While Sunday School is often thought of as being for children, this is not always the case. Sunday School differs from a church service in that the teacher is not usually the main pastor and the setting is usually more informal and smaller and open to more questions or interaction from those attending. It usually is also broken down by groups, either by age, gender, or marital status.
Many churches have Sunday school classes before or after the main church service.
Attending Sunday School is often the only opportunity for children in secular countries to learn about the Bible. There are, however, some countries that do allow religious classes in public schools.
Sunday Schools often have an informal curriculum, but in many instances there is a formal schedule in place. This way, Sunday School courses can replace religious classes that were once allowed in public schools.
Seventh-day Sabbatarian churches and sects have adapted the Sunday School by presenting religious education on Saturdays with Sabbath School enrollment and attendance.
Sunday Schools originated in about 1780 with Robert Raikes and Thomas Stock in Gloucester, England. Raikes (1736-1811), a newspaper publisher and devout Anglican involved in prison ministry, served many who were waiting to die, and he had begun to realize that there was a need to begin earlier with prevention in order to be most effective in Christian outreach. The aim was to provide basic schooling to the working class, who could not otherwise afford any kind of education.
The Sunday schools, led by Christians, were taught on Sundays as this was the only day that the prospective students were not required to go to work. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in many children spending all week long working in factories, and Saturday was a normal part of the ordinary work week. Christian philanthropists wanted to free these children from a life of illiteracy. Scriptural texts were used as lessons, to teach reading and other subject matter; and the schools also served to give the Gospel to the unchurched poor.
Among the obstacles and challenges this kind of ministry faced from the beginning was the fact that the activities were conducted separately from worship services. Moreover, Sunday schools ministered to the poor. Feelings of class distinction were at a very high level in England at the time, so some were afraid it would break down what they considered to be God-given class distinctions. Working on Sunday was also strongly disapproved, so many churches and pastors resisted this ministry as Sabbath-breaking, and an ungodly defilement of the Lord's day. The teachers and their students were not able to meet in facilities that were geared to education (homes, factories, warehouses, empty, abandoned buildings), also it was free and thus non-income producing.
During the first 150 years of this educational ministry (1780–1930), it was taught only in the English-speaking world, and was primarily aimed at alleviating social conditions.
Beginning in the 1770s, after the First Great Awakening, increasing numbers of slaves in the Southern states had begun converting to evangelical religions such as the Methodist and Baptist denominations. Many clergy in their churches actively promoted the idea that all Christians are equal in the sight of God, a message that provided hope and support to the slaves. Many white owners and clergy preached a message of strict obedience, and insisted on slave attendance at white-controlled churches, fearful that if slaves were allowed to worship independently in black churches they would ultimately plot rebellion against their owners. These white churches, in which ministers promoted obedience to one's master as the highest religious ideal, were seen by black slaves as a mockery of the "true" Christian message of equality and liberation in Christ. Around the turn of the century, basic reading, writing and math started being taught to the slaves in Sunday School.
Well into the 19th century, working hours were long for adults and children alike. The first modest legislative restrictions came in 1802. This resulted in limiting the number of hours a child could work per day to 12 (!). Moreover, Saturday was still part of the regular work week. Sunday, therefore, was the only available time for these children to gain some education, religious or otherwise.
After the War of 1812, Sunday school spread widely in the United States through the independent efforts of unorganized individual groups seeking to educate the poor. In the U.S. the emphasis of the Sunday school was primarily on the Bible because of the availability of public schools which taught more general subject matter.
From 1820 to 1835, the Great Revival in the U.S. changed the denominational face of much of the U.S. from Congregational and Reformed to Baptist and Methodist. This was reflected in the varied doctrinal content of the individual Sunday schools, based on particular catechisms.
Catechisms were intended by their authors to teach the whole system of Christian doctrine, but were summaries of the Christian faith according to the particular interpretation of each denominational group. They relied on questions and memorized answers.
The first national Sunday School effort began in America during this period. The American Sunday School Union, a cross-denominational national organization founded in Philadelphia in 1824, published curricular materials and children's books that were used in many Sunday Schools in that day; its stated purpose was to organize, evangelize and civilize. The focus was intentionally evangelical, and so within the next 100 years the Sunday School had become the primary outreach arm of the Protestant churches.
In 1830, a Baptist Association in the state of Illinois passed a resolution which said, in part, "We as an Association do not hesitate to say that we declare an unfellowship with Foreign and Domestic Mission and Bible Societies, Sunday Schools, and all other Missionary Institutions." Since these had become independent efforts to do the work of the Lord, this raised significant concerns in many of the more fundamentalist groups that the church itself was being supplanted by a human institution. Therefore, these various efforts, including the Sunday School, were perceived by some to be an attack against the church itself, and thus the work of Satan.
By 1832 there were more than 8000 Sunday schools in the United States.
As the relatively novel concept of theological pluralism also began to take hold about this same time in 1832, one of the biggest Sunday school unions, The Union, decided to establish non-denominational Sunday schools in the "New West", the area of the Louisiana Purchase, as a missionary enterprise. Small communities would select a neutral place and Christians of many backgrounds would come together in what were called Union Schools. They decided to teach the Bible, because "the Bible unites", but catechisms divide. Because of this religious pluralism, Sunday school lessons focused on Bible stories rather than on doctrine, and on application rather than on interpretation. Publication of catechisms began to slow as a result. Sunday school students were often encouraged to memorize large portions of the Bible, earning prizes and incentives for doing so. This idea was dropped when it was realized that the students were more interested in the prizes than in God’s word!
Most of the lay leadership of The Union was Presbyterian, and non-Presbyterians—Lutherans, Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Episcopalians—worried that the movement might be a plot to bring the western youth into Presbyterianism under the guise of a non-denominational movement.
Meanwhile, the 1844 Factory Act lowered the 12 hour limit that a child could be worked to six and a half hours.
European immigrants during the 1800's found little land available to them to farm on the east coast, so they quickly re-migrated to the west. Many were Catholics so some Catholic leaders saw the Sunday school movement as a Protestant plot to capture the Catholic youth of the west. Many private Catholic schools were founded during this period as an answer to the Protestant education that then dominated the nation’s public schools. In fact, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852 specifically urged every Catholic parish in the country to establish its own school for just that reason. In answer to this call, scores of schools were established throughout the country.
Sunday School organization began expanding to include all ages. Sunday School became a way for unbelievers to be introduced to, and then assimilated into, the life of the church.
In 1873 the Methodist Episcopal Church started the first VBS (Vacation Bible School) under Bishop John H. Vincent in New York when he offered "summer Sunday school institutes that included educational and cultural components". Other churches quickly saw the benefits of including this kind of program.
By 1875 there were more than 65,000 Sunday schools in the U.S.. By 1889 there were ten million children in American Sunday schools and it was performing the heavy task of public education, sponsored by Christians out of their own pockets.
By the late 1800’s, Sunday School was looked to as the main hope for church growth, a view that continued until the mid-twentieth century.
In 1898, Mrs. Walker Aylette Hawes established her “Everyday Bible School” to minister to the immigrant children who spent their summer days running the streets of New York City’s East Side. She rented a beer parlor that was not used during the day (it was the only space available), and for six weeks, she gathered the neighborhood children together for worship music, Bible stories, Scripture memorization, games, crafts, drawing and cooking.
Socialist Sunday Schools
In Great Britain, Mrs. Mary Gray, a member of the Social Democratic Federation, who ran a soup kitchen for the children of the British dock strike, initiated the Socialist Sunday School movement in 1892. Her aim, on realizing they had little or no education, was to influence and educate them and make them aware of their socialist responsibilities and provide what was lacking in their day schools. She started the first Socialist Sunday School (SSS) with only one other besides her own two children but twenty years later there were approximately 120 of these schools throughout the country, 20 of them being in London itself.
Socialist Sunday Schools in Great Britain thus arose in response to a widespread feeling as to the inadequacy of the orthodox Sunday Schools as a training ground for the children of Socialists and of the need for some organized and systematic method of presenting the Socialist point of view and of teaching the ideals and principles of Socialism to the children, youths and maidens in the country. The main purpose was to supply the Socialist movement with fearless, capable and conscientious thinkers.
A national movement, the National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools Union (NCBSSSU), formed in 1909, traces its origin to a school opened in Glasgow by Caroline Martyn and Archie McArthur. It was established as a protest against, and an alternative to, the perceived middle-class bias and assumptions of the regular churches. Its aims were to help the schools in their teaching of Socialism. The schools were grouped in District Unions and for the first ten years were affiliated to the (NCBSSSU) Council. However in 1920 their Constitution was amended to allow direct school affiliation which meant there was wide representation at the Annual Conference.
It was their view that public education should be secular and Socialist Sunday Schools were for purely educational bodies and therefore their hymns did not have theological tendencies or the Christian dogma which was preached in religious churches of the day. They worked in close harmony with the Labor Movement and were concerned with the spiritual and social objective of the human race with regard to daily life and conduct.
The NCBSSSU manual is a very enlightening look into the teachings of the Socialist Sunday Schools and was prepared chiefly for the use of teachers. It contains specimen lessons and techniques to help the teachers together with suggested reading for Socialist Education.
20th and 21st century
With the turn of the century, from about 1900 on, church catechisms were used more than the Bible for religious education.
The most well-known catechisms widely used within the continental U.S. at the beginning of the twentieth century were:
- Martin Luther's Large Catechism and Small Catechism, the standard catechisms of the Lutheran Church, first published in 1529.
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, the standard catechism of the Calvinist churches, first published in 1536.
- The Heidelberg Catechism, the standard catechism of the Dutch and German Reformed Churches of America, first published in 1563.
- The Roman Catechism (or Catechism of the Council of Trent), the standard catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (up to 1997), first published in 1566.
- The Westminster Larger Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the standard catechisms of the Presbyterian churches, first published in 1648.
- Pia Desideria ("Pious Desires"), written by Philipp Jakob Spener, a key theological treatise of the Pietist churches, first published in 1675.
- A Holy Catechism, or Explanation of the Divine and Holy Liturgy, and Examination of Candidates for Ordination, by Nicolas Bulgaris, Revised and Edited, the standard catechism in English of the Eastern Orthodox Church, first printed in Venice in 1681.
- The Episcopal Catechism, from the Book of Common Prayer, the standard catechism of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, first compiled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and published in 1789.
- The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife, by Alexander Hislop, a primary catechetical source for Scottish Presbyterians, and later for all anti-Catholic churches and organizations, first published in 1853 as a pamphlet and greatly expanded in 1858.
- A Puritan Catechism, by Charles Spurgeon, the standard catechism of the Congregationalist churches, first published in 1885
- The Baltimore Complete Catechism, The Baltimore Larger Catechism, The Baltimore Smaller Catechism, of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Maryland, the standard catechisms of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the United States (to 1962), first published in 1885.
- Conflict of the Ages, by Ellen G. White, a five-volume book series, the primary catechetical source of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, first published in parts 1890–1917.
- The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, a series of pamphlets first published between 1910 and 1915, and later compiled and edited as a single volume.
Age-specific, doctrinally-centered, denominational Sunday School Lesson Plans and study materials were developed from these sources according to multiple levels of understanding and need.
About 1900 Needham Bryant Broughton (N. B. Broughton) published Why Sunday Schools in Baptist Churches, which became a key text.
Between 1900 and 1920, 100 Socialist Sunday Schools (SSS) were established in 64 cities and towns in various parts of America, with probably more than ten thousand children attending. These SSS included children from 5 to 14 years of age, and they usually met for about two hours on Sunday mornings. According to Kenneth Tietelbaum, the purpose of the SSS was “to contest more directly the overly individualistic, competitive, nationalistic, militaristic… themes prevalent in contemporary public schools and other social institutions,” and help in “supplanting capitalist social and economic relations with a more equitable and cooperative form,” namely Socialism (Schooling for “Good Rebels”: Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920, by Kenneth Teitelbaum, 1 January 1993.)
By 1910, the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches had really taken up the banner of Vacation Bible School, formalizing the process and method of instruction, and publishing their own VBS textbooks.
Beginning in the 1920's the CCD program (Continuing Catholic Development) was developed for those children whose parents could not afford to enroll them in the Catholic educational system (parochial schools and high schools). The CYC (Catholic Youth Council) grew out of this program beginning 1941.
In 1941, the children's program at the North Side Gospel Center in Chicago laid the foundation for the principles of the AWANA program (Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed - 2 Timothy 2:15). Lance Latham, North Side's senior pastor, collaborated with the church's youth director, Art Rorheim, to develop weekly clubs that would appeal to churched and nonchurched kids. As a pioneer in children’s ministry, Art created new and innovative ways to reach kids with the gospel and lead them to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. Other churches learned about the success of the program and inquired about its availability. In 1950, Latham and Rorheim founded Awana as a parachurch organization. By 1960, 900 churches had started Awana programs.
In the early 1960's problems began to develop as newer Sunday school curriculums failed to emphasize personal conversion of life style and works of mercy, and neglected Christian apologetics in favor of a more entertaining style of witness with a "feel-good" approach which contained nothing about personal sacrifice and commitment in the face of doctrinal confusion, indifference, secularism, pop culture, the new age movement and worldly opposition. The realities of sin, the last judgment and hell were ignored. Christian educators began to be at a loss to explain why young people began to leave their churches, and why so many of them entered colleges and universities unprepared to meet liberal and atheist challenges to belief in Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world and the Bible as the inspired word of God.
On June 25, 1962, the United States Supreme Court decided in Engel v. Vitale that a prayer approved by the New York Board of Regents for use in schools violated the First Amendment by constituting an establishment of religion. The following year, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the Court disallowed Bible readings in public schools for similar reasons. These two landmark Supreme Court decisions centered on the place of religion in public education, and particularly the place of Protestantism, which had long been accepted as the given American faith tradition. Some conservatives like Billy Graham and Cardinal Francis Spellman, along with the more liberal Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, condemned these decisions. Others, including the National Association of Evangelicals, applauded the Court for separating the state from the affairs of the church. Christianity Today supported the Court's prayer decision. Religious activity and education was confined to religious institutions and to parachurch organizations.
The Catholic TEC weekend retreat program for teens (Teens Encounter Christ) was developed in 1965, which emphasized teen moral conversion and commitment to Christ in the Church. The first scheduled TEC weekend took place 9-11 October that same year.
Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP, pronounced "Chirp") began as a renewal weekend for adults at Holy Family Parish in Parma, Ohio, in 1969. Separate men's and women's programs were developed.
In 1986 M. L. Moser, Jr. wrote Baptist Handbook for Church Members as an instruction manual for Independent Baptist Churches. In it he stresses the need for solid Christian education in the face of modern compromise with the truth of the Bible, the role of pastors and teachers.
In October 1990, the third annual meeting of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) in Chicago, Illinois, approved the formation of seven study groups to explore seven topics that were identified as critical to moving the Church ahead into the twenty-first century. This was the Project for Orthodox Renewal.
On August 15, 1997 Pope John Paul II officially promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), "a totally reliable way to present, with renewed fervor, each and every part of the Christian message to the people of our time." (Apostolic Letter Laetamur Magnopere.) Particular national, ethnic, age-oriented and special-needs catechisms were to be prepared from this source.
In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention issued The Baptist Faith and Message: The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, which included guidelines for youth education.
In 2002 the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) hosted the First Annual Pan-Orthodox Youth and Camp Workers Conference.
Most recently, well-informed, committed conservative Christian apologists and veteran Sunday School teachers having decades of experience have pointed out that to be effective in equipping young people and professionals to face the challenges of a highly educated secular society, the church needs to redefine the mission of pastors and youth leaders to include training in apologetics and worldview, devout reverence for God and forms of genuinely sincere Christian prayer and contemplation, along with more practical ways of effectively demonstrating and imparting all of this to their students (1 Peter 3:15). See Awe.
They assert that when America was a young nation, the clergy were often the most highly educated members of the community. The congregation looked up to them and respected their intellectual expertise. They argue that it is imperative for seminaries today to broaden the education of pastors to include courses on intellectual history, training future pastors to critique the currently dominant anti-Christian ideologies, and that pastors must once again provide intellectual leadership for their congregations, teaching apologetics from the pulpit, instructing the congregation in ways to defend scripture against the major objections they are likely to encounter, and not to avoid this intellectual task (2 Corinthians 10:5). They warn that a religion that retreats to the therapeutic realm of personal relationships and feelings will not survive in today's spiritual battlefield.
Among the groups emphasizing the primary spiritual value of relationships and feelings is the emerging church movement or Emergent Church which began in the late 20th century, which emphasizes experience, dialogue, feelings, and conversations. These are equated with the reliable inspiration of Scripture, while certitude, authority, and historical doctrine are to be avoided as divisive and spiritually harmful. There is no Sunday School. The emerging church movement claims to be a Conversation instead of a Church. All seekers and believers alike are invited to participate in the unifying, relaxed and informal setting of "the conversation", instead of worshiping in a structured institutional church which emphasizes doctrinal and dogmatic truths. In place of educationally structured Sunday School classes, they sit in large rooms for the purpose of small group gatherings for "enlightening conversations", often lit by candlelight, with the smell of incense and the ringing of bells, surrounded by statues and icons. The Bible itself is variously interpreted according to its perceived relevance or lack of relevance for each individual reader, who is encouraged to express his or her feelings about its value without fear of censure. Leaders of the movement claim to be implementing the Vatican call for authentic ecumenism by promoting the unity of a common spirituality. Catholic apologists dispute this claim, citing the Emerging Church Movement's deliberately heretical distortions of the Vatican II Document Unitatis Redintegratio (UR).
The emerging church movement with its doctrinal indifferentism and its forms of Small Group conversation is viewed with alarm by many conservatives as a radical falling away from historical Christianity through exalting personal subjectivism, and combining distortions of devotional Roman Catholicism, Orthodox mysticism and Protestant pietism, with expressions of "feel-good" New Age teachings about the Cosmic Christ of liberal Christianity in place of the real historical Jesus Who is the true cosmic Christ of St. Paul.
Small Groups versus Sunday School
In the 21st century there has been a renewed resurgence of the debate over Small Groups versus Sunday Schools, a debate having roots in the 17th century (1600's) controversy over Pietist "home churches" versus establishment churches such as the Lutheran and Anglican Churches, and John Wesley's technique of "methodism", questioning which of the two ministries, Small Groups or Sunday Schools, is more effective in producing authentically effective Christian disciples, who worship God in spirit and in truth and selflessly serve the needs of the whole human community, assessing whether Sunday Schools are needed or even necessary or if both can exist together. Foremost among the denominations chiefly opposed to Sunday School is the independent association of the autonomous Churches of Christ.
Sunday School Songs
20 Classic Sunday School Songs:
- Arky Arky
- Down in My Heart
- The B-I-B-L-E
- God Is So Good
- He's Got the Whole World in His Hands
- If You're Happy and You Know It
- I'm in the Lord's Army
- Trust and Obey
- All Day Song
- The Light Medley
- The Jesus Medley
- O Be Careful Little Eyes
- The Lord Is My Shepherd
- The Birdies In The Treetops
- This Train
- Whisper a Prayer
- Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man
- Father Abraham
- Kum Ba Ya
- The Wise Man Built His House
Hear audio recordings of the All Star Children's Chorus singing:
A listing of the lyrics of 30 classic children's Bible songs can be found at:
Raikes' Ragged Regiment: Reflecting on the Sunday School and Non-Sunday School Movements. Reflections by Al Maxie (2005). (zianet.com) includes details regarding historical hostility toward Sunday Schools
Churches of Christ. A Brief History of The One-Cup and Non-Sunday School Movement (freedominchrist.net) the opposition by Alexander Campbell and his successors
Christian Research Institute. The Two Babylons, by Ralph Woodrow (equip.org) a critique and rebuttal of anti-Catholic arguments used by Alexander Hislop, the 19th century author of "The Two Babylons"
Continuing Catholic Development (CCD) (church.stmatt.net) ages 3 through 18.
Commentary. Socialist Sunday Schools, Dennis L. Cuddy, PhD. (newswithviews.com) Socialist Sunday Schools in the United States
History of AWANA (awana.org) began 1941
Awana Clubs: Ecumenical Children's Clubs? warning against AWANA doctrines.
How Awana and Children's Songs are Misleading Our Children (joywbennett.com) a critique of the misleading Awana teaching that Christians are always happy and never sad.
Religion & Politics: Fit For Polite Company. "When the Court Took on Prayer and the Bible in Public Schools", by Michael D. Waggoner (2012) Landmark Court decisions of 1962, 1963, having a legal history going back to the 19th century
History of TEC (tecconference.org) began 1965
OCL - Project for Orthodox Renewal (ocl.org) adult faith formation.
Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary: Choosing Sunday School Curriculum: How Effectively Do You Want to Teach the Bible? (faith.edu) the necessity of improving the effectiveness of Sunday school classes.
Relevant Bible Teaching: When Christian Fundamentalism Goes Too Far failing in basic Christian formation and education.
Sunday School Teacher Certification (sundaysschooldivision.org)
—"Meeting the demands of a diverse and educated society will require that we work harder than previous generations."
Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. The Enlistment and Qualifications of Sunday School Teachers, by Pastor Jack Hyles (jesus-is-savior.com) —Chapter 7 of Hyles Sunday School Manual
Lesson Plans - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (usccb.org) educators and youth leaders.
Grace Communion International: Disciplemaking Ministry: Prayerful Dependence, Jeb Egbert (gci.org) teaching adolescents authentic Christian prayer and Christian discipleship.
Christian Prayer, Meditation and Contemplation, Robert A. Jonas (emptybell.org) authentic Christian prayer traditions.
The Danger of Centering Prayer, Rev. John D. Dreher (catholicculture.org) the technique of centering prayer is neither Christian nor prayer—the deception and dangers can be grave.
Work and Contemplation (multimedia.opusdei.org) communion with Christ without ceasing while working and teaching.
What's So Dangerous About the Emerging Church? (gty.org) proud of uncertainty about the Bible
"The Dangers of the Cosmic Christ: A Review of The Coming of the Cosmic Christ by Matthew Fox", by Bob DeWaay. a conservative Christian review of the influential 1988 seminal heretical text by Matthew Fox
Is Ecumenism A Heresy?, by Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S., emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, and at the time of writing was based at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri (catholic.com)
—exposing four ecumenical errors embodied in the "emerging church movement", deliberate heretical distortions of the Vatican II Document Unitatis Redintegratio (UR).