The following are inexact excerpts from an informal address delivered last week at a Sabbath School teacher appreciation banquet in the congregation of my youth, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lafayette, Indiana. Names in selected personal stories have sometimes been altered to protect the guilty, the victims, and the bystanders:
Good evening and thank you for inviting me to be with you tonight. I do appreciate your labors in the Lord as you teach the children week by week. Having grown up in this congregation, I can appreciate the price you pay.
One of my earliest memories of Sabbath School class here came in the northwest classroom on the second floor of the old church house on Hays Street. I was probably four years old. Billy, John, and I were students in the preschool class – there might have been a fourth, I can’t remember. Two Purdue University graduate students, Mr. Ford and Mr. Bond, served our teachers. The ratio of two teachers to three or four students gives you a sense of how the Christian Education Committee had sized up the student body. Apparently, on this particular week, we were a bit rowdy at the table as the class start time drew near. Mr. Bond leaned down to direct Billy to his seat. Billy looked up and threw a quick left jab that caught Mr. Bond square on the schnoz. Blood gushed. Mr. Bond tipped his head back and reeled into the bathroom around the corner. Mr. Ford reached across the table to apprehend the perpetrator who jumped back to use John and me as a human shield. We ducked Mr. Ford’s swipes as he grasped for Billy and the two of them danced around opposite sides of the table, Billy enjoying his last moments of freedom. The squealing of the tension-laden cat and mouse chase continued momentarily as we heard the water running in the background and Mr. Bond’s nasally voice saying, “I think I’m going to be fine.”
Then, when I was in the junior high class, we had some discussion of the covenant, the details of which escape me now. But one under-educated youth raised a hand and said, “Mr. Middleman, what’s circumcision?” As the class snickered, Mr. Middleman broke out in a cold sweat, and said, “Um, let’s talk after class.”
During those same years, I can also remember walking past other doors in the hall at the end of class and seeing teachers having been literally brought to tears by behavioral issues in their classes.
Those are my memories of the blood, sweat, and tears poured out by the Sabbath School teachers in this congregation. Every generation is born with a fresh expression of original sin, a propensity to disorder, and a need for education in the Lord. You willingly volunteer to pour out your blood, sweat, and tears every week in order to teach Jesus to little ones, and we are grateful.
This evening, I want to encourage and challenge you with a selected history of the Sabbath School. The movement began in England in 1780 as Robert Raikes sought to address illiteracy and a lack of biblical and moral training in the lives of street urchins and children who worked long hours in factories and had only the Lord’s Day off.
The concept was imported to these United States soon thereafter and took hold in cities along the eastern seaboard. But the Sunday School movement took off substantially after the War of 1812 as the western frontier expanded. Rugged pioneers moved their families west. Our own Indiana was the first state added to the United States after the war, and it represented the front line of the western frontier. The problem was that in the sparsely populated wilderness, these pioneer families usually had no church and almost never had a school. As the settlers went west, reports flowed back to the east of wild and unruly children, scores of habitually drunken adults in growing towns, an increasingly irreligious people, and a great want of education.
One young Presbyterian pastor’s wife quickly learned upon moving to Coal Creek, Indiana in 1832 that her ministry would consist partly of three totally illiterate women living less than a half-mile from her home “who are mothers of large families and disposed to let their children grow up in the same way.” Huge numbers of the citizenry were technically illiterate. Others were functionally so. John U. Parsons, living on the Ohio River near Madison, Indiana, said those in his neighborhood practiced “total abstinence – from literature.”
In response, Christian people who were concerned for souls, for personal faith, for biblical knowledge, for morality, for literacy, for the future, and for peace in the society formed Sabbath Schools, especially where churches were not yet established due to the dearth of pastoral leadership. By the 1810s, Sunday Schools had been established in communities along the Ohio River and beyond. In 1823, Dr. Isaac Coe a Presbyterian physician in the newly established town of Indianapolis formed a Sabbath School in the absence of a minister. He was concerned that the distinction between the Sabbath and other days of the week was becoming blurred. He encouraged his students to come and bring “the testaments, spelling books, or such other books as they have.”
As the movement grew, the American Sunday School Union (ASSU) was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1824. In 1830, the ASSU embarked in its Mississippi Valley Enterprise. The goal of the Enterprise was to establish “a Sunday School in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi.” Starting with three full time employees and many volunteers, thousands of missionaries went out with a heart to evangelize, educate, and civilize the rugged world of the frontier. The group was technically non-denominational, but Presbyterians with a high view of education were in the majority in the Union. Many of the missionaries were women. They were discouraged from taking horses. The horses would discourage invitations to hospitality, and they would keep the missionaries from operating at eye level as they interacted with bystanders, called on homes, and invited children to come and learn. Of course, walking came with risks – including the possibility of taking a quick left jab from a child so close. They recognized the essential nature of personal relationships in taming the West.
The Sunday School missionaries could not simply drop tracts and books. Henry Little noted in the early 1840s that, “If any man, whether politician, schoolmaster, or preacher would do good in the West he must keep in mind that we are not talking to a reading people. If any Martin Luther is to arise and ‘right things up’ he must see their faces and by his public appeals create an appetite for his books.” The Sabbath School missionaries went and did just that.
The results were astounding. The ASSU saw some 65,000 Sunday Schools established by 1875. These were often the predecessors to the common schools – the one room school houses – that would be established in the latter third of the nineteenth century. By 1859, there were over 30,000 Sunday School libraries in the United States, which constituted over half of the public libraries in the nation.
Even church architecture was influenced by the movement. The Sunday Schools often started as an ecumenical movement with gatherings on Lord’s Day afternoons. As denominations planted churches, each congregation made Sunday School a part of its curriculum. An auditorium for worship would no longer suffice. They needed a classroom arrangement that would promote order in teaching the unreached children in the community. Lewis Miller, who is credited with inventing the combine and was Thomas Edison’s father-in-law, developed an architectural design known as the Akron Plan. The plan called for a church building with multiple levels having a central meeting place for opening exercises that would be ringed by classrooms all around. The doorway to each classroom would open to the central meeting room and be left open during classes so that the Sabbath School Superintendent could stand in the center with a sight-line into every classroom. If one youngster was rowdy, the superintendent could walk across the meeting hall and through the doorway to intervene so that the teacher could continue with the other children. Notice that the design was intended to promote order and peace. One Reformed Presbyterian Church building with a partial-Akron Plan design is found in Bloomington, Indiana.
No doubt, there were humanistic influences and many revivalistic threads in the work, but the gospel was proclaimed, people were educated, and the West was settled into a relatively harmonious society. Estimates vary, but in the West, well over half of all the unchurched people who came into churches in the nineteenth century came through the Sunday School movement. We still benefit from that peace today.
Years ago, I listened daily to the late missionary to China, Sam Boyle, pray for his family by praying back to God the promise of Isaiah 54:13, “All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children.” The Sabbath School movement was used of God to see many children taught by the Lord and bring peace to our state. My generation, just like the ruffians before us, needed to be taught by the Lord through parents, preachers, and Sabbath School teachers.
The original purpose was to minister to those outside the walls of the church. Christians burdened with a love for the lost and a care for their culture went at great cost to the impoverished and needy. As we consider social divisions, the migration of morally and economically depressed minorities and immigrants in our culture, and children growing up in projects even here in Lafayette, it may be time to consider repurposing the Sabbath School. As in the days of old, many of these with the greatest gospel need are never going to read our blogs or our Facebook posts, or our books – never will another Martin Luther arise to “right things up” here unless we go on our feet, see their faces (close enough to take a left jab in the nose), and by our public appeals create an interest in our writing and especially the writing of Holy Scripture. The gospel alone brings true peace. If we do not find ways to take the gospel directly to the most needy in our communities, we will find our society under increasing duress. What might this look like in Lafayette? I don’t know. It certainly will not look exactly like the Sunday School movement of the nineteenth century, but many of the principles will apply. Namely, it will take Christians who love Jesus and other people enough to deny themselves. If we do, there will be great peace in our churches, in our city, state, and nation as the next generation is taught by the Lord.
Just this last week, you have seen this peace at a personal and congregational level. John and I were in that class of rowdy preschoolers thirty-plus years ago. By the grace of God and through the faithfulness of many teachers, we were taught by the Lord. Last week, we all gathered to bury John’s mother, a long-time member of this congregation. Mr. Bond stood up to eulogize John’s mother and give glory to God for his grace in her life. I grieved with my buddy John as he buried his mother. Though we bawl over the pain of death that comes because of sin, John, Mr. Bond, you all, and I grieve as those who have hope. We are at peace – John is at great peace – because he has been taught by the Lord.
So, take heart in your teaching even tomorrow. You may take a left jab; you may not seem to see any progress. But as you keep taking your children to Jesus, they will be taught by the Lord. Though you may not see all of the fruit tomorrow, there will come a day thirty-some years from now, when you are helping these pupils bury their own parents with the abiding peace that belongs only to those who have been taught by the Lord himself.
L.C. Rudolf’s Hoosier Faiths: A History of Indiana’s Churches and Religious Groups (Bloomington, Indiana: University Press, 1995) is the main source for most of the historical data cited in the speech. However, a number of other printed, online, and personal sources also contributed.