Most people don’t know that the Sunday Schools of today’s churches bear little resemblance to the original Sunday Schools of England’s late 1700s. Those schools were quite literally places of basic education where poor children could learn to read and write. You see, in that day England did not have what we now think of as state education. Therefore, it was typically only the richer class who could afford to educate their children. That was done by means of hired governesses, private tutors, and boarding schools. Poor children were usually left to either take the low pay and long hours (as much as 13 or 14 hours a day) of factory work or some other form of low-level, menial labor.
While there is some debate as to when and where the first Sunday School opened, there is no doubt that Robert Raikes became the man most closely associated with the movement. He was the editor of the Gloucester Journal, and he saw Sunday Schools as a way of keeping the children of poor families from gravitating toward lives of crime. His Sunday Schools began by meeting in homes, and he promoted the work through his newspaper.
As the term implies, the schools met each week on Sunday. Why that day? It was the only day the factories weren’t in operation, which made it the day the children got into the most trouble playing in the streets, being loud and rowdy, and just generally creating disturbances. Raikes used the Bible as a textbook to teach the children to read and write.
Within just a few short years, the Sunday School movement exploded throughout England as approximately 250,000 children were attending the schools. It wasn’t long before the various religious denominations began to open their own schools, and by the 1830s attendance in Sunday Schools had grown to over one million. Not only did the schools teach the children to read and write, they also provided them with new clothes to wear on Sunday as well as basic instruction in matters of morality and cleanliness. Discipline was handed out for offenses such as cussing, lying, and other forms of inappropriate behavior. For the record, the first Sunday School in the United States was opened in the 1790s by Samuel Slater in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Over the century that followed, child labor laws and the beginnings of compulsary state educational systems eliminated the primary needs for which the Sunday School movement had begun. This allowed Sunday Schools to turn their focus exclusively toward religious indoctrination and become the Sunday Schools we know today. It’s interesting that arguably the greatest impact the Sunday School movement made on society was that it was successful enough to cause society to put the schools out of their original business.