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 ...

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