It is the 5th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1811.
If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine Sunday school, what would come to mind? Little wax cups with apple juice and graham crackers? Maybe stories told on felt boards? Perhaps it was lock-ins and red rover or maybe more memorization and catechism. Years ago, I had a student who wanted to go into youth ministry. He asked me about the history of youth ministry and Sunday school… and to answer that question, I had to take him back to 18th century England.
18th century England (the 1700s) was brutal. We are at the nexus of the Enlightenment and the early industrial revolution. Life expectancy was around 35 years old, and this number is driven down by the fact that only about 50% of children lived past the age of 5. English life was increasingly stratified by income and opportunity. New industrial jobs required manual labor, and thus an expanded workforce was required. It became standard for middle and lower-class children to join their parents at work, six days a week, at least 12 hours a day.
Robert Raikes did not need to worry about this. He was born in 1735 into the Raikes family in Gloucester. His father, Robert Sr., was the publisher of the influential Gloucester Journal. The family was Anglican but a little on the radical side. They were personal friends with both John and Charles Wesley as well as George Whitefield. The Raikes family was related to William Wilberforce by marriage.
Raikes would take over the Gloucester Journal when his father died and would become a popular publisher and philanthropist. Raikes believed that increased crime and vagrancy were due to a lack of opportunity and education. Raikes, like a good Enlightenment fellow, believed that education was the key to success and godliness. He decided to open a Sunday School in 1780, there had been a few similar models across England, but they were few and far between. Working six days a week, the only time children had off was on Sunday. And so "Sunday school" began as a means to educate the lower classes. The Bible was their textbook, and the classes were taught to all uneducated or illiterate people despite their age. Raikes used his Gloucester Journal to publicize this new free education model for the poor through the church. Some argued that Sunday school was an offense to Sabbath Keeping. Perhaps as a response to this, the schools would emphasize a theological education.
The "Sunday school" that Raikes started in 1780 was reproduced around England, and they took on an explicitly ecumenical (or "non-denominational") tone. By 1831 it is estimated that 25% of the English population had been to a Sunday school. The popularity of the movement was the precursor to compulsory, free education for all children. And more importantly, it centered the church as the place for mutual aid and assistance for the poor and working class. Remember: church attendance was no longer compulsory as it was only a century prior. The church had less of a hold on the English, especially as they entered the industrial age and the kind of working conditions criticized by Dickens.
Without a separation of church and state, the English churches could serve as a kind of social safety net for the neediest.
Today "Sunday school" might invoke pleasant or cringe-y memories. We think of it as corporate instruction in the Christian faith with age-appropriate lessons. And this is a good thing! But Sunday school used to mean so much more, especially to the poorest in England. Today we remember the man famous for spurring on the movement, Richard Raikes, born in 1735 and died on this, the 5th of April in 1811.
As you may have heard yesterday, the 3rd season of the show starts next month! As we retool, we will be retiring the poetry reading, and thus, as we enter the last month of poems on this show, I will be re-sharing my favorites (don't worry, we have around 500 poems in our archive). Today we hear from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his "My Baptismal Birthday."
God's child in Christ adopted, — Christ my all, —
What that earth boasts were not lost cheaply, rather
Than forfeit that blest name, by which I call
The Holy One, the Almighty God, my Father? —
Father! in Christ we live, and Christ in Thee —
Eternal Thou, and everlasting we.
The heir of heaven, henceforth I fear not death:
In Christ I live! in Christ I draw the breath
Of the true life! — Let then earth, sea, and sky
Make war against me! On my heart I show
Their mighty master's seal. In vain they try
To end my life, that can but end its woe. —
Is that a death-bed where a Christian lies? —
Yes! but not his — 'tis Death itself there dies.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who grew up in Sunday school rocking to Psalty the Psalter's sweet sounds. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis who was once cast as the baby gorilla in the "Creation Sensation," a church youth group musical. You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.