The roots of Sunday School

Updated 9:49AM, Wednesday July 18th, 2012 by Simon Cross, Be the first to comment! seperator

You may not realise it, but the kids club in your church is part of a tradition of ‘Sunday Schooling’ which changed the world for all of us.

Sunday School continues to teach basic skills, alongside religious instruction

It all began in the 1700s, when education wasn’t something everyone was entitled to – and when the children of the working classes worked daily, in order to help feed their families.

Various people realised that this was a problem, and tried to do something about it – one of the most famous was a man called Robert Raikes, a prosperous Christian businessman from Gloucester who thought he could see a way to help.

Raikes’ answer to the problem was to start a free School for youngsters on their only day off, Sunday, to teach them to read and write.

The first lessons were held in the kitchen of a house on ‘Sooty Street’ in Gloucester, the home of the local Chimney sweeping community. The text book was the Bible, and later they progressed to the Catechism too.

But it wasn’t easy – pupils were drawn from the very ‘lowest levels of society and from places of the worst reputation’ and some were so unwilling to attend, that he had to force them.

According to one account ‘he marched them there with wood tied to their feet so they could not get away.’

But the teacher, a Mrs Merideth couldn’t keep control of the children, and Raikes was forced to abandon the project.

However, he didn’t give up, and on finding another teacher, began again, this time successfully.

Such was the popularity of the idea, which grew exponentially, that by the mid-19th Century, more than 1.25 million children had been through Raikes’ Sunday Schooling system.

Raikes wasn’t alone in his efforts, others were doing similar things. The Methodist pioneer John Wesley recorded some examples in his journals of the time, and other pioneers in Britain and the colonies were hard at work teaching basic skills, as well as providing religious instruction.

They ran up against opposition though, one of the biggest issues being the age old argument about whether or not it is acceptable to work on the Sabbath.

Raikes and his fellow Sunday Schoolers were condemned by many for this ‘Unchristian’ work.

But they could see that the only way that the working classes were ever going to have the opportunity to get out of the drudgery that defined their existence, was to continue with a regular program of Sunday Schooling.

And others could see it too – Sunday Schools began to spread across the country, and imaginative educators began to get involved, creating interesting and engaging lessons, using singing as well as reading and writing.

Some of the Sunday Schoolers even advocated a kind and gentle approach to their young students, something which had previously been considered a waste of time.

Slowly the Sunday schools began to have an impact on society, eventually leading to the kind of state provision of education which we benefit from today.

But it’s something to think about, as you glue a picture of Jesus to a piece of coloured paper, today’s Sunday schools draw on a tradition which, once upon a time, changed the face of our society.



This article was written and published by Simon Cross for


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