The history of Sunday School
by Daniel Ausbun, First Baptist Church, Moreland
In nearly every church in the United States, either before or after a worship service or during the week, churches offer Sunday School.
It might not be known as Sunday School in your church. It’s also known as Bible study, small groups, home groups, cell groups, community groups, discipleship groups, life groups, k-groups – or the latest trendy name.
Methodists, Anglicans and Baptists have used the educational ministry of a church to bring about spiritual renewal. Before the words “Sunday School” were used, a unique system was established throughout Great Britain. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, established the “class meeting” in 1742. This was a group of six to twelve people who met for accountability and spiritual growth.
His instructional system brought about a national spiritual renewal in 18th-century England. The primary purpose of the class meeting nearly three centuries ago was to make Christian disciples using small groups.
Class meetings contained several biblical principles. Meeting regularly with a small-group of believers allowed for personal spiritual growth in the presence of others. Second, it allowed for accountability. Third, it allowed the opportunity to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Lastly, the meetings allowed believers to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Sunday evenings served as a favorite meeting time for Methodists, and became the primary source of outreach for the church.
Rapid assimilation and discipleship occurred through class meetings.
In the 1780s Robert Raikes, an Anglican from Gloucester, England founded the Sunday School movement to teach reading on Sundays to children who worked in the factories the other six days of the week. By the early 1800s, churches offered similar classes for working men and women. The classes met on Sundays and weekday evenings.
Initially Sunday School was used to teach reading and writing by using the Bible. Sunday School predated the English State School System.
What inspired Raikes to begin the Sunday School movement?
One evening he walked down the street to look for his gardener. Suddenly, he saw a group of ragged children. They looked poor and overworked. A little boy in a tattered blue shirt swore as he tackled another boy half his size.
"Git your hands offa me!" the little boy yelled as the two of them wrestled on the cobblestones. Soon a crowd of children gathered around, noisily cheering.
"Hey, stop fighting!" Raikes shouted at them as he pulled the two boys apart. "Go home, all of you."
As the children walked away, he asked the gardener's wife, "Who are these children?"
"Ah, pay no mind to them," she answered. "Everyone calls them the white slaves of England."
"Slaves?" asked Raikes.
"They work 12 hours a day or longer in the mills and sweatshops," the woman answered. "Most of their parents are in prison or dead."
He knew that if his father had died when he was little, he could have been one of these poor children. "When do they go to school?" he asked.
"School? They don't go to school. They have to work to live." she answered. “And Sundays are the worst. It's their only day off and they run around like wild animals!"
The first Sunday School was started for orphan children on the streets of England.
Much of Baptist Sunday School today was shaped by Arthur Flake’s Building a Standard Sunday School from 1919. He worked for the Baptist Sunday School Board and developed his famous, “Flake’s Formula.”
It contained five points to build an effective Sunday School, which many churches still use. First, discover prospects. Second, organize to reach the people. Third, enlist and train workers. Fourth, provide classrooms. Fifth, visit and enlist the prospects. Flake reminded churches that the purpose of Sunday School was not solely religious education. He insisted that the Sunday School must “teach” and “reach.”
Baptist historian Leon McBeth claimed, “Nothing has proven more beneficial to Southern Baptists in evangelism and church growth than the effective use of the Sunday School to enlist adults.”
For many Christians, “Sunday School” and “Church” have become inseparably connected. Sunday School provides the original small group experience. From Wesley’s “class meeting” discipleship, to Raikes’ Sunday School for street children, to Flake’s “teach” and “reach” organization – Sunday School should be included in your weekly worship experience.