The Sunday school movement began in England in 1780 as a way to foster literacy among the children of the new industrial poor, who often worked in mills for as long as 15 hours a day, six days a week. The children were given basic instruction in reading and spelling using the Bible as a core textbook. The movement spread rapidly not only in England but also in the United States, where Methodist minister Francis Asbury founded a Sunday school patterned after the English model in 1786 and urged others to follow his example. Five years after Asbury's first school opened in Hanover County, Virginia, the First Day Society was established in Philadelphia for the purpose of founding free schools that would meet on Sunday and use the Bible to teach children to read.
The American Sunday School Union, founded in 1817, worked to see Sunday schools established in the pioneer communities of the Mississippi valley. As compulsory education laws were gradually adopted by individual states, the role of the Sunday school in literacy education diminished and religious instruction for children of all classes became paramount. Nevertheless, Sunday school attendance continued to increase, eventually becoming an accepted part of the lives of middle-class Protestant children. But changes in American family life led to declining numbers in the last half of the 20th century, and by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, even some church leaders were expressing concerns about the demise of Sunday school.
So important was teaching basic literacy skills to child workers and to poor white and African American children who were often excluded from other schools that some state and local governments allocated public funds to support the work. For example, legislation in Delaware in 1821 provided 20 cents for each white student in schools that were in session for at least three months of the year, and in 1824, school commissioners in Richmond, Virginia, allocated 30 cents for each Sunday school student. Sunday school was particularly important for girls who were often refused admission to publicly funded schools through the first decades of the 19th century, and girls soon outnumbered boys in evangelical Sunday schools. African Americans found it even more difficult to find free schooling, and many were eager to take advantage of the opportunities available to them through Sunday schools.
By 1817, one-fourth of the students in the Sunday School Union Society's schools in New York City were African Americans, and southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, opened Sunday schools to blacks, although classes were segregated and offered at different times than those available to whites. Among adults who acquired literacy through Sunday schools, African Americans outnumbered whites substantially, with women holding a majority that reached almost 70 percent in some cities.
The rapid growth of the Sunday school movement in the United States during the early 19th century was largely due to evangelicals. The impetus behind the earliest Sunday schools was to provide a fundamental education to children in the belief that doing so would make them more productive, more morally responsible citizens, but by the beginning of the 19th century, the movement was becoming more clearly evangelistic. The American Sunday School Union, a nondenominational group, saw evangelism as their paramount purpose. For them, teaching literacy skills was a means to this end. At an 1830 meeting in Philadelphia, the American Sunday School Union (AASU) set a goal of establishing Sunday schools in isolated areas throughout the Mississippi valley within two years. The first year they commissioned 49 missionaries charged with this task. The following year, that number more than doubled. By 1832, the AASU had expanded to 24 states, and more than 300,000 children, or about 8 percent of children of Sunday school age in the United States, were enrolled in AASU classes.
Unlike the reformers and philanthropists involved in the establishment of earlier Sunday schools, many of the evangelical volunteers, often converts from the Second Great Awakening (the Protestant revival movement of the early 19th century), were personally involved in organizing and teaching. Among the best known was Stephen Paxton of Illinois who organized nearly 1,100 new schools with approximately 57,000 students. Paxton and other volunteers were dedicated to eradicating “ignorance,” but they used the term to refer not merely to the lack of basic literacy but also to what they viewed as fundamental religious truths, particularly, the evangelical doctrines of individual accountability and personal regeneration.
The expansion of Sunday schools was also a result of children of church-going families adding to enrollment numbers, a trend that began in the 1820s and continued into the next century. Sunday schools affiliated with denominations became the norm. By the turn of the 20th century, eight out of every 10 church members affiliated with the church first through Sunday school. By the 1950s, 90 percent of church members were first enrolled in Sunday school.
Mainline Protestant denominations began seeing declining numbers in Sunday school attendance in the 1960s. Researchers attributed the decrease to changes in modern family life-ranging from television to divorce rates to permissive parenting. By the time the Sunday school movement celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1980, Sunday school enrollment had dropped to 35.6 million (27.1 million Protestants, 8.5 million Catholics). Sunday school attendance among Southern Baptists was still increasing, thanks in part to the extensive use of buses to transport children to churches, the modern equivalent of a technique evangelist Dwight L. Moody used a century earlier.
Before the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the Southern Baptist Convention joined the list of groups reporting declines in Sunday school enrollment. Although a 2005 study by the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm, found that 95 percent of Protestant churches offered Sunday school in some form, churches were increasingly likely to have dropped programs for children under 2 and for teenagers. By 2010, fewer than 15 percent of Protestant pastors considered Sunday school a top priority for their churches.
See Also: Education, Elementary; Evangelicals; Religiously Affiliated Schools
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