pitch in to purchase their own community lending library taking turns rotating the books—these became first public libraries in many settlements. By 1859 there were 50,000 libraries in America, 30,000 of them were Sunday school libraries!


From Sunday school to church

By the dawning of the Civil War in 1860 many western settlements had grown into communities, then towns and some into cities. First came the early pioneers seeking land to farm. When enough farms were established in an area a settlement arose—usually offering a trading post, and maybe a tavern. Then came the Sunday school agents and a Sunday school was founded. As the population increased “dry goods” shops were constructed and eventually the town organized and elected a sheriff and brought in a schoolmarm after building a one room schoolhouse. Itinerant preachers wandered as “circuit riders” on the fashion of the Sunday school agents and baptized and performed weddings along with holding periodic worship services. The first worship gatherings met in homes but eventually several families banded together to construct a little church building in town. Not able to afford their own full time minister they often shared one with neighboring communities. The circuit rider might serve four or five or ten such communities. It made complete sense that the Sunday school should now move into their church building. Now they offered “Sunday school and worship”—in one church for the entire town. When the town got large enough to support their own minister they took one from whatever denomination would supply one.


From church to churches

If this first church was pastored by a Methodist the typical American “brand competitiveness” soon arose. Some of the town’s people considered themselves Presbyterians or Baptists and refused to attend a Methodist congregation. Others attended but only “until we get our own church.” If the first church was Methodist eventually a second church would be constructed and the Baptists got their own pastor and now there were two churches. This continued until the town (perhaps now proclaiming themselves a “city”) offered five churches of various denominations. This made sense to the growing population—they had ten different dry goods stores competing for their business in their downtown and now had five different churches too—they offered something for everybody’s tastes. They considered themselves a proper city now—with all the expected choices Americans expect.


Denominations absorb the Sunday school

So long as a town had only one church the location of the Sunday school was obvious—it should be held in the single church. But what would they do when they had two churches, or six or ten?  Would the Presbyterians and Baptists send the children to the Methodist Sunday school or start their own? Their answer was, “If five churches are better then one, then five Sunday schools are better too.”  Thus, the era of Sunday school as a parachurch interdenominational movement ended. Local churches absorbed the Sunday school and made it a part of their own outreach to children and youth.  In the late 1800s (after the Civil war) denominations began to organize their own Sunday school societies and boards and began publishing their own resources.


Public schools absorb education

The original Sunday school movement was two-pronged in focus: education and Christian education. It sought to teach reading and writing while at the same time presenting the gospel and moral education. With the arrival of the one room schoolhouse the task of general education was absorbed by the “common school” leaving the Sunday schools in churches to focus more on moral education. As communities grew they built more schoolhouses within traveling distance of their people until eventually many of these schoolhouses existed and eventually even these were “consolidated” into “graded schools”—with students divided into classes of similar ages (first grade, second grade etc.). Some states resisted taxing their populace to pay for public education and simply named their state’s volunteer-led Sunday schools as the public school system for the state. But eventually public education prevailed and took on the full task of education leaving the Christian education and spiritual formation to the various churches’ Sunday schools. While the public schools (until the 1950’s) still also attempted some moral (even Christian) education, the Sunday school gradually lost its literacy aim and refocused primarily on the spiritual goals of making moral Christians. However the public school’s spiritual aims diminished slowly. In the 1950’s virtually every day of public school began with reading from the Bible and the Lord’s Prayer and even the Ten Commandments were often prominently posted on the walls of classrooms.   As the “Christian consensus” eroded in the nation these practices disappeared and what resulted is today’s division of labor: The public schools handle education and the Sunday school handles Christian education.


Christian schools & Home schooling

However, not all Christians were permanently satisfied with this division of labor—the public schools doing the education while Sunday schools doing the Christian education. Many thought education ought to be integrated with faith and thus arithmetic and history and science should be taught “from a Christian perspective” and not be drained of all religious significance. By the 1970s’ these Christians began founding “Christian Schools” as a parallel and competing program with the public schools. Some denominations had always taken this route—most prominently Lutherans and Roman Catholics, now evangelicals got on board. Many Christians withdrew from the public schools and started attending their own church-sponsored (or undenominational and collaborative) Christian schools. Some traditional ministers opposed this movement too at first arguing that “if you take all the salt and light out of the public schools what will happen to them?” But the movement grew. There are now about 4 million students attending religious schools, about one in twelve of all students in the USA. The Christian school movement might be considered a reincarnation of the old Sunday school—focusing on both education and Christian education in an integrated way, like Christian colleges do. A more recent phenomenon has been the rise of Home schooling which is related to but different than Christian schools and can likewise be seen as a re-emergence of the old idea of the first Sunday schools, thought it would be hard to argue that either of these approaches have done much to educate the poor.


Where to from here?

The Sunday school has fallen on hard times recently. In the 1980’s many pastors saw the Sunday school as an antique that needed to be gotten rid of like other old fashioned programs like prayer meetings and Sunday evening services. As churches went to multiple worship services an increasing number of parents sent their kids to Sunday school as a baby sitting service while they attended worship—then after an hour they all went home. Some clergy resented lay teachers presiding over their own little flock in Sunday school classes and competed with them—hoping they would die out. In the 1980’s and 1990’s small groups were introduced as a candidate to kill the Sunday school though they have still not yet eclipsed the Sunday school.  As churches constructed new buildings the high cost of classroom space caused many to reduce the number of classrooms and others to eliminate classes altogether and go to all-worship programs. When an increasing number of lawsuits were filed for sexual abuse of children related to churches, boards started reorganizing small classes into larger and larger gatherings where 40 or 60 or even 100 children attended mass “classes” that became more like worship services, Sesame Street performances or concerts than the intimate small groups of children with a teacher-who-knew-their-name of the past.  But another thing changed in the 1960’s. Until the mid 1960’s the first question parents always asked their children after church was, “What did you learn in Sunday school?” IN the 1960’s and 70’s this question changed: Parents now ask their children at the door of the classrooms, “Did you have fun?” Perhaps more than any other shift, this changed question has affected the content and direction of today’s Sunday schools.


Yet the Sunday school is a battered survivor.[3]  

The Sunday school still holds the very best time slot of the week—the hour before or after Sunday worship. Small groups are effective but they have yet to rival what the Sunday school already does even in its battered condition. Few small groups programs have ever figured out how to adequately perform Christian education for children. Millions of children and adults gather every single week in smaller classes to learn abut God and apply the Bible to their lives. They may be getting a poor Christian education—but it is still better than anything else offered by any other program. Well, maybe there is one exception—Christian schools take a more serious approach to what the Sunday school was started to do—providing a dual function of education along with moral training. But Christian schools are decidedly not for poor children. They are mostly limited to middle and upper class Christians who pay a handsome fee to educate their children (while also paying taxes to support the public schools). In the 1950s’ churches ran busses all around their towns collecting children for Sunday school. These programs really tried to help the poor and unchurched. But busses are gone for most churches and Sunday school programs today are mostly for the church kids—a program designed to baby sit children and teach them a few Bible stories and songs while their parents attend worship.


The question we’re asking…

We ask, “What would it be like if the church got a burden again like Robert Raikes?” What if we cared for the poor and illiterate and tried to educate them again—out of our own pockets? Is it time for the old Sunday school movement to become the new one? Will we keep the narrow focus of Sunday school to baby sitting our own kids and teaching them a few songs and stories until we’re ready to go home ourselves? Or could we reinvent the Sunday school by returning to its roots—offering literacy and moral education to the poor—for free? Do Christians care enough to do that?



Research and original writing by Students in the “Local Church Education” course at Indiana Wesleyan University. Revised, expanded and edited by Keith Drury, Associate professor of Religion, IWU.


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Keith Drury   March 30, 2010



[1] These stories of the Sunday school were collected and written over the years by Indiana Wesleyan University students in the course “Local Church Education. One little book (now out of print) should receive great affirmation and credit for many of the ideas and stories: The Big Little School—200 years of the Sunday School, by Robert L. Lynn and Elliott Wright (1971, Abingdon). And we want to thank our professor, Keith Drury for editing and revising our work.

[2] George Bethume, Memoirs of Mrs. Joanna Bethune (Harper, 1863) p. 120

[3] Based on Sunday School: Battered Survivor, by Martin Marty in Christian Century June 4-11, 1980, pp. 634-636