Sunday School Beginning
Next Previous Index Tellout Home

44. Sunday School Beginnings

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 Sunday School vision and suggested it to Robert Raikes (1736-1811), a newspaper editor living nearby. The first of Raikes' Sunday Schools began on a Sunday afternoon in Sooty Alley, where chimney sweeps lived, in Gloucester, England. Boisterous children, usually working in a pin-making factory all week, played and shouted their freedom on this Sabbath day, to Robert Raikes's annoyance. The Law did not protect children in those days who worked the same long hours as their parents, from dawn to dusk. Low-income families were attracted from the country to the city workhouses by the lure of easy money. Raikes was determined to give these children some education though many were reluctant. 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, alcohol and particularly gin was freely available to street children. As a result, even young children had fallen into heavy drinking. In our present generation, young Northern Canada teenagers resorted to sniffing glue from a paper bag to get high.

Other Early Schools

Singing ChildrenAnother claim to the first Sunday School beginning came 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 of the first Sunday school came 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 school in 1744 and another one in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1739. Robert Raikes' Sunday school stands out for giving Bible classes and general education, meaning reading and writing, to working-class children. Only the wealthy elite in industrial England had access to learning. Though the Sunday schools beginning was originally 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, raise the general education standard and teach them the basics of reading and writing. The seemingly insignificant event on that Sunday afternoon in 1780 became the Sunday School movement's beginning and set Robert Raikes's mind thinking these poor people's deprivation generally and especially the little ones. So began the Sunday school movement and the crusade to eliminate injustice and hardship through the Gloucester Journal's pages, with Robert Raikes as the proprietor and editor.


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 why the birth rate in London was exceeded at this time by the death rate! Gin started as a medicine for gout and indigestion, and it was cheap. In the 1730s, notices appeared across London reading, "Drunk for 1 penny, Dead drunk for tuppence, Straw for nothing!" Gin was cheap and became the poor's drink 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 in print the horror of London's drunkenness situation called "Gin Lane." A drunken woman with ulcerated legs takes 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 the Proverbs 10.4, label "Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth," The idle apprentice portrayed 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 an education crusade, which he believed to be an effective vehicle for reform. He initiated "The Sunday School beginning."

British Sunday School

Child paintingBeginning in a small way, Robert Raikes (1736-1811) opened two Sunday Schools, one in the parish of Ashbury in Oxfordshire, with a concerned clergyman, The Rev. Thomas Stock (1749-1805) and another in Sooty Alley in Gloucester. In a memorial plaque in Gloucester Anglican Cathedral Thomas Stock was described as "diligent, learned and pious," and with Robert Raikes, "is justly attributed the honor of having planned and instituted the first Sunday School beginning in the Kingdom." At about the same time, Mrs. Meredith opened her home to a boys' group in Gloucester, and two years later, girls also attended. 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 print his ideas in the Gloucester Journal, which caught the attention of the famous magnetic preacher, 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 began springing up all over England, Wales, Scotland, and in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Sunday schools predated the state school funding for the general population and were the British school system's forerunners, influencing the World.

Sunday School Rules

Original Sunday SchoolInitially, Robert Raikes (1736-1811) paid qualified professionals as Sunday school teachers, but as the demand grew, a volunteer force took over. The first teachers' book of Sunday school rules called "A Sunday Scholar's Companion" (Volume 5 1859) introduced essential words, short prayers, and some hymns to eager young minds. Raikes laid down few rules 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 Sunday school teacher within the church that survives today. There were no schools for ordinary working people in the eighteenth century, so the Sunday schools initially taught children to read and write and learn their numbers. The teachers used the available books, like the Bible, the hymnbook, and the prayer book. As well as these, they read books like "Self-Conquest" perhaps by Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, who wrote "Self-conquest is the greatest of all victories" and "Sketches in Natural History" possibly by Charles Knight (1791-1873). 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 Church of England faith.

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 his death, 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 attended Sunday schools. This achievement is remarkable by any estimation, even in an era of high infant mortality. Their paid teachers and later volunteers sought to be an animated question mark for their pupils.

"Sunday School Beginnings"
by Ron Meacock © 1982-2021

^Top Page Next Previous