Why Luke 18:16?

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The New York Sun, March 21, 1915.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

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:

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 Bible Cause CoverSunday 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:

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The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 25 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

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New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 Sept. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

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.

Teaching Evangelicals About The Recent History of Evangelicals and the Bible

Carl F.H. Henry was a defender of biblical inerrancy

As some of you know, I am teaching a Sunday School class at West Shore Evangelical Free Church on the last fifty years of American evangelical history.   Last Sunday I devoted the class to evangelicals and the Bible.  I only had fifty minutes to discuss this very complex subject.  And as a historian, not a theologian, I focused on explaining the way various positions on biblical authority emerged in particular historical contexts.

David Bebbington has argued that “biblicism,” or the belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and thus has authority over a Christian’s life, is a fundamental tenet of evangelical faith. With this in mind, I suggested that evangelicals have come to embrace four different views of the Bible over the last fifty years.

1.  Dictation:  The idea that God dictated his Word to the biblical writers and they merely copied it down as scribes.  This view has been rather rare in post-1960s evangelicalism, but it was championed by some fundamentalists such as John R. Rice.  The dictation theory of Biblical revelation has also been connected to those fundamentalist churches who believe that the King James Version is the only divinely inspired translation of the Bible.

2.  Inerrancy:  I introduced this position on the Bible by pointing the class to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).

3.  Infallibility:  The idea that the Bible is inspired and without error in its central message of salvation through Jesus Christ, but does contain errors in the areas of science and history.  I spent some time discussing the controversy over Biblical authority in the 1960s at Fuller Seminary and the way that Harold Lindsell’s book The Battle for the Bible fueled these flames of controversy.

4.  Neo-Orthodoxy:  There are some evangelicals who have embraced Karl Barth’s vision of Biblical revelation.  Here I referenced Phil Thorne’s book Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception in North American Evangelical Theology.  I mentioned Thorne for two reasons.  First, his book is the best thing I have read on Barth’s influence on evangelicalism.  Second, Thorne is the former pastor of the West Shore Evangelical Free Church.

We had a good discussion about these various views.  I honestly don’t know where the members of this class stand on these approaches to biblical authority, but I have a hunch that most of them believe in inerrancy.  What I appreciated most was the way that many members of the class stressed the importance of charity when it comes to assessing fellow evangelicals who might disagree with them on these questions of biblical authority.

Next week’s class will focus on evangelical youth culture.

New Class at West Shore Evangelical Free Church: A History of Evangelicalism, 1960s-Present

I am looking forward to returning to the West Shore Evangelical Free Church “Lifebuilders” Sunday School class this month for a four week series entitled “Evangelicalism in America: 1960 to Present.” The course will meet in Room A143 at 9:00am on October 5, 12, 26, and November 2.  

I am still working on the final schedule, but I have narrowed the four week series down to five topics. (One of these will be eliminated or else folded into one of the other topics):

  • Religion and Politics in American Evangelicalism, 1960-Present
  • The Battle for the Bible in American Evangelicalism, 1960-Present
  • Evangelical Youth Culture, 1960-Present
  • The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
  • What is the Difference Between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist?
Feel free to stop by for one or more of these lectures/discussions.  The Lifebuilders class begins with a time of coffee and fellowship, followed by prayer requests and one or two songs.  Most of the 90 minute class will be devoted to lecture and discussion.