Sunday School classes at LCM resume on September 8. On that day we will give thanks to God during a special rite for our teachers and ask God to bless them in their work. Sunday marks the 239th year of Sunday School classes, if we date our work to the modern Sunday School movement begun in 1780 inspired by the Englishman, Robert Raikes.
We could date our school to BCE 80-70 and Simon ben Shetah who established the first known system of religious schools in connection with synagogues in Palestine. Attendance was obligatory, and schools continued to exist into the time of Jesus and beyond.
Gregory the Illuminator Christianized Armenia in the 4th century with a compulsory system of Bible schools for children in every city.
Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan introduced Bible schools similar to our modern day institutions in the middle of the 16th century.
In Martin Luther’s day, school was often limited to the sons of the wealthy. In his effort to make scripture available to all, he promoted compulsory education. Luther believed education was necessary in order to read the Bible. Luther also sought to take education away from ecclesiastical authors, writes Susan Karant-Nunn and placed education’s responsibility in the hands of secular authorities.
Addressing Wittenberg, Germany’s city father, Luther wrote, “My dear sirs, if we have to spend such large sums every year on guns, roads, bridges, dams and countless similar items to insure the temporal peace and prosperity of a city, why should not much more be devoted to the poor neglected youth? A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable and well-educated citizens.” (https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/martin-luther-was-advocate-education-reform)
Robert Raikes was reported to be visiting friends outside his hometown of Gloucester, England where he saw children “cursing, gambling and fighting.” A woman standing by him said, “This is nothing compared to what goes on Sundays. You’d be shocked.”
At the time, children worked with their parents in factories and on Sunday their behavior was “unrestrained.” John Mark Yeats, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary writes, “Many children of the poor worked horrible hours in factories during the week—often in excess of 12 hours a day. Those on the lower end of the economic spectrum often did not have access to educational opportunities due to their overburdened work schedules, which kept them trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Robert Raikes addressed the dreadful social condition with the introduction of Sunday schools. Classes began at 10:00 am and concluded at 5:00. Children were given proper clothing and shoes if they arrived in need. Factory owners noticed behavioral changes in those children attending Sunday School.
A movement, with social and religious benefits, had begun. Within twenty years, 200,000 were enrolled in Sunday School. By 1850, the number of students was more than 2 million and were found in towns throughout England and the US (Aaron Earls, How the Forgotten History of Sunday School Can Point A Way Forward).
On Sunday, say thank-you to a teacher for the time given on our behalf to teach our children.
With our teachers, let our imagination soar as we look to the future and our continued responsibility to teach our children to read the Bible, understand it and let its words and message continue to undergird the church and inspire each of us. Sunday Schools are no longer needed to teach children to read and write as they were in 18th century England and the U.S. But the Bible remains for Lutherans “Sola scriptura” as the sacred source of authority for Christian faith and practice. Creative thinking will help us fulfill the teaching responsibility, perhaps in new and very different ways.
(The five solas or principals of the Protestant Reformation include: Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone and Glory alone to God.)