Robert Raikes (1735-1811) was a newspaper editor in Gloucester, England. His editorials often had to do with the problems of the poor children in that city. Popular opinion at the time said it was necessary to keep what was considered the ‘crude and vulgar members’ of society in their proper place; and the proper place for many of the poor and vulgar children was the factory where they worked six days a week, ten hours a day.
The problem came on Sundays when the factories were closed and the children were on the streets. With all their pent up energy they were creating a regular hell on earth for the whole community. The kids were all out, every Sunday, cursing and swearing, fighting and stealing, breaking things and bothering everyone. They did not attend church or school, and they could not read or write. Raikes, like everyone else, was shocked at their language and behavior. But what could be done?
In 1880 Raikes started a Sunday morning school for these children, who were working every other day. This ‘Sooty Alley School,’ as in dirt and soot, wasn’t in a church. No church would allow such hooligans in the doors. One Sunday when Raikes tried to take a few boys to church, they caused such a disturbance with their fighting and swearing that they were asked to leave.
Raikes went door to door asking parents if they would allow their children to attend his new school. Any kind of ‘free school’ was still unheard of in England, as school was only for those who could pay for it. But people were impressed by this sincere, well-dressed man, and many agreed to send their children. Raikes hired a teacher, and ninety children came the first Sunday.
Raikes himself wondered if it could work. These kids were already like outlaws and gangsters. But he tried one school, and then another, and then a few more. Soon there were eight schools, with about thirty students in each, in what he called his “experiment.” Raikes took care of all the expenses, and kept it on this small scale for three years.
The kids were taught Bible stories, the catechism, and hymns, along with a little bit of reading and a little bit of math. Raikes would also feed them a little beef and a bit of plum pudding. He also found them decent clothes when he could. He was pleasantly surprised to see many of them respond in a positive way. He said, “I cannot express the pleasure I often receive in discovering the goodness and even genius among this little multitude.”
After three years he decided to publicize the experiment and encourage others to try it. That was then the opposition struck. Members of parliament were shocked at the idea. A bill was suggested for the suppression of Sunday Schools. Clergymen also objected to the whole idea, with the Archbishop of Canterbury organizing a task force to see how these Sunday Schools could be stopped.
It is hard for us now to imagine the church being opposed to these Sunday Schools. People were calling them the “ragged schools” because of the ragged clothing the children wore. There was very little concern in proper society for the welfare of these street children. People thought was fine for them to work all week in the factories, and on Sunday what they needed was law enforcement, not Church and Sunday School. Church people based their objections primarily on the third commandment, saying it was wrong for Robert Raikes to hire teachers to work on the Sabbath.
But Raikes responded with Matthew 12:11-12 where Jesus said, “If you have a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath Day, you will certainly do whatever work it takes to get it out.” Raikies said these kids were in a pit. They were in desperate circumstances. They were made to work all week, and Sunday was the only chance they had for anything better. Certainly, Jesus would not object to helping children on the Sabbath Day when he clearly said it is all right to help sheep on that day.
Children were responding positively to what they learned in Sunday School, and eventually the people of the city began to notice that the streets were quieter on Sunday. There was less stealing. The children’s hearts were being changed by God’s Word and many became Christians.
The opposition failed, and the Sunday School idea caught on. Within four years there were 250,000 children in Sunday Schools all across England, and crime rates dropped dramatically. Raikes wrote in his newspaper, “In those parishes where the plan has been adopted, we are assured the behavior of the children is greatly civilized.”
It was at this time that the United States of America was gaining its independence, and the Sunday School movement had a lot to do with evangelizing this new nation. By 1900 America had eight million Sunday School students, with an equal number elsewhere in the world. In the twentieth century the numbers continued to multiply.
Sunday School is now a taken for granted part of Sunday morning at church. It is hard to believe such an idea could have been opposed, but a determined man with the right Bible verse defeated the opposition.
Matthew 19:14 — Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 12:11-12 — (Jesus) said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Joel 1:3 — Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.
Heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children. Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
—Book of Common Prayer