by Al Maxey

Issue #184 ------- April 14, 2005
I verily think these Sunday Schools are one of
the noblest specimens of charity which have been
set on foot in England since William the Conqueror.

John Wesley (1703-1791)

Raikes' Ragged Regiment
Reflecting on the Sunday School
and Non-Sunday School Movements

Sunday Schools have been around for so long, and have become so much a part of most of our lives, that a great many of us may believe they have just always been there! Have you ever wondered about the source of the Sunday School? Who started it? And why? The actual concept of providing spiritual instruction for children and youth is nothing new. Indeed, it's as ancient as mankind. Moses told the people of Israel, "These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deut. 6:6-7). "The people were not to concern themselves only with their own attitudes toward the Lord. They were to concern themselves with impressing these attitudes on their children as well" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 66).

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus, in his classic work Antiquities of the Jews, informs us that children were regularly instructed in the Law of God beginning at a very early age. "Let the children also learn the laws, as the first thing they are taught, which will be the very best thing they can be taught, and will be the cause of their future felicity" (book 4, chapter 8, section 12). This early instruction of the young was so thorough that Josephus observed, "If any one of us should be questioned concerning the laws, he could much more easily repeat them all, than his own name." Few people question the need for instruction of the young (or even of adults, for that matter). The problem has always been associated with how, when, and by whom this instruction should be accomplished.

The focus of this present issue of my Reflections, however, is the modern Sunday School movement of which most of us are familiar, and in which most of us probably participated as children, and with which we most likely still involve ourselves at the present in some capacity. Although there is some debate as to exactly when, where, and by whom the first Sunday School was established, most attribute its development, if not its origin, to a man by the name of Robert Raikes (1735-1811). He was born September 14, 1735 in Gloucester, England, to Robert and Mary Raikes. He served as an apprentice to his father, who was a printer and the founder of the Gloucester Journal. When his father died in 1757, Raikes became editor of the paper, enlarging its size and making significant improvements to the layout.

One of the concerns Raikes had was over the plight of the poorer children of his city. He observed how easy it was for them to drift into a life of crime, and thus end up in the prison system. It was his conviction that a great many of the parents of these poor children -- children who were spending a lot of time on the streets while the parents were working in the factories (and oftentimes the children themselves were forced to work in the factories) -- were "totally abandoned themselves, having no idea of instilling into the minds of their children principles to which they themselves were entire strangers." If these parents were neglecting their obligation to teach their children, and to pass on to them good moral qualities, then Raikes felt another means of doing so must be found. Robert Raikes had once commented, "The world marches forth on the feet of little children." Thus, he believed very strongly that if one sought to change society for the better, and ultimately decrease the prison population, one must reach the children.

The children of the poor were in particular need of help, as they often had to work in the factories six days a week to help support their parents. Thus, they were uneducated, with little prospect for bettering themselves as they grew older. They were poorly dressed, ragged, unwashed, and often hungry and sickly. Sunday was the only day they had free, and many of these children would roam the streets on Sunday, making a lot of noise and getting into all kinds of mischief. There were often complaints from the "good church folk" that on Sunday, as they were attempting to worship, "the street was full of children cursing and swearing and spending their time in noise and riot."

To help solve this problem, Robert Raikes, along with a local pastor named Thomas Stock, decided to start a Sunday School at St. Mary le Crypt Church in Gloucester. This was July, 1780. He hired four local women to serve as teachers, and began to put the word out through his newspaper. In rather short order they were able to enroll about 100 children, ranging in age from five to fourteen years old. Some of the children were reluctant to come at first; they were embarrassed because their clothes were so torn and ragged. However, Raikes told them that all they needed was "a clean face and combed hair." Every Sunday the school provided reading lessons from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (with an hour in the middle for lunch, which was provided). They were then taken to the church and instructed in the catechism until about 5:30 p.m. Raikes also printed up the reading and study materials, providing them to the children at no cost. He proved to be quite a generous benefactor to the poor children of his city.

In time, the transformation of these young people was dramatic. They ceased their swearing and cursing, they began to behave responsibly, and developed a desire to better themselves. A hemp and flax manufacturer in the city, a man by the name of Mr. Church, who employed many of these children during the week, said, "The change could not have been more extraordinary, in my opinion, had they been transformed from the shape of wolves and tigers to that of men." Society also benefited from this Sunday School. After Raikes began this effort the crime rate dropped astoundingly both in the city and county where Raikes lived. In fact, in 1786 the magistrates of the area passed a unanimous vote of thanks for the impact Robert Raikes and his Sunday School had upon the morals of the youth of that area.

In 1785 a Sunday School Society was formed in London for the purpose of helping distribute Bibles and spelling books, as well as to help coordinate and develop the work of this growing movement. By 1784, just four years after Robert Raikes started his Sunday School with a hundred students in Gloucester, there were said to be thousands of students in Sunday Schools across England, with adults attending as well as children. The movement grew impressively, and by 1851 it was reported that three quarters of all working class children were attending such Sunday Schools (T.W. Laqueur, Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, p. 44). Just eight years after Raikes formed his first Sunday School, John Wesley wrote to a friend, "I verily think these Sunday Schools are one of the noblest specimens of charity which have been set on foot in England since William the Conqueror."

Raikes himself, not one to seek personal acclaim for his efforts, gave all the glory and praise for this work to the Lord God. He wrote, "Providence was pleased to make me the instrument of introducing Sunday School and regulations in prisons. Not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy name be the glory." Robert Raikes died of a heart attack in 1811. The local children of the Sunday Schools attended his funeral, and each child, by prior order, was given a shilling and a large piece of Raike's famous plum cake. Even in death he was thinking of the children!

Expansion to America

As one might imagine, Sunday Schools became far too popular a concept to remain only in England. The idea began to spread rapidly to other nations as well. There is some argument as to exactly when and where the first Sunday School was started in the American colonies. Some historical evidence exists to suggest that Sunday instruction of children occurred as early as 1669 at the Plymouth colony, and also at Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1674. In 1785 a Sunday School was begun by William Elliott in Accomac County, Virginia. Each Sunday afternoon Elliott arranged to have several white boys and girls meet in his home to be instructed in the Bible. The Negro slaves were taught at a different hour. A year later, in 1786, a second school was founded in Hanover County, Virginia by a Methodist preacher named Francis Asbury. This Sunday School was primarily concerned with the instruction of the Negro slaves.

Initially, both in Europe and America, the Sunday School was a private endeavor, largely run by individuals who simply had an interest in the education, both spiritual and secular, of the underprivileged children of the day. Soon, however, people began to see the need for a more organized, united effort to spread this concept throughout the land. Thus, with the dawning of the 19th century, more and more Sunday Schools came to be established, organized and overseen by various societies and unions. In other words, they came to be institutionalized. The first one in America was formed in Philadelphia in January, 1791. It was known as the "First Day School Society," and was formed to provide for the education of the poor female children of that city. Other large cities soon followed the lead of Philadelphia, including Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, Albany, Hartford, Baltimore, and Charleston.

The spirit of Nationalism contributed to a growing demand for a Sunday School organization on a national level. This perceived need led to the formation, in May, 1824, of the "American Sunday School Union." Its purpose, as stated in its constitution, was: "To concentrate the efforts of Sabbath School societies in different portions of our country; to disseminate useful information; to circulate moral and religious publications in every part of the land; and to endeavor to plant Sunday Schools wherever there is a population." Six years later they decided to send missionaries over the Alleghenies into the Mississippi Valley. Perhaps the best known of these missionaries was a man by the name of Stephen Paxson. He traveled from one small community to another, from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, all on his horse, which he had named "Robert Raikes." During his many years of service to the ASSU, he established and organized 1314 Sunday Schools, with a total of 83,405 teachers and students. Many of these planted Sunday Schools eventually grew to become churches within the community in which they had been established. The churches then typically retained the Sunday School as a part of their organization and missionary outreach.

Eventually it was decided that National Sunday School Conventions were needed, and that they should be held annually. The first was held in Philadelphia in 1832. There were 220 delegates from 15 states present. Some of the topics discussed at this convention were the need for organizing an Infant/Toddler program in the Sunday Schools and the need for qualifying teachers. The second national convention was held in 1833, also in the city of Philadelphia. The third convention was again held in Philadelphia, but it was 26 years later, in 1859. Seventeen states were represented, with one visitor from Great Britain. The fourth national convention was held ten years later, in 1869, in Newark, New Jersey. There were 526 delegates in attendance, representing 28 states. Visitors from England, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and South Africa attended.

From 1872 onward, the National Sunday School Conventions have met every three years, and, due to a large number of foreign nations participating in these conventions, they have changed their name to the International Sunday School Convention. Many religious education scholars, as well as church history scholars, believe that the Sunday Schools did as much to "tame the west" in the early days of our history as just about anything else. It also had a tremendous impact on the spread of Christianity westward. Although not everyone appreciated the concept of the Sunday School, few would deny its impact upon society.

The Anti-Sunday School Movement

As might be expected with virtually any new concept or practice, there has always been an element of fierce opposition to Sunday Schools running parallel to this movement throughout history. Whereas some happily embraced the idea of a Sunday School, and others were basically indifferent to it, some were vehemently opposed to the whole concept. Indeed, there were a few radical opponents who even went so far as to declare that anyone who endorsed or participated in a Sunday School would go to hell. This was not a minor issue to these people; it was not a matter of personal opinion. It was a matter of FAITH, and heaven and hell rested in the balance!

In 1830, a Baptist Association in the state of Illinois passed a resolution which said, in part, "We as an Association do not hesitate to say that we declare an unfellowship with Foreign and Domestic Mission and Bible Societies, Sunday Schools, and all other Missionary Institutions." A good many of the Baptist churches in the Midwest at that time adopted this anti-mission society and anti-Sunday school position. In the early 19th century in America, many "extra-church" societies and institutions began forming. There were foreign missionary societies, Bible societies, tract societies, temperance societies, anti-Masonic societies, and countless others. Most all of these were operating outside of the oversight of regular denominational groups. They had become independent efforts to do the work of the Lord. This raised significant concerns in many of the more fundamentalist groups -- a concern that the church was being supplanted by a human institution. Therefore, these various efforts, among which was the Sunday School, were perceived by some to be an attack against the church itself, and thus the work of Satan.

Several denominational groups split over this Sunday School versus Anti-Sunday School issue. The Churches of Christ were no exception. In an article he titled, "A Muddled Movement," brother Carl Ketcherside noted the fierce animosity that had developed between the two perspectives and practices in the Churches of Christ. "Neither regards the other as in its 'fellowship;' both brand and stigmatize each other as 'unfaithful' and 'disloyal,' each using its party prejudices as the criterion of faith and loyalty to the Lord Jesus" (Mission Messenger, vol. 22, no. 6, June, 1960). "Each looks upon its own party as being the one holy, catholic church, and apostolic church of God on earth, regarding the others as apostates" (ibid).

Dr. Dallas Burdette, a devoted brother in Christ, and also one of the early subscribers to and supporters of my Reflections ministry, has written a fabulous in-depth history and examination of this whole issue. It is titled -- A Brief History of the One-Cup and Non-Sunday School Movement. I would strongly urge everyone to go to his web site and read this study. You will be greatly enlightened. The URL for his web site is -- -- When you get to his web page, click on "Sermons and Essays" to find this study. His background was in that movement, so he speaks from personal experience in his marvelous essay! I also want to thank Dallas for including my Reflections web site in his list of "Online Resources" under the category "Outreach Ministries for Unity."

The pioneers of the Stone-Campbell Movement were largely opposed to the Sunday School, at least during the early years, because they believed there was great potential for sectarian abuse and misuse of these institutions. As he reflected back to the apostolic church, Alexander Campbell observed, "Their churches were not fractured into missionary societies, Bible societies, and education societies; nor did they dream of organizing such in the world. ... They knew nothing of the hobbies of modern times" (The Christian Baptist, January, 1827). Campbell had earlier characterized Sunday Schools as "a sort of recruiting establishment to fill up the ranks of those sects which take the lead in them" (The Christian Baptist, August, 1824). "If children are taught to read in a Sunday school, their pockets must be filled with religious tracts, the object of which is either directly or indirectly to bring them under the domination of some creed or sect" (ibid).

"At the beginning of the twentieth century Churches of Christ experienced sharp disagreements over the legitimacy of Sunday Schools, reflecting attitudes from the Stone-Campbell Movement's earliest leaders. Many congregations began to incorporate classes based on age into their programs. The most conservative restorationists in Churches of Christ objected to the Sunday School because it was not authorized by Scripture. Others opposed it because, as conducted by other religious bodies, it was an extracongregational organization with its own officers and governance. The fact that women often taught the classes was yet another point of contention for some members. Several hundred non-Bible-class congregations had separated from mainstream Churches of Christ by the 1920s. These churches emphasize the responsibility of parents to teach their own children and the corporate nature of instruction in the church. The majority of Churches of Christ, however, accepted the Sunday School as an integral part of their educational ministry" (The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 296).

As just noted, there were some in the Churches of Christ (as well as other groups) who took exception to the idea of having a Sunday School for the simple reason -- "You can't find it in the Bible!" This, of course, is the notion of Patternism. If one can't show "book, chapter and verse" where the early church had a Sunday School, then we can't have a Sunday School. One of the most visible and vocal of these Anti-Sunday School advocates was Dr. George Averill Trott (1855-1930), who for a time served as one of the early editors of the Firm Foundation periodical. Early in the 20th century a battle of journal editorials was waged over this issue. Not only the Firm Foundation, but also the Gospel Advocate got involved in this struggle. For example, J.T. Showalter wrote the following: "Whenever any man proves the Sunday school to be of divine authority, he can prove missionary societies to be of divine authority. By all rules of logic, he that 'would the one retain, must to the other cling.' I emphatically deny that there is any divine authority for Sunday schools, either by precept or precedent, hint or allusion ... In all the writings of the New Testament there is not one word that even squints in that direction" (Gospel Advocate, April, 1910).

The strict patternists believe that if something can't be found specifically mentioned in the NT writings (a Sunday School, for example), then for men to practice such is SIN. This is the old "law of silence" or "law of exclusion" argument of the CENI (command, example, necessary inference) advocates. Their view is that the silence of the Scriptures is prohibitive (although even they themselves are grossly inconsistent in the application of this interpretive rule). In 1928, the proponents of the Anti-Sunday School position, as well as the One-Cup position (these two positions are almost always found together in Churches of Christ), established their own publication. It was called -- Old Paths Advocate -- and is still being published today.

These legalistic patternists, as a rule, have tended to be very rigid in their resolve that ALL of those who differ with them on these issues are LOST. Indeed, when their own members begin to raise questions, or to suggest another perspective, they are quickly and decisively cast from the "loyal church." We all saw this happen very dramatically with the One-Cup brother in Texas who was recently fired for daring to suggest an expanded view of God's grace! They are typically extremely intolerant of any view other than their own, although, praise God, we are seeing some of their leaders (some of whom are subscribers to these Reflections) begin to move away from this rigid intolerance, and they have actually begun to become increasingly grace-centered and accepting of others.


The purpose of this Reflections has not been to take sides in this issue either one way or the other, but merely to present a brief history of the Sunday School movement, and to make note of those who both approved and opposed it. I am personally willing to regard as "brethren" those on both sides of the debate. For me personally the whole Sunday School issue is a NON-issue. I presently serve in a congregation that has a Sunday School; I could just as easily serve in one that does not.

What does concern me, however, is when brethren fuss and fight over such matters, and in the process fragment the One Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Disciples of Christ have been engaging in dissension for too long, and the only visible result is a divided church. The Family of God has been fractured into scores of feuding factions, each claiming to be the "one true church" on the face of the earth. This is nothing but abominable arrogance, and many will have much to answer for when they stand one day before the Father. When we all appear before the Throne it will matter little whether we used one cup or many; what will matter is whether we surrounded that table united as One Body. It will matter little on that day whether we had a Sunday School or not; what will matter is whether we taught our children to love one another. Brethren, as we look at our history, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves!! Our behavior is blasphemous!! May God open our eyes to our condition before it is too late!!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in New Jersey:

Al, I have been a reader of your Reflections on your web site for some time, and now I would love to subscribe and receive them through email. Thank you for what you do. You have aided in the removal of the spiritual blinders that have covered my eyes. God bless you and yours!

From a Reader in California:

Al, I have been sent several of your Reflections by a brother in Christ at my home congregation. I have enjoyed the articles that I have read and would like to receive them on a regular basis. It is easy to see why you would have some critics! It is so hard for some to hear the truth and understand that it is the truth that sets you free. I will be waiting to read your next article in Reflections.

From Bro. John Modgling in Texas:

Al, I'm encouraged to see how many people liked the article you did on my sermon. Hopefully, the message will be spread throughout the kingdom. With regard to the letter from the reader in Michigan, I do agree that I may have hit them too hard, too fast. But, as you said in response to that letter, it was "now or never." I'm mainly writing to clear up something. For some reason, the brother thought I had been there for six weeks. I actually had been working for the congregation for six months. He probably was going by our wedding date. I just wanted to clear that up. Also, thanks for defending me against that legalistic brother who wrote in. His letter would have been funny, if it weren't so sad. Thanks, brother Al, and may God bless you, your family, and your work. Maranatha!

From a Reader in California:

We appreciate all you are doing in your attempt to restore unity and brotherhood among God's people. My wife and I have been for many years non-judgmental, and we are accepting of all God's children regardless of differences in opinions and practices (which differences we view as being normal among the saints). As an example, we are presently involved with several other small congregations (a total of five in all) in this area in what we call "Third Sunday Singings" where, along with fellowshipping in a meal, we join in congregational singing. Our congregation takes its turn in hosting this event. We are a "One-Cup, Non-Class" group, and all these other groups are "Cups-Classes" congregations. There is even one of these groups that I guess we would call "Non-Institutional." However, we all have a wonderful time together. We recognize our differences, but we make a point of not discussing them. We just enjoy our fellowship together. None of the other "One-Cup" groups in this area will join with us, of course. But, that's alright! We in our congregation have been "outcasts" for a long time anyway! We just wanted to let you know that there are some of us out here whose robes are not stained with the blood of fellow saints, and who are cooperating and fellowshipping with, and not brandishing the sword of division toward, one another. God bless you brother Al and sister Shelly. Enclosed is a small gift to help with your expenses with Reflections.

From a Preacher in Oklahoma:

Al, Thanks for sending Diotrephes' ghost out for another stroll (in your last Reflections article). I hadn't seen him since yesterday's monthly "leadership" meeting at our congregation. He's always easy to spot, isn't he? He talks much and listens little!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, I just finished reading "The Prophecy of Obadiah," and, as usual, you did a GREAT job! Regardless of which Obadiah made the prophecy, or when he lived, his words still ring true today. I think there is a very close parallel between the Church today and the Israelites/Edomites of ancient times. I am no longer surprised, but continue to be saddened, by the way some who profess Christ trash their brothers and sisters. Some actively take the side of the world in condemning those who choose to stand for the Truth. I am sure there were a lot of people who did not like what you had to say in that article, but it needed to be said, brother! I appreciate your courage and your willingness to take a stand! Keep on keepin' on!

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