Supporters of George W. Bush's faith-based initiatives plan, which would shift some of the responsibility and funding for social services onto religious organizations, often stress that the plan isn't radically new but rather an extension of accepted practices. Historically, they're right—faith has prompted people to assist those in need for centuries, and governments have frequently supported these endeavors. Such partnerships haven't always worked well, but the first Sunday schools are a positive example.

One day in 1780, Robert Raikes's newspaper business took him to an impoverished suburb of Gloucester. He was shocked to see so many children "wretchedly ragged, at play in the street." He asked a local woman about this.

"On a Sunday you would be shocked indeed," she replied, "for then the street is filled with multitudes of the wretches who, released on that day from employment, spend their day in noise and riot. … cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid as to convey … an idea of hell."

In 1700s England, it was generally agreed that something must be done about children's poverty and ignorance. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge established 1,500 charity schools for such students, and George Whitefield and the Wesleys preached to them. Yet reformers faced several difficulties. Class separation kept the learned from the poor. Class condition was attributed to "breeding," which education could not change. Individual reformers worked alone, and the public had no appreciation of their success. Then there was the law: until 1779, it was illegal for non-Anglicans to start a school or teach.

Raikes (who died April 5, 1811) learned concern for the poor from his father, from whom he also inherited an influential newspaper. He was a bit of a dandy—walking about town in his wig and claret-colored coat, and carrying a gold snuff case. But he was also a committed member of the Church of England. His first efforts to live out his Christian convictions focused on prison reform, but he then decided children must be put on the right path before evil habits were formed.

Immediately after his shocking encounter in the Gloucester slum, he hired four women to teach the children that next Sunday. After securing permission of the parents, Raikes sent 20 children to each teacher. School began at 10 a.m., let out an hour for lunch, then continued until 5 p.m. The children also attended an afternoon church service. The Bible was the basis of instruction.

In 1783 Raikes wrote an article in his paper, without mentioning his own involvement, noting the success of these "Sunday schools." Readers were fascinated and asked for more information. Raikes provided enthusiastic replies, which were printed and reprinted in publications across England. Other schools soon formed, and Raikes publicized their successes. His publicity campaign reached its zenith when he was summoned to an audience with the royal family. King George III wished that "every child in my kingdom should be taught to read the Bible." (This is, of course, the same "royal brute" whose government, Thomas Paine griped, "so impiously invades the prerogative of heaven.")

Article continues below

Sunday schools grew dramatically. In 1787, four years after Raikes's first article, there were 250,000 Sunday school students. By 1811 there were 500,000, and by 1831 there were 1.25 million. In 1833 the government began subsidizing the schools. Sunday schools spread to the United States, Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent.

Eventually children's education passed into the hands of the state, and religious instruction was eliminated. The Sunday school movement lost its zeal and went into a 50-year membership decline in the early twentieth century. Today we see only its faded remnants in the mere hour spent with the clean and well-mannered children of believers. But in its day, it was a remarkable institution. Adam Smith, author of the classic _Wealth of Nations_, declared that no plan so promising for improving morals had been devised since the days of the apostles.

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

This article was adapted from "Classrooms in Hell," by Kelvin D. Crow, in Christian History issue 53:William Wilberforce and the Century of Reform.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

To read about Christian education in frontier America, see "Preparing a Way in the Wilderness," by Ferenc Morton Szasz, in issue 66: Christianity in the Wild West

The Christian History Institute (which started Christian History magazine but is now unaffiliated with it) also has a biographical sketch of Raikes. has a brief article about Raikes that includes an image.

Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

Article continues below
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)

Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)

Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)

The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)

Marching to Zion | The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrates its 200th anniversary today. (Feb. 16, 2001)

Innovating with the Flow | John and Charles Wesley harnessed the momentum of their time. (Feb. 9, 2000)

Dangerous Myth-Conceptions | A new book traces the origins of historical misunderstandings about Christianity. (Feb. 2, 2001)

1,700 Years of Faith | Armenian Christians celebrate their heritage and look to their future. (Jan. 26, 2001)

This Is Your Life | Exploring the "well-worn sawdust trail" between fundamentalists and evangelicals. (Jan. 19, 2000)

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God | Like Paul, Galileo believed that God made himself known through creation. (Jan. 5, 2000)

Festive Flora | Deck the halls with boughs of pagan significance, falalalala, lalalala. (Dec. 22, 2000)

Peace on Earth? | Christmas Carols and the Civil War (Dec. 15, 2000)