See You in Sunday School

Ever since Jimmy Carter announced that he had cancer thousands of people are flocking to Plains, Georgia to hear the former President of the United States teach Sunday School.

Ruth Graham, a writer for The Atlantic, has used the popularity of Carter’s class to offer some reflections on the history of Sunday School in America.  She roots the movement in progressive evangelicalism.
Here is a taste:

...the origins of Sunday School tell a story about the kind of progressive evangelicalism that Carter is known for. The movement began in 18th century England thanks to the efforts of a reformer named Robert Raikes, who the religion scholar Martin E. Marty once called “the Eli Whitney or Thomas Edison of the Sunday school.”

Visiting a factory town on business one day, Raikes was appalled by the spectacle of “wretchedly 
ragged” children playing in the street. When he asked a local about the problem, he was told that on Sundays, it was even worse: “The street is filled with the multitudes of these wretches, who…spend their time in noise and riot, playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid, as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell rather than any other place.”

Raikes’s solution was to provide a school for them to attend on their one day off from factory work. At “Sunday school,” they would learn reading and writing, as well as moral and Biblical lessons. The classes were imbued with an ambient Christianity, to be sure, but their first purpose was to educate the poor.

The idea spread quickly within Britain, and by 1790 a group of Philadelphia Quakers had imported the plan to America. Over the course of the 19th century, Sunday School became increasingly evangelical and less academic. Gradually, respectable church families were encouraged to send their own children to Sunday School.

Still, the mission remained focused on the poor: The American Sunday School Union, established in 1824, made it a goal to establish programs in every needy place between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Rocky Mountains. One Sunday School booster wrote to The New York Times in 1851 that the city’s children were “a field that needs a faithful and thorough cultivation as much as any along the coast of Africa or Labrador.”

Read the rest here.  

Or if you want a thorough history of the Sunday School movement I recommend Anne Boylan’s Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790-1880.

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