The first Sunday School was founded in America in 1780. This article offers an interesting look at the histories of Sunday Schools, but unlike other articles by Professor Miller that reappear here at Postcard History some of the illustrations come from other sources.
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I always liked Sunday school as a kid. Nobody expected you to be anything but a kid; it wasn’t like going to church where you had to sit on those hard wooden pews and listen to a sermon that seemed endless. In Sunday school you got to move around, to sing those songs that you could really put your heart into — “make me a fisher of men keep me fishing.” And you got bibles and medals for perfect attendance.
Well, I didn’t, but many of my friends did. I remember staring at that string of add-ons on my friend’s labels — FOUR YEARS, FIVE YEARS, SIX YEARS. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t even get that little round clip-on that you got for six weeks’ perfect attendance. Every time I put five straight weeks together, I’d get sick. Every time. I kept wondering how my friend ever made it. Didn’t he ever get sick? Did he go with a sore throat and a raging fever — anything not to break that string of perfect attendance?
To me then it always seemed like Sunday school was the kids’ equivalent of church. It provided a rudimentary religious education in a social environment. The only restriction was that you weren’t free to choose the Sunday school of your choice. You went to the one attached to your parents’ church. I have pleasant memories of those years, but they’re memories of songs and fellowship rather than memories of formal religious education. The Sunday school never played an important part in my life — aside from the fact that I could never get a perfect attendance medal.
Perhaps my experience wasn’t totally typical of a kid growing up in the middle of the twentieth century, but even if it wasn’t, the modern Sunday school in its methods and significance has changed markedly over the years. In fact, for years the Sunday school was a crucial factor in shaping the American Protestant cultural and educational experience.
The “father of the Sunday school” was Robert Raikes, a newspaper publisher in Gloucester, England, in the late eighteenth century. In those days, in both England and America, there was no system of public education for all social and economic classes. Indeed, educating the poor was considered both socially destructive and economically unsound. Children of the poor generally were forced to work six days a week. In 1780 or 1781 Raikes began his first Sunday school — intended solely for poor children. The immediate benefits, Raikes noted, were not all related to the spiritual health of his young charges: “Since the establishment of Sunday schools, they are not the ignorant creatures they were before. Also, they become more tractable and obedient, and less quarrelsome and revengeful.” The schools did have a religious orientation, but they also taught their pupils how to read. Their purpose, as William Fox, the founder of the first English organization to promote Sunday schools, observed, was “to prevent vice, to encourage industry and virtue, to dispel the ignorance of darkness, to diffuse the light of knowledge.” But only so much light, for “there is no intention of raising them [the poor children] above their common level; for in that case how would our manufactories be carried on, our houses erected and our tables furnished?” Although these English schools were supported by various religious denominations, they were nonetheless independent and served a very specific group. Instead of being pre-church service exercises, they were religious charity schools which operated on Sundays to educate the children of the poor.
The Sunday school came to America in the late eighteenth century, but with an important difference. In a society committed to democratic ideals, the British class distinctions were unacceptable. Almost from their very beginnings, American Sunday schools mixed children from all economic groups; they did not, however, mix children from all racial groups. And the American Sunday school had a challenge — to claim the American west for evangelical Protestantism. The mission of the American Sunday School Union, founded in Philadelphia in 1824, was to establish “a Sunday school in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi.” As they defined it, that Valley ran from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, west to the Rocky Mountains and stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The winning of the West was achieved through the united efforts of five separate organizations — the American Education Society, the American Home Missionary Society, the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union. Their strategy was to ignore, as much as possible, denominational differences. The important thing was to establish the schools; congregations and churches would come later. The missionaries for the Union were mostly laymen who often traveled their territory on foot. One of the most famous, Stephen Paxson, was credited with establishing over 1,200 schools in some twenty years. The missionaries carried with them samples and catalogues of the extensive line of literature published by the Union — alphabet primers, spelling books, bibles, tracts, stories. In fact, the missionaries were instructed not to leave a new Sunday school without selling it a library. As this would suggest, the Union did not ignore the larger educational role of the Sunday school. Many a child in the West learned to read and write at Sunday school.
National Sunday school conventions were held as early as 1832, but not until 1875, the year of the First International Sunday School Convention, did a genuine national organization begin to emerge. With that organization came a desire for an even greater uniformity in Sunday school teaching. At the convention in 1872, B. J. Jacobs and his supporters secured passage of a uniform or International Sunday school lesson. No matter what Sunday school one attended, no matter where, the lesson for each Sunday was, theoretically, the same. The system didn’t work perfectly — certain denominations modified the order of the lessons; others supplemented the lessons with “lesson helps” which reinforced particular doctrines. At least one other special interest group, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union headed by Frances E. Willard, secured changes — specifically, four temperance lessons became a part of the year’s curriculum.
The height of the power and prestige of the Sunday school came in May 1910 at the World’s Sixth Sunday School Convention in Washington, D.C. The convention was addressed by President Taft who told the delegates: “Sunday school education is absolutely necessary to secure moral uplift and religious spirit.” A postcard (see above) was issued as a souvenir of that Convention by the Sunday School Times of Philadelphia.
In fact, Sunday schools made extensive use of the postcard. In order to spur attendance, teachers would mail postcard reminders to any student missing from class. Publishers produced a wide variety of these cards for both boys and girls. On many, the teacher filled in the child’s name and the name of the Sunday school. The printed messages were all fairly similar. The verse on one, published by Helen A. Cisterline of Buffalo, reads:
Somebody was missed from class one day,
And that somebody was YOU.
“By whom was I missed?” did I hear you say?
By pupils, by teacher, and I think I may
Add by superintendent, too.
Unnoticed your absence cannot pass,
And shall hope next Sunday to see you in class.
Every fall, in order to re-awaken interest after the long summer months, many Sunday schools held a “Rally Day.”
There was no fixed date for Rally Day; most of the cards are dated or were postally used from late September through mid-October. Many of the Rally Day exercises were held not in the morning, before church, but in the mid-afternoon. Publishers such as Westminster Press, Abingdon Press, and Goodenough & Woglam issued Rally Day postcards from the early 1900s through the 1940s. The motifs and designs are an interesting reflection of the tastes of each decade. Many Rally Day postcards are exceptionally well executed and should be sought after by more collectors.
Other occasions, even the birthdays of pre-schoolers were remembered through Birthday Greetings sent to members of “The Cradle Roll.” Particularly striking are the designs by Clara Miller Burd on a set of cards copyrighted in 1913 and published by Westminster Press.
Announcements of special church events and Sunday school promotions were given wide recognition on postcards:
For a time at least, many Sunday schools distributed the Girls’ Companion and the Boys’ World, both weekly newspapers. Cards advertising the two papers reveal how the differences between the sexes were reinforced. On the Girls’ Companion issue for 1910, readers were promised regular departments on “The Well-Dressed Girl,” “Girls Who Love Music,” “How Girls Make Money,” “The Young Girl in Business,” and “Girls From Far and Near.” The companion card advertising Boys ’ World in 1910 offered features on “Science and Invention,” “Sports and Games,” “How to Make Things,” “Successful Boys,” “Getting Ready for Life,” and “What is Going on in the World.”
During the early decades of this century, though, the role and power of the Sunday school began to change. With the introduction of compulsory and free public education, with the increasing secularization of American society, the Sunday school began to lose its position as a national (and uniform) organization. More attention was paid to the “needs” of children and adolescents. Uniform lessons were replaced by graded lessons. The huge Sunday school auditoriums from which superintendents conducted the weekly lesson for all were replaced by classrooms in which students were grouped by age. Few if any Sunday schools now operate independently of a church. The term “church school” became increasingly popular among some denominations. As might be expected, Sunday school attendance or enrollments in the mainline Protestant churches declined; enrollments in conservative and evangelical ones often increased sharply.
The Sunday school helped shape the educational and religious experience of generations of American Protestants. In the early decades of this century, the postcard played an important role in promoting the activities of the Sunday school.
Although the quality and quantity of Sunday school-related postcards has declined, religious publishing houses still produce cards for this market and their message is now phrased in contemporary terms. One of the more recent issues from Abingdon Press shows a rocket blasting off a launch pad. The message: “Rocket Our Attendance Upward. Come to Sunday School.”
I only wonder if they still give perfect attendance medals.
Interesting article. Of the cards depicted, I’d most like to own the one captioned “The Twentieth Century Sunday School Crusaders”.
Interesting & informative. Thanks.
I have never seen an English Sunday School postcard published to encourage or reward attendance . Similar cards not intended to be postally used are not uncommon. School attendance Medals made of a base metal or silver were made for schools. I have one made of solid