The Sunday School: Battered Survivor

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 4-11, 1980, pp. 634-636. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If there cannot be three cheers for the Sunday school as a thriving institution, or two cheers for its record, let there be at least one cheer for the ways the grace of God lives on in it.

From history, it is said, we learn that we do not learn from history. But for us to learn even that much, there must be some written history. Humans do not have a memory beyond their own mind, and that does not stretch back sufficiently far to be of use for many social purposes, nor does recall touch on physically remote experience. When groups of people stop to think, they turn to the writings of those who have been custodians of the story.

In the case of the national bicentennial four years ago, Americans did not lack resources; there were libraries full of national histories which aimed at covering the whole sweep as well as monographs which touched on nuances, cornices and curlicues of American existence.

Learning from History

Now, admittedly on a smaller scale but by no means a trivial one, American Christians join others in celebrating the bicentennial of an enormously influential invention, the Sunday school. Those who attended one -- and they are legion -- can reach into recall for history. Such recall is not likely to serve them well. C. S. Lewis said that if you do not know history, it is likely that you will suffer from recent bad history. In the case of oldsters, the history of Sunday school is likely to be the memory of earnest teachers struggling to hold the attention of the young back when there were fewer distractions -- say, in the ‘20s and 30s. Middle-agers, or those on the threshold of their middle years, will remember the time when Sunday schools had it easy -- say, in the 50s. Then struggling volunteers at least had the backing of church-building and churchgoing adults.

Neither the ‘30s nor the ‘50s represent enough of the story, however, so the celebrators may be moved to the bookstore or the library. What will they find? The shelves are bleak and bare. Forlorn, almost alone, and hardly beckoning is Gerald E. Knoff’s The World Sunday School Movement (Seabury, $14.50), which does not intend to be more than a history of mainline ecumenical bureaucracies in religious education. Only their mothers could love them, and even they would have a hard time staying interested in the plot of mergers and pages filled with acronyms like WCC/WCCESSA, WCCE, WFDY, YMCA, YWCA, WCC, NCCUSA and more which leap at the eye from the first two pages we opened at random. Knoff has done his job, but it is not the celebrator’s concern.

His bibliography on "general historical background" only adds the telescope to one’s view of a sterile landscape. The titles are either about the context of Sunday school (e.g, Victorianism), or about Sunday schools in particular denominations; or they are aged and never were to the point.

That leaves to be commended to you a "second edition revised and enlarged" of a lively and popular history, The Big Little School: 200 Years of the Sunday School, by Robert W. Lynn and Elliott Wright (Abingdon, $6.95). Since all observers of the bicentennial should read this well-paced paperback, we will not visit its chapters in detail. Instead, it serves as a resource alongside Knoff and other reading in the diaspora of monographs, as a background to the question: What can we learn from the history of the Sunday school?

We can learn from it that histories are few and rare and usually poor precisely because the Sunday school was a protean institution, sprawling, something "up close" to millions, yet in its larger form remote and diffuse, hard to grasp. Until a few years ago there were few histories of the family or of people in various stages of life (like adolescence, or old age); there remain few histories of neighborhood and parish. How many good stories of public education in America can one count? Yet school and Sunday school, neighborhood and family and parish are the institutions which even today, against all odds, do much to shape the individual in society. The Sunday school has been too influential to be graspable or observable from a distance as a coherent whole.

A Protestant Invention

When its outline does begin to come into view, a major feature emerges: the Sunday school was a Protestant invention, an expression of the era when Protestantism was in flower. Robert Raikes -- the Eli Whitney or Thomas Edison of the Sunday school -- had broad humanitarian interests in mind as he began to stir up support for educating the early victims of the industrial revolution. Many of his heirs were preoccupied with social control in their design to shape the young into the mold of the evangelical empire that moved from Anglo-America into all the world for a century and more.

The early modern evangelicals were possessed of a marvelous insight: that religion in their world was at last, and virtually for the first time in history, no longer to be passed through the genes. Piety would not pass through the loins of godly parents to their offspring, as the Puritans thought it would. The seniors had to convert the new generation, their very own Issue. On Protestant soil that meant using emotion, of course; elders resorted to the rhetoric of sensation and set up circumstances from anxious minibenches to summer camps to help them conjure up personal experience to promote conversion. But provident parents also knew that Protestants live by the Word and by words, so they had to teach literacy and place the Bible, or chunks of the Bible for a time called "Uniform Lessons," or memorizable Bible passages and singable ditties like "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," into the minds and on the lips of the wee ones. They did this with considerable effectiveness for a century and more.

The Sunday school, we learn from reading its history, was a favored outreach of laypeople. Earlier than most Christian institutions it called upon and profited from the talents of women, whom no one trusted to teach adult males -- perhaps out of deference to snippets of Pauline literature and more likely out of patriarchal impulses. So leaders segregated the women in the pastures of the young, a fact that bears its own irony since nowhere else could they have had more influence. But the men dominated the organizations; Knoff’s history of the larger organizations has an index with only a rare "Mrs." or "Princess," a rarer "Clara" or "Ruth" in the bureaucracy. And the denominations caught on to the movement and chopped it up; only the valiant try to come together in interdenominational curricula nowadays.

Working Against the Odds

The Sunday school, then, was an institution without which the church of Jesus Christ could get along for almost 1,800 years, just as it got along without the denomination, the competitive parish, the broad-based missionary movement, the conjured revival -- all of them institutions born in the century of industrial-era inventions, between about 1740 and 1840. Along with those other innovations, it is in trouble today, since they are all overadapted to social forms that no longer have the place to themselves.

The Sunday school survives. Millions attend. Selectively it prospers. Don’t look for much in Canada, say the historians. The United Church of Canada and same of its counterparts are motivated to look for alternatives because so little of the old model is around. In the United States the call for alternatives has come from among churches whose leaders have sensed decline or who have looked for something more creative in new historical unfoldings. On the terrain of conservative Protestantism, especially in the regions and social classes where families remain large and strong and where leaders are motivated to send out fleets of buses to scoop up the young while parents are slugabed, any talk of the Sunday school being in trouble would not be comprehensible.

The Sunday school is in trouble for reasons that Lynn and Wright spell out, plus others that one feels in the bones or can easily pick up elsewhere. The long weekend and the high-rise apartment are symbols of the problems. In the affluent America that developed between 1952 with its Eisenhower-era religious revival and about 1974 with the beginnings of new-style recession, there was an almost unbelievable increase in weekend leisure, much of it at the expense of Sabbath rest. Christians were off at the lake or on to the slopes, and church remained to be neglected back home in the suburb. Sunday school was an almost untransportable institution. The high-rise symbolizes the late, small and often chopped-up family, one not conducive to large and, high-moraled Sunday schools. Television culture did not include Sunday-school-going in its norms and projections. Pluralist America did not have room even for negative depictions of religion on children’s television.

Against all odds, the leaders struggle on. Concerned parents and pastors, lay committees and curricula writers and all their colleagues and cohorts have tried to pump life into the old Sunday school, especially as they have found the alternatives even less effective. The courts ruled Out "released time" from the public schools. The world of television, athletics, apathetic parents, and dragged-screaming-and-kicking kids pretty well eliminated for all but the few the more effective hours-long Wednesday (or whenever) times of religious education.

And still the Sunday school lives on in the larger culture. It is strong enough to be recognized in phrases like "This isn’t a Sunday school picnic, after all." The cartoonists can count on it for fare; we still see drawings of the tots marching in and out of church buildings while Dad, still in pajama shirt, shivers over cigarette and newspaper outside in the car that he can no longer afford to heat during the children’s weekly spiritual pit stop. Virtually all parishes have a Sunday school, and most adult Christians not only can remember how it shaped and misshaped them but also can see reasons to bet on the Sunday school as an agency for the new generation.

Looking for Alternatives

In mainline Christianity the movement for "Christian academies" is not likely to prosper as it does on the right wing. Parochial schools are few, and not spreading. Lots of luck to the stick-to-itive Wednesday educators. Lots more luck to those who find some attentive families intact enough and resolved enough, to be agencies of Christian education in cooperation with parishes that remain intact and resolved as well. A survey of most Sunday schools, however, will show that little formal religious education goes on in most homes. There are too many single-parent families, too many working mothers and distracted fathers, too many assaults on family rhythms from without, and there is too much parental incompetence for Christianity to count on the family alone.

So the Sunday school at age 200 is a survivor -- battered and tired but still a survivor. And anything that survives these days deserves study not only as a near-fossil or relic but as a sign of hope and signal for attention. The Sunday school may seem so weak that it merits killing off, but euthanasia is poor medicine in the present circumstances. The record shows that attempts at removing this opportunity for education have tended to leave nothing in its place. One may argue that weak education and even sometimes maleducation are worse than no education, but one may not argue it seriously in the case of a movement like Christianity which does -- don’t we have to admit it? -- call for winning the young, and teaching and training them.

To speak of the Sunday school as being weak and in trouble is to slight the fact that tens of millions attend it -- also on the soil of mainline Protestantism around the world. To speak in these terms is to speak in general, of a worldwide or culturewide movement. But that language neglects the countless thriving and effective Sunday schools, where gifted teachers use adequate materials in anything but stereotypically repressive or dull circumstances. Children in Sunday school do learn the story that is vital to their existence in faith; they can somehow then become a part of that story. Its plot is or can be biblical, and they are part of that unfinished plot.

Sing It Again

Some songs learned in Sunday school stay with people who later find the phrases availing in prisoner-of-war camps or on hospital beds. Even the sometimes derided rituals of birthday songs and gatherings of offerings teach the gesture of generosity and caring. Many Sunday school teachers have turned off the young, those members of a generation that turns off adults easily. But just as many more have served as models or examples; quick, now, if you attended Sunday school, think back, and some of those teachers will come to mind, Not all imported curricular materials missed the point. At worst they were not worse than the more heavily subsidized lessons in the public elementary schools, which also have obituaries being read over them five days a week.

So if there cannot be three cheers for the Sunday school as a thriving institution or two cheers for its record, let there be at least one cheer for the ways the grace of God lives on in it. Cheer, that is, if there are enough people around who know the chant and the cheer. Before and lest the day comes when no one knows enough to care. And if that day comes, it is possible that the Sunday school will not have been replaced by a creative alternative.

Sunday school, once billed by Life magazine (nonsurviving in its original form) as "the most wasted hour of the week," remains an hour with which creative elders can work. Few can re-create the circumstances of Protestantdom when the culture favored the Sunday school. Not all would want to. But if the culture tilts their way even so briefly as one of the 168 hours each week, it seems foolish not to make the most of that time.

One cheer, then, for the 200-year-old Sunday school. But, as they say in Sunday school, let’s sing it again, this time louder and with feeling.