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Who Invented Sunday School?

Robert Raikes was born in Gloucester, 1736. He became a Christian as a young boy, and at the age of 21 inherited his father’s publishing business. Many boys in the UK at that time were so poor that they had to work in dangerous coal mines from as young as 4 years old. Those who were too weak or scared to work in the dark were interned in a prison-like poor house or turned to crime, as exposed by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist.

 

Robert Raikes was challenged by Scriptures referring to children, such as Matt 10: 42 … whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Raikes believed that education was the silver bullet that would prevent children being trapped in a life of poverty and crime. He committed to teach as many children as he could how to read and write, do basic arithmetic, and about Jesus and the gospel.

The problem was that the minor miners and factory workers labored six days a week 12-16 hours a day. The only time off they had was Sunday when the mines and factories were closed. So, Raikes invented something he called “Sunday School.” Every Sunday he offered free courses in literacy and numeracy. The text book he used was the Bible.

 

As the movement grew, he kept the education free by enlisting Christian volunteers who would give their time between morning and evening church services to teach the children. These sacrificial and dedicated men and women did this free every Sunday, often on a rotation with other volunteers. Raikes also used the newspapers he published to advertise the Sunday Schools, and within two years there were dozens of similar programs popping up all over.

The original schedule Raikes assigned was, in his words:

The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.”

Apparently kids were noisy in those days. Imagine that.

As is common in church life, there was opposition to the movement from some within the churches. One objection was that it would make parents lazy to teach their children the gospel at home since they knew the kids were learning the Bible, prayer, and the gospel at these schools. Another objection was that the teachers were working on a Sunday, which was viewed as Sabbath breaking! Interestingly, no one seemed to care that pastors had to work on Sundays! Just saying.

 

Another objection was that the schools were proving so good at teaching the children about Jesus that they posed a threat to the political stability of the country if the movement got used for political propaganda.

But Adam Smith offered this commendation:

No plan has promised to effect a change of manners with equal ease and simplicity since the days of the Apostles.”

By 1831, Sunday Schools were teaching a quarter of all children in the UK, numbering 1,250,000 children per week.

The movement spilled over into the USA where it soon became a universal aspect of the childhood of nearly all children, rich or poor in all 50 states. To this day Sunday School is still considered one of the best ways to ground children in the truth of Scripture, to expose them to the gospel, and to teach them how to conduct themselves in the family, society, and the church.

Our church takes this legacy seriously. We are happy to be part of this heritage. Next week Monday I’ll share my notes from a talk I gave to your Sunday School teachers.

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