Last night I noted that the most popular Bible verse cited in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16. Read my post here.
“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”
Several of you have asked why Luke 18:16 was so popular. On Twitter I asked Lincoln Mullen, the man behind America’s Public Bible, why Luke 18:16 appears so many times. in newspapers during this period.
Here is his answer:
Luke 18:16 or its equivalent in the other Synoptics was so popular because newspapers often published Sunday school lessons with that verse as a banner across the top. They also reported on Sunday schools which were a new institution in the 19th century.
— Lincoln Mullen (@lincolnmullen) June 15, 2018
Here is my section on Sunday Schools in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:
Evangelicals concerned with moral reform of American life concentrated much effort on the religious education of children and young people through Sunday Schools. Some of the earliest Sunday Schools in America were formed in the eighteenth century to provide biblical instruction to the children of the urban poor, many of whom spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble. Children would gather in churches to sing hymns, pray, read the Bible, and hear a short sermon. They were rewarded for regular attendance and their hard work memorizing Biblical passages. If records of enrollment in Sunday school classes are any indication, the efforts of these schools were successful. By 1832 there were over 300,000 boys and girls attending Sunday schools in the United States, or about 8 percent of the young people eligible to attend such classes. The numbers were even higher in urban areas. For example, in the same year, close to 28 percent of Philadelphia children were attending Sunday Schools. Because these schools focused on reading and writing, many of them drew large numbers of free blacks–both children and adults. Starting in 1824 a benevolent organization called the American Sunday School Union was formed to stimulate the movement across denominations and provide literature for Sunday Schools operating around the country. (See Anne Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880).
The American Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement shared many of the same activist convictions. In 1827 the ABS authorized the publication of a “small testament” for Sunday Schools with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of the “thousands of poor children…in our large towns.” From this point forward, the Society supplied Bibles to any Sunday School organization in need. For example, in 1831, the ABS provided the American Sunday School Union with 20,000 copies of the New Testament in support of a massive effort to establish schools in the Mississippi Valley. In the 1830s the ABS distributed over 14,300 Bibles and over 57,700 Testaments around the country, with most of them going to the American Sunday School Union and the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the 1850s these numbers rose to 27,729 (Bibles) and 134,237 (Testaments). Rev. Charles McIlvane of Brooklyn, in a message to the annual meeting of the ABS, compared the Society’s education outreach to Cambridge University in England. The only difference was that “our University is in the business of benevolence.”
Through much of the antebellum period ABS headquarters in New York received constant reports from Sunday Schools in need of Bibles and moving letters from agents about their rapid growth. One of the more sentimental requests came in 1847, when the ABS received a small tin savings bank filled with $2.17 in change. It was sent by a small girl requesting three dozen Bibles for her Sunday school class. The money enclosed in the bank did not cover the cost of the Bibles, but the ABS sent them anyway. In 1854, H.W. Pierson, the ABS agent in Southern Kentucky ,visited all seven of the “Coloured Sabbath Schools” in Louisville. He was impressed with slaves and free blacks of all ages attending these schools and noted that a great majority of the teachers were black, but he lamented the general lack of teachers and Bibles.
A couple of images: