This year marks the bicentenary of the death of Robert Raikes (14 September 1736 – 5 April 1811), the Englishman who helped to turn Sunday School into an international institution.

He did not found Sunday School, as the first was opened in 1751 at St Mary’s Church in Nottingham.  In 1769, Hannah Ball founded one in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. However, Raikes laid the groundwork for a number of Sunday Schools across England during his lifetime.  In the United States, mill owner Samuel Slater, originally from Derbyshire, began one for his child labourers in 1790.

Raikes was the grandson of an Anglican vicar, Yorkshireman Timothy Raikes, and the son of a newspaper owner, also named Robert.  Robert Raikes the Elder (as he is known) had settled in Gloucester by the time Robert Raikes the Younger was born.  His Gloucester Journal had been in publication for several years by then.  Raikes the Younger inherited the newspaper in 1757.

Raikes was concerned about the effect that the Industrial Revolution had upon children, especially boys.  He saw that because of a six-out-of-seven day workweek, they had no means of moral, religious or educational development.  Many adult factory workers were illiterate.  Furthermore, either exhaustion or social circumstances prevented them from attending church.  In the worst cases, fathers had ended up in jail or the workhouse, as they were too impoverished to pay their debts.  Raikes visited these institutions regularly and was appalled at the conditions, including the lack of food.

Raikes’s middle-class contemporaries hired governesses or tutors for their children.  Some sent their sons to fee-based local grammar schools or to boarding schools, which are still known today as ‘public schools’.  There were no state-run institutions at the time, although a number of charity or church-endowed ragged schools — some better than others — existed for the education of the poor and working class.

Raikes was so unsettled by the social conditions in Gloucester’s slums that he asked the Revd Thomas Stock of Ashbury, Berkshire, for advice.  Surely, a day-long school session held on Sundays and using the Bible as the textbook would teach the boys how to read and introduce them to Christianity.  Diligent students would then have not only skills to help them out of the grind of poverty but also equip them with good morals and biblical knowledge.

So, in 1780, a Gloucester woman, Mrs Meredith, opened her home to start the first Sunday School.  Raikes publicised the new venture in the Gloucester Journal and it quickly caught the attention of Englishmen nationwide.  In a recent biography of Raikes, the Telegraph recounted the story (emphases mine below):

In beginning Sunday schools, he worked with a local clergyman, at first paying four women to teach children in their houses. In 1780 he started a Sunday school in his own parish of St Mary de Crypt, hearing the children’s reading and awarding prizes.

Writing about the success of his venture in his own paper, Raikes attracted the attention of the Gentleman’s Magazine. The idea spread. “I find these schools springing up everywhere I go,” John Wesley noted in 1784. By 1786, 200,000 children were said to be involved.

Raikes had hit upon a need at a time when people were willing to do something to remedy it. Others had been working elsewhere on a similar idea. There was much energy among nonconformists, but Raikes was keen to make the enterprise serve the mission of the Church of England. Some parsons were reluctant to help, finding no warrant for it in the Book of Common Prayer and disapproving of independent lay initiatives.

Initially, only boys were allowed to attend, possibly because of their future roles as primary breadwinners. However, it was not long before Raikes and his teachers admitted girls to the classes. Raikes wrote the instructions for the teachers and described how they structured the day:

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.

As one would expect, Raikes was not without his critics.  Wikipedia says:

There were disputes about the movement in the early years. The schools were derisively called “Raikes’ Ragged School”. Criticisms raised included that it would weaken home-based religious education, that it might be a desecration of the Sabbath, and that Christians should not be employed on the Sabbath. “Sabbatarian disputes” in the 1790s led many Sunday schools to cease their teaching of writing.

In 1811, the year Raikes died, the Telegraph states:

there was founded the splendidly named National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. One thing it did was to provide booklets for Sunday schools. Under the modest name of the National Society, it still exists, promoting the Church education of a million children on weekdays.

Twenty years after Raikes’s death:

Sunday schools in Great Britain were teaching weekly 1,250,000 children, approximately 25 percent of the population.

Nonconformist churches and chapels also started Sunday Schools, particularly in deprived areas.  It was not unknown for adults to begin attending them in some regions.  From there, church-sponsored activities and associations began, particularly for the needy and disadvantaged.  One excellent illustration is that of Surrey Chapel in Southwark (London), which existed between 1783 and 1881.  Southwark, although somewhat transformed now with a number of office blocks, is still a poor area and has a number of council estates for its residents.  Surrey Chapel, however, helped transform the borough.  From Wikipedia (earlier link):

When built it was set in open fields, but within a few years it became a new industrial area with a vast population characterised by great poverty amidst pockets of wealth. Recently the site itself has been redeveloped as an office block (currently occupied by the London Development Agency), and Southwark Underground Station has been built opposite …

Its founding pastor, Rowland Hill, having a strong interest in inoculation, established one of the most effective vaccination boards in London at Surrey Chapel …

Surrey Chapel, though owned and managed by independent trustees primarily as a Nonconformist chapel, was operated as a venue for music, singing, and for the meetings of charities, associations and societies, several of which became closely associated with it. For a time, the composer and arranger Benjamin Jacob was organist, attracting thousands; a practical response to Rowland Hill’s well known concern about chapel music of the time: ‘Why should the Devil have all the good tunes ?’

Surrey Chapel – as a result of this ‘open door’ policy – became a popular London venue … as well as the site of the first Sunday School in London. So much so, that new premises had to be found to accommodate the growth in services, ragged schools, Sunday schools and the Southwark Mission for the Elevation of the Working Classes – an auxiliary to Surrey Chapel managed by the plain speaking George Murphy for the increasing numbers of industrial poor of the district.

infed (the informal education homepage and encyclopaedia of informal education) tells us:

By the mid-1800s many Sunday Schools had passed into the control of working people, although the membership of chapels would appear to have been drawn rather more from the skilled than the un-skilled working class (McLeod, 1984, p.24). Three quarters of working class children were attending such schools in 1851 (Lacquer 1976: 44). This was popular provision on a massive scale.

… the key element in the success of Sunday Schools was that they provided the education and expressed the values that working-class parents wanted for their children. In particular, it was the transmission of the values of the ‘respectable’ working class or labour aristocracy that were stressed: self-discipline, industry, thrift, improvement, egalitarianism and communalism. Sunday Schools, when considered in this light, paralleled other working class institutions such as friendly societies, trade unions and savings banks. Sunday Schools were used not simply to improve literacy and religious knowledge but also, arguably, to enhance the culture of working class life.

Indeed, if you walk around the area near the site of the former Surrey Chapel, you can still find a workingman’s temperance mutual society in Blackfriars Road. The council block across from the chapel (now the LDA building) is called Rowland Hill House.

As for Sunday Schools in the United States, the New York Times archive has a long article from 1865, which describes a meeting of the Methodist Sunday School Union, incorporating Methodist Episcopal churches.  This excerpt gives you an idea of the Sunday School ethos:

ORANGE JUDD, Esq., editor of the Agriculturist, then made an address. He gave some reminiscences of his own early days, when Sunday-schools were first organized among the log cabins where he lived when a boy, and referred to his own long experience as a Sunday-school teacher, and to his sense of obligation to Sunday schools for the good reading and good training they supplied, and explained how the children could bring other children into the schools …

In the course of his address, Mr. JUDD called on all those present who desired to go to heaven, to signify it by raising their right hand, which occasioned a heavy vote

The exercises were ended in the usual manner, and the children filed out in good order, and with pleased faces

The proceedings of the afternoon were inaugurated by the singing of “Glory to the Father give” by the united schools, subsequent to which Rev. W.F. COLLINS offered up prayer. The singing of the “Children’s Jubilee” was followed by an able address by Rev. W.W. HICKS, of Delaware, who welcomed the children and spoke to them of their duties toward God. A second address in the same spirit was delivered by JOSEPH LONGKING, Esq., and the “Sunday School Banner” by the pupils brought the exercises to a close. The benediction having been pronounced by the chairman, the assemblage then dispersed …

The galleries were thronged with the parents and friends of the little ones, who presented an orderly and attractive appearance … D.L. ROSS, Esq., delivered an address happily appropriate to the occasion, which elicited attention from all the children. He alluded to the necessity of Sunday-school instruction, to mold the early character, and its vast influence in disseminating the gospel among the young. After drawing a vivid picture of the thousands of little ones exposed to every temptation in this city, he contrasted their condition with those who had the advantages of the religious instruction which the Sunday-school afforded, and urged the necessity of advancing in the work.

Back in Blighty, the Telegraph concludes:

Sunday school and parish church formed a virtuous circle, each supporting the other.

Today, with leisure to be had on other days too, parish groups have diversified, but surely nothing can compare for intensity of mutual improvement with the 19th-century Sunday school.