Sunday School started in the late 1780s in England as a response to poorly educated children. The booming industrial revolution left little time for children's education, with many working 6 days a week for 10 or 12 hours a day. Sunday was their day off, which to Robert Raikes, a local churchman in Gloucester, England, meant a window of opportunity. He bootstrapped his way to starting a "school" program on Sundays (to oversimplify), using the Bible to teach children how to read. Within 15 years, some 250,000 kids were in Sunday School. Although other Sunday Schools are on record as having started before Raikes' programs, Raikes is given credit as the one who popularized them.
About forty years later, in 1831, an additional million students were attending Sunday Schools, putting the number up to around 1.25 million. Pretty impressive, as we're talking pre-Internet, pre-telephone, and even the first electric motor only coming about in 1821! Seems like a profound need was being met, indeed.
Well, just like the pencil, sewing machine, and the World Wide Web, the UK arrived at Sunday School before North America (sorry, patriots). The first national U.S. Sunday school effort didn't start until 1817. The American Sunday School Union, then-and-now dubbed "American Missionary Fellowship", formed by that time. Their publishing branch continued using tracts, hymnals, and a reward-system for Scripture memorization for some 150 years. Their name probably stems from sending missionaries -- that is, traveling paid workers -- to other states by horseback to establish Sunday schools and revive dying ones. Through this systematic and intentional growth, Sunday school remains a prominent part of many kids' church experience.
Through this History of CM project we've been looking at the larger Kids Church experience, which hasn't received much documentation - Sunday school, however, is something that many churches have thought about. Type in "Sunday school" on Amazon on you get tons of results on everything from history to inspirational to curricula. It's something church leaders have thought about for a while. However, I suspect that in the next few decades, excitement for Sunday school will decline. I predict it will be something churches start to "fight for", not something that secular America is excited about.
(The following editorial departs from the prior historical stuff, fyi!) I find it super interesting that Sunday School was originally designed to meet a social need. While it quickly evolved into both educational and evangelistic in nature, the heart and soul at the outset seemed to be to establish a method of some kind. A routine. But not a dry routine - a helpful one that would allow for a curriculum. The many teachers I've worked with tell me that curriculum is next to useless without consistent attendance, as the idea is to build upon what's been taught previously. How great that someone saw the need, worked hard to empower kids, and went on to be successful. Best I can tell, Sunday School worked! The state school system in the UK traces their roots, at least in large part, to Robert Raikes. Mission accomplished. It wove itself into the day-to-day lives of children and parents. It wasn't just part of the system; it was the system. Fast forward some decades, labor laws firmly in place, children now in school weekly, and suddenly we have a system that, in my view, has lost its relevance to the majority of secular America. For people who follow Jesus who want to increase their knowledge of the story of the Bible, Sunday School seems like a good fit. The problem for me is I don't know many kids for whom Bible study equates to a vibrant long-term connection with Jesus. The percentage of people for whom this approach is lastingly meaningful is around 15-25%, the stats tell us. So, like, a quarter of attenders in the best case scenario. Perhaps this is the reality because we have a totally reversed reality than the industrial revolution: our kids learn all week long, and then Sunday is their day off (probably Saturday too - though in my house that was chores day). So to take the same industrial-revolution-approach to Sunday church - teach the Bible - doesn't this seem backwards? The needs have changed. The system has changed.
But, I suppose it's probably difficult to unravel something so deeply ingrained in people's minds as to what church should look like - heck, it's been more than 200 years! All to say: I wonder if many churches' rethinking their Sunday school programs is a healthy step.
As an aside: how crazy was it to have been a kid in the industrial revolution! Imagine that... work 6 full days, and then school on Sunday... what a week! Note to self for further reading!! I'm remembering my childhood, playing Street Fighter 2 Turbo and feeling like, "Wow, if I can beat Guile on level 8, now THAT'S an accomplishment..."
Further reading for all my fellow nerdlings: