Since the 1870s, the Sunday school in Protestant churches has been called the nursery of the church. It has been a primary means of growing children into church members. Estimates from the 1890s in mainline denominations in the United States (i.e., Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian) were that over 80 percent of all new members were nurtured through the Sunday school. Today the Sunday school continues to encourage membership and denominational formation. Throughout the twentieth century, approximately 60 to 70 percent of church members in mainline denominations were nurtured through the Sunday school; in evangelical denominations (like the Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist), the percentage was even higher.
Begun in the latter half of the 1700s, Robert Raikes, an English prison reformer, is credited with inventing the Sunday school. Raikes and other philanthropists sought to provide basic education, particularly in reading and religion, for children of the working poor. The hope was that education on Sunday, often extending to morning and afternoon sessions, would provide the children who worked in factories with the basic skills and character to become contributing members of society. This same vision of character reform and basic education fueled the Sunday school in industrial American cities and on the American frontier.
By the 1830s, this social outreach purpose was expanded to include the children of church members. Therefore, through the nineteenth century, Sunday schools were sponsored by both churches and philanthropic agencies for two purposes: (1) mission, the character building and evangelization of unschooled children, and (2) congregational education, the denominational formation of the children of church members. Most Sunday schools in the United States used a uniform lesson curriculum (cooperatively approved in 1872 at a meeting of denominational leaders, the National Sunday School Convention) that consisted of a seven-year pattern of biblical study studying each week the same lesson across age groups. Because the uniform lesson was also used in worldwide church missions, many proclaimed that the same text was studied throughout the world each Sunday.
In the early twentieth century, the educational tasks of the Sunday school were enhanced. Renamed the church school, significant teacher training, increased pedagogical sensitivity, additional educational programs for youth and adults, and curricular resources emphasizing religious development were added. Sunday church school instruction grew uniformly throughout Protestant education into the 1920s until a division of churches occurred resulting from conflict over methods of historical biblical scholarship (the fundamentalist/modernist controversy). Two major forms resulted: mainline denominations emphasized a school teaching theology and biblical scholarship while evangelical denominations focused on appropriating the witness of the biblical story.
In the twenty-first century, complemented by family education, youth and children's ministries, NURSERY SCHOOLS, music ministry, and intensive biblical and theological studies of the issues of faith and living, the Sunday school continued as a primary setting of congregational education. Curricula were diverse, produced by denominational and interdenominational publishing houses, ranging from Bible study (including lectionary studies complementing the biblical texts defined for worship) to sophisticated studies addressing ethical issues. Sunday schools provided their members education and spiritual growth, personal support and community, and evangelism and social outreach.
See also: Youth Ministries.
Seymour, Jack L. 1982. From Sunday School to Church School: Continuities in Protestant Church Education, 1860–1929. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Seymour, Jack L., Robert T. O'Gorman, and Charles R. Foster. 1984. The Church and the Education of the Public: Refocusing the Task of Religious Education. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wyckoff, D. Campbell, ed. 1986. Renewing the Sunday School and CCD. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.
JACK L. SEYMOUR