Question: We don’t have any background or connection with a church, but we would like our children to grow up with a strong moral sense: telling the truth, being considerate of others, etc. Should we enroll them in a Sunday School?
Frank answers: At one time many parents who were not church members sent their children to Sunday School, and they expected their children to learn basic moral values. However, the purpose of Sunday Schools has changed and providing a general moral education is not the primary purpose of most Sunday Schools I know. (Granted, there are always exceptions.) Please read on. I always find that history lessons help to make sense of situations.
Sunday school began in England in the 1780s to provide basic schooling for children who were being employed in the work force in the emerging industrial cities. Since Sunday was a day off from work (the only day off from work!), and Sunday afternoon was usually the time when the parish vicar taught catechism lessons, catechism time was simply expanded to also teach basic literacy. In other words, the first Sunday schools were actually schools as we think of them.
The English Anglican evangelical Robert Raikes (1725-1811) was the key promoter of the movement. It caught on throughout Britain and soon spread to America also. Other denominations and even non-denominational organizations caught the vision and energetically began to create Sunday schools. Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular.
By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of Protestant childhood. Even parents who did not regularly attend church themselves generally insisted that their children go to Sunday School. Working-class families were grateful for this opportunity for their children to receive an education. They also looked forward to annual social highlights such as prize days, parades, and picnics, which came to mark the calendars of their lives as much as more traditional seasonal holidays. Sunday school pupils often graduated to become Sunday school teachers, thereby gaining an experience of leadership not to be found elsewhere in their lives. Not surprisingly, Marxists regarded the Sunday School as an example of empowering the proletariat.
Since the movement was promoted by evangelicals, the Bible was the core textbook used for learning to read. Likewise, many children learned to write by copying out passages from the Scriptures. A basic catechism was also taught, as were spiritual practices such as prayer and hymn-singing. Inculcating Christian morality and virtues was another goal of the movement and Sunday Schools were promoted by mills and mines in communities where many worked in them.
In both Britain and America, universal, compulsory state education was established by the 1870s and child labor laws were enacted. After that, reading and writing were learned on weekdays at public schools and the Sunday School curriculum was limited to religious education. Nevertheless, many parents continued to send their children to Sunday School.
Sunday Schools functioned as auxiliaries of congregations, often with their own officers, boards, and treasuries. The school session often opened with a general assembly of everyone, children, youth, and adults. There was hymn singing, often of an evangelical revival character. In fact, revival hymns were sung in the Sunday Schools and more churchly hymns in the worship service. Denominations produced Sunday School hymnals that were different from the church hymnals. There was Bible reading and prayer and a Sunday School offering. After announcements everyone went off to their separate classes. Many church buildings had a Sundau School wing with classrooms on two levels off of a central assembly area that also served as a general fellowship hall.
Two things happened in the 1960s that changed the character of Sunday Schools. First, the trend toward permissive parenting meant that a widespread culture of insisting that children go to Sunday School whether they wanted to or not (especially when the parents were not themselves going to church) was abandoned. Sunday schools shrank in size because only the children of committed church members attended them.
Second, Sunday Schools changed from being an quasi-independent auxiliary of the congregations to being the Christian education arm of congregations. Sunday School played a role in Christian education and faith formation. The Sunday School’s purpose was to engage children and their families in the life of the church. The Sunday School assembly was largely abandoned and children went directly to their classrooms. Singing and Bible reading occurred in the classroom with age-appropriate songs and Bible stories. Often the older children were taught the hymns and worship music used in the church’s liturgy or public worship. In recent years curriculum material in the more liturgical denominations has been based on the lectionary—the system of Bible readings read in the Sunday liturgies.
I should note that while Sunday School has been largely an institution of Protestant churches, it is also now provided in Roman Catholic and Orthodox parishes, as well as Jewish synagogues and perhaps even Muslim community centers for religious education.
As you make your decision, let me lay out these realities of most current Sunday Schools. It is still sometimes the case that parents enroll their kids in Sunday School and then go off to have their Sunday morning coffee or (better) have coffee at church and attend an adult education forum. In many cases — unfortunately! — Sunday School is held at the same time as worship so that parents can worship while children learn. I say “unfortunately” because children then miss the more profound formation that takes place by participating in the public worship of the church. Sunday School should include instruction about worship and how to participate in it because worship is to central to the Christian life. But if the children are not regularly participating in the liturgy of the church, this is teaching into a vacuum.
What I’m saying is that most Sunday Schools are an integral part of the life and mission of the congregation. And the Bible stories are still the core curriculum because the Bible provides the basis of the church’s beliefs. Strong moral values will come out of this curriculum — like those enshrined in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. But these moral teachings are inseparable from the life of God’s people and should be presented as such. They are not general moral principles but training in Christian discipleship. Are these your moral values? Are you ready to embrace Christian discipleship? If so, join a faith community and enroll your children in its Christian education program. If not, you might consider providing your own moral education of your children at home.
Pastor Frank C. Senn