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From grass-roots education to Sunday child-minding

12 January 2018

Sunday schools emerged two centuries ago to meet working-class children’s needs. Naomi Thompson explores how their powerful element of outreach dwindled



A Sunday school was held in a village pub in Alswear, Devon, in 1953

A Sunday school was held in a village pub in Alswear, Devon, in 1953

MANY people today are unaware of how Sunday schools began. They did not emerge as a Sunday-morning class for the children of churchgoers. Rather, voluntary teachers brought young people into their homes to teach them to read and write on Sunday afternoons. For young people, this was their only day off from work. The Bible was their textbook.

A radical movement, it faced criticism from churches, on sabbatarian grounds, for teaching on the Lord’s Day, and, more widely, for teaching working-class young people to write, lest they gain the power to change the social order. The Revd Dr Mark Griffiths, whose books on ministry with children and young people include One Generation from Extinction (Monarch, 2009; Features, 23 April 2010), has described how Sunday schools connected with the “social currency” of their time and place: the need for basic education.

Understandings of youth changed during the late 18th and 19th centuries. The sociologist Frank Musgrove famously remarked that “the adolescent was invented at the same time as the steam engine.” After the Industrial Revolution, as machines began to replace jobs previously undertaken by people, the youth labour market changed significantly.

In the 19th century, there were growing concerns about child labour and the need for the young to be educated. The historian Harry Hendrick tells us that children were increasingly seen as being in need of protection, and this led to the Factory Acts of the early 19th century (which restricted child employment), as well as the rise of mainstream education. He tells us, however, that while children were seen as vulnerable, young people were increasingly seen as a threat.

These changing conceptions of youth, and the policy and practice interventions that followed them, meant that Sunday schools needed to change to meet the changing social currencies of the time. In his historical account of the movement, Philip Cliff explains that Robert Raikes, an Anglican layman and disputed pioneer of the first Sunday school, intended Sunday schools to shift from teaching basic education to labouring skills, as society changed in the early decades of the movement. This never happened.

ALAMYDoes the cap fit? Sunday-school children in clogs and caps, in Lancashire

Instead, as day schools became mainstream during the 19th century — board schools with non-denominational religious teaching were established alongside the existing denominational voluntary schools by the 1870 Education Act, and then schooling was made compulsory in 1880 — Sunday schools’ focus moved to be solely on religious education.

As they became more closely attached to churches, their success became increasingly understood in terms of the numbers of Sunday scholars moving into church membership: in an Anglican context, since the children would normally have been baptised as infants, learning the denominational teaching represented by the catechism, and proceeding to confirmation and holy communion.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, owing to specific concerns about the youth of the time, the focus of much youth work was on moral character and physical discipline. This can be seen in the activities of, for example, working lads’ clubs, the YMCA clubs, and emerging movements such as the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigades, and the (Anglican) Church Lads’ and Church Girls’ Brigades. Within this focus on character education, religious observance was particularly emphasised.

I and several other researchers have noted that Sunday-school attendance peaked in the early 20th century. Doreen Rosman estimated that three-quarters of school-age children in England were on Sunday-school registers in the early 20th century. The Congregational minister H. A. Hamilton suggested that, in the mid-20th century, 80 per cent of those attending were from non-churchgoing families. My research, however, found a rapid and long-term decline during the 1960s; by the early 1970s, Sunday schools were a shadow of their former well-attended selves, and were primarily used by church families only.

From the mid-20th century, amid changes in education generally, not least with the 1944 Education Act, and a shift in people’s relationship with churches, Sunday schools needed to rethink the social currencies that they could tap into, and not assume that they could continue with a focus solely on religious teaching. By now, they were so firmly within and directed by their churches that there was little room for manoeuvre.

In the 1940s and ’50s, a new model for Sunday school was proposed by Hamilton, who became Principal of Westhill College, which had been founded in 1907 to train Free Church Sunday-school teachers. Hamilton’s “family church” model was based on a vision of bringing Sunday school and church more closely together: Sunday schools largely operated in the afternoon and were not necessarily held in the church itself.

The idea was that churches and their Sunday schools would discuss the best time to run their activities concurrently, and that young people would attend the first part of the service before heading to their Sunday schools. Part of his vision was a mentoring scheme in which adults in the congregation would look after the young people who attended Sunday school by, for example, sitting with them at the start of the church service and even visiting them at home.

ALAMYGentleman and players: David Sheppard, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Islington, was taking his Sunday-school class in July 1956 when he learnt that he had been chosen to play test cricket against Australia

Hamilton’s model was implemented widely, but not as intended. Instead, Sunday schools were simply shifted to fit with existing times of church services, and I have seen no evidence that any long-term mentoring schemes were developed. By this point, the sole success of Sunday school was understood only in relation to whether the young people became adult members of church. This remained low throughout the movement and increased only as the proportion of non-church young people attending them drastically declined.

By the 1960s, Sunday schools had moved completely away from focusing on the needs of the community or tapping into social currencies. This proved fatal in a time of shifting relationships with Christianity and churches; and the only young people whom we generally see in Sunday school today are the children of the adults attending. What started as an outreach movement is now, at worst, little more than childcare provision. At best, it offers children the chance to engage with the Christian faith, but rarely for those outside the church community.

The purpose and success of Sunday schools became defined by a narrow church agenda that trumped the needs of those whom Sunday schools were established to serve. Sadly, we see this in youth work today. In my research, some church youth workers told me that the success of their work is measured purely by “bums on seats”. These workers often feel that their work with young people outside of services is not valued, whether it focuses on social engagement, spiritual development, or both. The only priority is “filling the church”. One youth worker told me of her church: “I don’t think they’re taking responsibility for the fact that they need to meet the needs of the young people; they don’t think twice about the young people meeting their needs.” This is an echo of the attitudes of the last century’s churches towards their Sunday schools.

Throughout history, those engaging with young people have been criticised for the absence of this group on Sunday mornings; and yet little investment is made by their critics in forming relationships between young people and church. Youth workers need the support of their churches and not to be expected to manage relationships between young people and church by themselves. Churches need to consider whether service times and styles are engaging for young people.

This leaves us with some challenging questions for churches wanting to engage with young people today:

  • What can we learn from both the success and decline of the 200-year Sunday-school movement?
  • How is “success” in youth work today framed and understood by churches?
  • What are the social currencies that are being, or that could be, tapped into by churches today?


Dr Naomi Thompson is a lecturer in youth and community work at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her book, Young People and Church since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion is published by Routledge.

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