Since 1740 Christians in America have shown an active concern to educate their children in the faith.

Sunday schools and their teachers have been attacked, praised, and ignored.

“When is a school not a school? When it’s a Sunday school!”

“The Sunday school is the most wasted hour of the week.”

“Sunday school—what’s that?”

But, “I’ve never known a boy to become a juvenile delinquent who faithfully attended Sunday school.”

Comments such as these made within the last quarter century have prompted a reevaluation of the purpose and impact of the Sunday school.

In this two hundredth anniversary year of the Sunday school, a look at the American “roots” of teacher training may provide the historical perspective to assess present efforts and project future endeavors. Many are acquainted with those early efforts of Robert Raikes in eighteenth-century England to teach reading and moral education to rowdy street children on their day off from mill and mine work. His endeavor in Gloucester in 1780 probably was the first to be called Sunday school. But we seem to know little of early American ventures.

Schools that met on Sundays were known as early as 1669 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, when the minister asked the deacons to assist in teaching children during intermission on the Sabbath. Boys and girls in schools of this type, taught by the minister or by appointed deacons, generally were instructed in the catechism and the Scriptures. The first secular Sunday school, and one that most closely resembled the later Raikes model, appears to be one that existed in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1740, under the direction of a German community separated from the Dunker or German Baptists. The community chose Ludwig Haecker (or Thacker or Steibker, depending on one’s source) to hold a school on Sabbath (Saturday) afternoons to give secular and religious instruction to children who were kept from regular school due to their employment.

A more definite plan for Sunday education emerged in 1790 when the First Day or Sunday School Society was organized in Philadelphia to educate and improve the morals of children of the poor. Teachers received a salary of $80 per year for 40 students. They confined instruction to reading and writing from the Bible although they could use spelling books and primers as supplemental materials. Several other societies were formed in the next 20 years. In 1817 in Philadelphia a number of local societies and Sunday schools merged to form the Sunday and Adult School Union, which eventually broadened in 1824 to include most independent unions as auxiliaries under one national union, the American Sunday School Union.

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Though early Sunday schools began as educational efforts with paid teachers to instruct poor children, two significant changes began to occur after the War of 1812. First, the practice of hiring teachers became an increasing financial burden both in England and America, and individuals and church groups gradually discontinued the practice and enlisted voluntary teachers for the work.

The second change evolved over a period of years and broke down class barriers in the Sunday school. Both British and American schools began primarily as a means of socializing the lower classes and educating them (although this was often limited to the teaching of reading). A class-oriented enterprise, however, could not survive long in the new nation with its emphasis on democracy and equality. While class differences still existed after the War of 1812, the poor were not interested in schools planned exclusively for them. Through efforts of such individuals as Dr. Lyman Beecher of Boston who implored the best families to bring their children to Sunday school, the Sunday school in America was upgraded to middle-class respectability. The poor, in order to prove they were as good as anyone else, scrubbed up, dressed up, and presented themselves on Sunday mornings (The Big Little School, by Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright).

Between 1790 and 1824 these changes affected the nature of teaching and teacher training. The child was perceived as having a moral and religious nature that could be improved through education, instruction, and culture. The child at that time was seen as a miniature adult and was expected to speak and act as an adult. Sunday school advocates, especially evangelicals, recognized the religious capacity of the child and saw him as capable of conversion and instruction in the Word of God. In spite of the “adult” concept of the child, early attempts were made to grade children not only on the basis of such distinctions as sex and age, but also by psychological age or ability. Most schools recognized at least two departments, an infant and a senior class. Larger schools frequently divided children into four groups, generally based on reading ability. Although Sunday schools then were essentially for children, adults often expressed interest, resulting in special classes and lessons for them.

Major responsibilities of teachers during these early years included catechizing children, and teaching them to read and to memorize hymns and Bible verses. The teachers were also expected to take the children to church for the worship services, visit regularly in their homes, buy gifts for them and, in general, maintain strong personal contact. Clifton Hartwell Brewer in his Early Episcopal Sunday Schools (1814–1865) observed, “If knowledge of child psychology was scant, if classroom procedure was unscientific, there was still the efficacy of personal influence. That intimate relationship between teacher and pupil has been a mighty factor in Sunday school work ever since.” Both men and women taught, carrying out their responsibilities with patience and enthusiasm. Teachers early personified the idea that Sunday school seeks the education of the heart.

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Teacher training was hit-or-miss at best during the 30 years following the start of the American Sunday school in 1790. The superintendent of the Sunday school frequently made an effort to train his teachers, usually instructing them in catechism or in memorization of Bible portions. In some schools visitors or inspectors were appointed by the local society to observe teachers regularly at their work. Limited self-improvement aids were available to teachers through a London-based magazine, the Sunday-School Repository, and a circulating library of books. Some teachers met together monthly for prayer and instruction.

Curriculum was virtually nonexistent. Usually teachers chose the lessons they planned to teach, so that in any given school the lessons taught on a particular Sunday could be as diverse as the number of teachers. Organization of content was apt to be haphazard. We must credit Truman Parmele of the Utica (New York) Union Sunday-School with the innovation of selected lessons or a list of lessons chosen in advance for all classes, including some indication of content to be taught (1820). Not only did this scheme provide a measure of continuity in the lesson plans but it offered lesson material derived directly from the Bible and gradually superseded the use of the catechism.

Until the establishment of the national American Sunday School Union in 1824, the means of communicating information and guidance for teachers were limited and localized. The American Sunday School Union through its proliferation of published materials and its periodicals served an important role as diffuser of information. The early localized efforts at training tended to deal with classroom management and the conduct of teachers rather than with curricular organization and methodology. Teachers were reminded that they taught by personal example and that their conduct before the class was to be blameless, the type children would want to emulate. The local Sunday school societies offered the most systematic approach to teacher training in that they were usually formed to achieve improvement through sharing, and met on a regular basis. Monthly meetings included debates and discussions on a wide range of topics, such as home-school relationships, discipline, classroom methods, Sunday school public relations, and qualifications of teachers.

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As early as 1827 the New York Sunday-School Union, an auxiliary of the American Sunday School Union, called for the establishment of a school for teachers to meet a growing need for competent workers. The recommendation, however, was not carried out and it was almost 40 years before a formalized system for training teachers emerged and 50 years before a school of teacher training was established.

The development of curriculum and educational methodology coincided with the stirrings in teacher training. Sunday school leaders in the early 1800s were familiar with the educational methodologies being developed abroad. They studied and sifted the systems, rejecting any unbiblical tenets, and carefully selected and tested those features which fit the conditions of the institutions they promoted. By 1831 they had selected elements from the monitorial system of Bell and Lancaster, Pestalozzianism, Gall’s Lesson System of Teaching, Jacotot’s Method of Universal Education, Owen’s infant schools, and early aspects of Froebel’s Theory of Spontaneity. At the same time, Sunday school curriculum began to evolve. The American Sunday School Union published the Uniform Limited Lessons, which allowed for some uniformity of teaching within schools. They were supplemented by two systems of helps developed by the Rev. Albert Judson and Henry Fish to guide teachers in using the lessons.

Between 1824 and 1832, the first state conventions for Sunday school teachers were held to share ideas for mutual improvement. Interest at the state level generated a desire for a national convention. The first one met in New York City in 1832, attended by 220 delegates from 14 states and territories, to discuss questions on such topics as frequency and length of sessions of Sunday schools, visitation, organization, plans of instruction for schools, libraries, duties of superintendents and teachers, plans for training students to become teachers, discipline, and adult classes. A second national convention in 1833 pursued the same topics. The third convention did not meet until 1859; the fourth came in 1869 following the Civil War, after which the conventions met triennially. The national convention was eventually to serve two purposes: for inspiration and for instruction.

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Inspiration took the form of oratory, slogans, music, parades, banners, and other forms of “boosterism.” Instruction resulted in the division of the delegates into sections or areas of interest for reports, addresses, question-answer sessions, demonstrations, and discussions.

In a major step, the 1872 convention adopted the International Uniform Sunday School Lesson System, a plan by which the same lesson was taught at every age level on a particular Sunday. These lessons reigned in evangelical Protestantism for 40 years to the extent that one could visit a Sunday school in any part of the world on a given Sunday and study the same Bible lesson and Golden Text. By 1890 at least 10 million Sunday school teachers and pupils were using the lessons; in 1905 there were 17 million.

In 1857 the first “normal” (teacher training) class was organized in Joliet, Illinois, by the Rev. John Heyl Vincent, a pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He later spearheaded adoption of the International Uniform Lessons in 1872 and founded the Chautauqua Institute (New York) in 1874 to train Sunday school teachers. Vincent’s first normal classes, patterned after the normal schools training of public school teachers, were organized to train his own Sunday school teachers in biblical history, geography, literature, teaching, church history, and Sunday school work.

Local, county, and state conventions generated enthusiasm for the Sunday school and served as a grass roots experiment in organization and methodology, where educational ideas were demonstrated. Also, the concept of the Sunday school institute for teacher training emerged at local, county, and state levels, but the idea required a more extensive diffusion before Sunday school leaders and workers accepted it. The national conventions, beginning with the 1869 convention, served this purpose. They became the democratic expression of the lay worker as well as the means of diffusing methodology, curricular ideas, and teacher training forms.

The 1872 convention marked a major step in the development of curriculum with inauguration of the International Uniform Lesson System. A wave of teacher training plans and efforts followed, along with lesson helps to guide teachers.

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Inadequacies in the International Uniform Lessons surfaced when teachers of young children found the lessons difficult to adapt to children’s needs and abilities. Within the Sunday school ranks primary teachers’ unions began to spring up and primary teachers devised their own lessons to teach young children. In 1895 the Lesson Committee of the International Sunday School Convention permitted a supplemental primary course, followed by a beginner’s course in 1902, and a graded series in 1908.

By the early twentieth century, or roughly 100 years from the inception of the Sunday school, several key stages in the preparation of teachers had evolved. (1) Teacher training developed into a variety of definite major forms: weekly teachers’ meetings, normal classes, preparatory normal classes, seminary classes, teacher institutes, and convention workshops. (2) The conventions and institutes served as central clearing houses for training and curriculum. Ideas presented and demonstrated at these gatherings were disseminated to the larger Sunday school teaching force through books, manuals, journals, and periodicals. Also at these conventions teaching supplies and equipment were exhibited and sold. (3) Curriculum and lesson helps provided tangible assistance for teachers. Graded lessons were developed to offset the inadequacies of the International Uniform Lessons. (4) Other materials in the form of teacher training books were produced in at least three classifications: Sunday school organization and general practical helps for teachers, practical helps for teachers of young children, and brief manuals for teachers of normal classes.

Every Sunday school generation thinks its era is the most difficult, particularly when it comes to the ongoing task of training teachers. The early Sunday school leaders groped for a curricular principle as they examined popular educational methodologies. They struggled with the best way or variety of ways to train teachers. At the same time, the public schools were forging their methodologies and child psychology was in its embryonic states. The public school’s advantage lay, however, in trained personnel—or so Sunday school leaders thought. Therefore, Sunday school leaders showed a strong desire to emulate the public school’s concept of training teachers and to build into the Sunday school staff a similar quality of teaching.

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As satisfied or dissatisfied as one may be with today’s public education, a modem counterpart exists. Christian educators and curriculum writers currently are wrestling with the educational theories and methodologies of Benjamin Bloom, Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. They are also examining and testing open classrooms, flexible space, educational objectives, and pupil-teacher relationships. The preparation of Sunday school teachers occurs at several levels: regularly scheduled or sporadic meetings in the local church, yearly conventions or seminars (though we no longer have a national Sunday school convention), and self-helps in the form of books, cassettes, filmstrips, and aids within the published materials.

Are we doing enough to prepare teachers? Probably not. Was enough done in those early years? Even at the height of the International Uniform Lesson era, when materials and training formats were abundant, Arlo Ayers Brown reflected in his History of Religious Education in Recent Times, “… we were compelled to note that this era of enthusiasm and great beginnings failed to measure up to expectations.” At heart we are dealing with a voluntary, lay, fluid, teaching force, which makes training a never-ending task. The early Sunday school leaders attempted to tackle the problem in varied and creative ways as they prepared teachers to teach the Word of God to children, youth, and adults. They shared the Apostle Paul’s urgency when he reminded Timothy of his responsibility, “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2, NASB). Can we do less?

“Spiritual Foster Care” For Youth: A Proposal

Our Youth for Christ program has worked with more than 500 delinquent youths in Flint, Michigan. They are referred to us by the court and we try to provide foster homes for them. Before they get into serious trouble, their parents often turn to the church in their search for help. The question is why their contact with Christians has not helped to keep them from involvement in crime. To answer that, let me sketch a general scenario of what often happens.

When new people come to church we’re glad to see them. We greet them and try to show we are warm and friendly. But in many cases no interest is ever developed on a personal level; we keep them at arm’s length. Likewise, the street kid—looking for some love and concern from an adult—arrives in Sunday school and the teacher is pleased to see him. Our experience has taught that many of these youths learn the gospel and make a profession of faith in Christ.

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However, serious conflicts soon arise between newly found Christian values and standards at home. How do you honor your mother when she is a prostitute and abuses you? How do you “turn the other cheek” when doing so would bring bad trouble on the street? Why not steal when you’re hungry?

To resolve these conflicts, the youth puts more pressure on his Sunday school teacher, or youth counselor. He wants and needs time and attention. Too often, about this time the Sunday school teacher’s interest begins to wane; there are other kids in class with whom he enjoys working, and they don’t have serious social problems; and there is his own family as well. Result? A disillusioned, drifting youth who thought he had at last found an adult friend who really cared. Soon he’s back on the street, falling into habitual, serious crime.

What can be done about this? A local church “spiritual foster care” plan could help. It works like this: Church families volunteer to be spiritual foster parents, and when a child or youth such as I have described comes into Sunday school, he or she is assigned to one of the volunteer families. These families commit themselves to pray for this youth every day, see him on a regular basis other than at church, meet with his parents and family occasionally, help him get involved in youth programs at church, and nurture him by including him in regular family activities, mealtimes, recreational outings, trips, and so on.

In addition to helping the youth, these spiritual foster parents and their children would discover the joy and satisfaction of reaching out to someone on a very personal level. Their church would make a difference in the lives of hurting people, and young people’s lives would be changed—to say nothing of reducing crime and delinquency in the community.


Executive Director

Victorious Christian Youth

Flint Mich.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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