Robert Raikes invented Sunday Schools to minister to inner-city boys (July 1780). We should understand this as missionary ministry for a very specific people group—children in the inner-city slums. Raikes was a philanthropist and an Anglican layperson. He initiated the Sunday school movement by founding a school for boys in the inner-city slums. Raikes had been involved with prisoners incarcerated in the “Poor Law”—workhouse prisons set up for those in poverty, and he wanted to set up a Christian school to educate boys before they got in trouble. The best available time was Sunday as poor boys were often working in factories the other six days. The best available teachers were ordinary people. The textbook was the Bible, and the originally intended curriculum started with learning to read and then progressed to the catechism. Raikes bore most of the cost for the Sunday Schools in the early years. The movement began in July 1780 in the home of a Mrs. Meredith. Only boys attended, and she heard the lessons of the older boys who coached the younger. Later, girls also attended. Within two years, several schools opened in and around Gloucester. Later the schools were publicized through papers, and they received some criticism—including that this would weaken home-based religious education, and that Sunday School might be a desecration of the Christian Sabbath. By 1831, Sunday schools in Great Britain were teaching weekly 1.25 million children, approximately 25 percent of the population.
“The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.” –quoted in Montrose J. Moses, Children’s Books and Reading (1907).
Consider the words of Pastor Charles Spurgeon as he talked about Sunday School nearly one hundred years later:
- Charles H. Spurgeon, “Children Brought to Christ, and Not to the Font” (July 24, 1864)
“So soon as they become of years capable of understanding the things of God, we endeavor to bring them to Christ by teaching them the truth. Hence our Sabbath schools, hence the use of the Bible and family prayer, and catechizing at home.”
“I do think that the gospel is suitable to little children. There are boys and girls in many of our Sabbath-school classes down below stairs, who are as truly converted to God as any of us.”