Sunday School Beginning
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44. Sunday School Beginning

Robert Raikes

Raikes PictureThe Sunday school movement began in July 1780 at William King's (1730-1803) suggestion in Dursley Tabernacle Gloucestershire. On King's gravestone, there is a claim by the 19th-century dissenters that William King had the original vision of Sunday Schools and suggested it to Robert Raikes (1736-1811), a city gentleman and newspaper editor living nearby. The first of Raikes' Sunday Schools began on a Sunday afternoon in Sooty Alley, so named because chimney sweeps lived there, in Gloucester in England. Boisterous children, usually working and closed up in a pin-making factory all week, played and shouted their freedom on this Sabbath day, much to Robert Raikes's annoyance. Children were not protected by the State in those days and worked the same long hours as their parents, literally from dawn to dusk. Robert Raikes was aware of the low-income families attracted from the country to the city workhouses by the lure of easy money. He was determined to give these children some education though many were reluctant to receive it. C. B. Eavey (1889-1974) of the Wheaton College Department of Education and Psychology wrote, "He marched them there with wood tied to their feet to stop them getting away." However, we have nothing to substantiate this. Because of the lack of legislation at the time, alcohol, particularly gin, was also freely available to children on the streets. As a result, even young children had fallen into heavy drinking. Similarly, young teenagers in our present generation, especially in the far North of Canada, resort to sniffing glue from a paper bag to get high.

Other Early Schools

Singing ChildrenAn interesting side note is that another claim to the first Sunday School comes from the Methodist reformer John Wesley (1703-1791) in Christ Parish Church, Savannah, Georgia. This church claimed to have a Sunday school beginning in 1737, although this may have been more the daily teaching of the colony's children rather than a Sunday School as we know it today. Other claims to the first Sunday school come from Hannah Bell of High Wycombe in 1769 and Dr. John Bellamy in Bethlehem, Connecticut, in 1740. The First Moravian Church pastor's wife in Philadelphia started a Sunday school in 1744 and another one in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1739. The Robert Raikes Sunday school stands out for giving Bible classes and beginning general education, meaning reading and writing to working people, especially children. Few had any learning, except for the wealthy elite in industrial England. Though the Sunday schools originally started to get the children off the streets on Sundays, it soon became a tremendous opportunity in the hand of God to share the Good News with them and teach them the basics of reading and writing. The noisy children and the seemingly insignificant event that happened on that Sunday afternoon in 1780 was to become the beginnings of the Sunday School movement and set Robert Raikes's mind thinking about the deprivation which existed amongst these poor people generally and especially the little ones. So began the Sunday school movement and the crusade to eliminate injustice and hardship mainly through the Gloucester Journal pages, of which Raikes was the proprietor and editor.

Corrupt Prison Administration

Raikes also sought the reform of a corrupt prison administration. He preached against the uncontrolled sale of strong drink, particularly gin sold to children on just about every street corner. "Gin" was called "mother's Ruin" for good reason as it made men impotent and women sterile, and was a significant reason that the birth rate in London was exceeded at this time by the death rate! Gin started as a medicine to cure gout and indigestion, but most attractive of all, it was cheap. In the 1730s, notices appeared all across London reading, "Drunk for 1 penny, Dead drunk for tuppence, Straw for nothing!" Gin was cheap and became the drink of the poor sold by barbers, peddlers, grocers, and even market stalls. "Bootleggers" sold their wares under such fancy names as "Cuckold's Comfort," "Ladies Delight," and "Knock Me Down." William Hogarth (1697-1764), the English painter and social critic, portrayed the horror of London's situation in print called "Gin Lane." A drunken woman with ulcerated legs shown taking snuff as her baby falls into the gin-vault below. Hogarth had a strong Christian background, illustrated in his rendering of "The Fellow Prentices at their Looms." Its subtitles show the industrious apprentice with Proverbs 10.4, "Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth," and the idle apprentice in Proverbs 23.21 "for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags." Robert Raikes was disgusted by this drunkenness and instigated a crusade for education, which he believed to be an effective means of reform. He started what we call today the "The Sunday School movement."

British Sunday School

Child paintingBeginning in a small way, Robert Raikes (1736-1811) opened two Sunday Schools, one in the parish of Ashbury in Oxford shire, under a concerned clergyman, The Rev. Thomas Stock (1749-1805) and another in Sooty Alley in Gloucester. Thomas Stock was described in a memorial plaque from his time in Gloucester Anglican Cathedral as "diligent, learned and pious" and with Robert Raikes "is justly attributed the honor of having planned and instituted the first Sunday School in the Kingdom." At about the same time, Mrs. Meredith opened her home in Gloucester to a group of boys, and two years later, girls also began to attend. Like so many great movements of God, success did not come easily. Robert Raikes's school closed after only six months because of "discipline problems." However, Raikes continued to put his ideas into print in the Gloucester Journal, and this caught the attention of the magnetic and famous preacher of the day, The Rev John Wesley. Wesley was very impressed with the Sunday school concept, calling it "one of the noblest specimens of charity that have been set on foot in England since the times of William the Conqueror." The great Methodist leader advertised the Sunday school model, and soon schools were springing up all over England and Wales, Scotland, and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Sunday schools predated state funding of schools for the general population and were the British school system's forerunners, which has influenced the World.

Sunday School Rules

Original Sunday SchoolInitially, Robert Raikes (1736-1811) paid qualified professionals to teach in Sunday school, but as the demand grew, a volunteer force took over. The first teachers' book of Sunday school rules was called "A Sunday Scholar's Companion" (Volume 5 1859) and introduced essential words, short prayers, and some hymns to eager young minds. There were Few rules laid down for the children in those early days. "All that I require," wrote Raikes, "are clean hands, clean faces, and their hair combed," adding, "If you have no clean shirt, come in what you have on." He frowned on cursing and swearing, encouraging kindness and obedience to parents. So began the Sunday school movement and the new voluntary role of the Sunday school teacher within the church that survives even to this day. There were no schools for ordinary working people in the eighteenth century, so the Sunday schools initially taught children to read and write the alphabet and learn their numbers. The teachers used what books they had at the time, like the Bible, the hymnbook, and the prayer book. As well as these readings, they read books like "Self-Conquest" and "Sketches in Natural History." These study materials included "Insects - their means of defense" and "Sketches of Great Men," highlighting, for example, the playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who lived a good life and died in the faith of the Church of England.

Remarkable Success

Animated Question MarkRobert Raikes (1736-1811), an English gentleman and philanthropist, Anglican layperson, and editor of the Gloucester Journal, started the first Sunday School in Gloucester in South West England 1780. A mark of his remarkable success was that twenty years after he died, one point two million children attended Sunday schools in England alone. At that time, England only had four and a half million people, so about a quarter of the total population was attending Sunday schools. This achievement was remarkable by any estimation, even in an era of high infant mortality. They were taught initially by paid teachers and later by volunteers who all sought to be an animated question mark for their pupils.

"Sunday School Beginning"
by Ron Meacock © 1982-2020

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