Sunday Schools

Hannah Ball started her Sunday School in High Wycombe in 1769 and there were numerous similar local initiatives. From 1780 onwards, through publicity about Robert Raikes' work in Gloucester, Sunday Schools were founded in the major towns of England. John Wesley particularly commended the large Methodist Sunday School at Bolton, Lancs.

Often motivated by the gospel, their founders also desired to reform behaviour by engaging children's minds. Children were in a 'lawless state' and 'allowed to run wild that day' (Raikes). Reading and writing were taught and teachers worked with small classes, nurturing literacy, social skills and Christian values, often with the Bible as the main resource. Jabez Bunting opposed the teaching of writing on Sunday and at his insistence in 1827 the WM Conference adopted 'General Principles and Rules' for the management of its schools. These asserted that they 'should be strictly and entirely religious institutions … for the Christian instruction and education of the children of the poor'. Reading, as a means of inculcating a knowledge of the Bible was one thing; writing was another matter. The Wesleyan Methodist Sunday School Union was inaugurated at a meeting in Wesley's Chapel, London in November 1874.

PM regulations similarly discouraged the teaching or reading and writing on the Lord's Day. The first PM Sunday School dates from as early as 1814, when Hugh Bourne invited Thomas Moorcroft of Brook Farm, Boylestone, Derbyshire, to become its Superintendent. A move in 1832 to form a PM Sunday School Union came to nothing until unions were formed in the Leeds District in 1857 and connexionally in 1874, under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Wood.

With the opening of Methodist day schools, the religious character of Sunday Schools (which eventually included adults) became dominant. By 1900 the Sunday School movement was an international lay-led movement among English-speaking Protestants, often in purpose-built premises and with a vision of the global use of the Bible. The Sunday School 'Anniversary', often with processions ('walks') included reunions of scholars and the presentation of songs and recitations in church, was a highlight of the year. 'Outings' and 'Treats' provided rare pleasure for children from poor families. From 1916 the British Lessons Council provided thematic material, graded by age, of which Partners in Learning is the successor.

Between 1900 and 1932 the number of children in Methodist Sunday Schools in Britain dropped by half to just under one million. World War II brought further decline. During the 1960s changed use of Sunday, increased mobility and fewer children per family affected numbers. Sunday School sessions were moved to the morning, leading to the concepts of 'Junior Church' and 'Family Church', which integrated Sunday Schools into church life. Links between learning and worship led to all-age worship. In many places all that remains of the traditional Sunday School is the name and the use of curriculum material in classes led by lay teachers. Nevertheless, this method of Christian education is of immense importance throughout the world.


John Wesley's Journal:

July 1787: 'Here [Bolton] are eight hundred poor children taught in our Sunday Schols by about eighty masters, who receive no pay but what they are to receive from their Great Master. About a hundred of them (part boys and part girls) are taught to sing; and they sang so true that, all singing together, there seemed to be but one voice… In the evening, many of the children still hovering round the house, I desired forty or fifty to come in and sing "Vital spark of heavenly flame". Although some of them were silent, not being able to sing for tears, yet the harmony was such as I believe could not be equalled in the King's chapel.'

General Principles … to be observed in the management of Methodist-Sunday Schools

'First principle.- Sunday -schools should be strictly and entirely religious institutions; and ought therefore to be schools for the Christian instruction and education of the children of the poor; as it is only on this ground that the occupation of the Lord's day in tuition can be held to consist with the due observation of the Christian Sabbath…

'Second Principle. - Schools designed for the religious education of poor children ought to be conducted in distinct and avowed connexion with some particular branch of the visible church of Christ...

'Third Principle.- Sunday-schools should be most conscientiously and anxiously so conducted that they may not interfere, farther than an invincible necessity may compel, with the primary and universal duties of the holy Sabbath, and, in particular, with the constant attendance of teachers and children on the public worship of God's house, at the hours most generally devoted to that purpose, and best adapted to secure their edification…

'Fourth principle.- On the same ground of vigilant concern for the best interests of both children and their teachers, the bustle and the secularity of mere school-business should be as much as possible avoided in the management of Sunday-schools; and the spiritual objects and character of the institutions should be so carefully kept in mind, as to regulate and control the whole plan and and process of Sabbath-education.'

Wesleyan Minutes of Conference, 1827, in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, vol. 4, 'Documents and Source Material' ( 1988), pp.399-404

  • Jabez Bunting, The Important Question Discussed: whether teaching the art of writing on the Lord's Day be defensible on Christian principles (Sheffield, 1824)
  • Wesleyan Methodist Minutes of Conference, 1827, pp.284-91; 1868, pp.383-87; 1873, pp.173-79
  • Samuel S. Henshaw, The Romance of our Sunday Schools: a brief centenary narrative of… the Sunday-schools of the Primitive Methodist Church [1911]
  • Methodist Recorder, 8 June 1939
  • W.Reginald Ward, Religion and Society in England 1790-1850 (1972)
  • P.B. Cliff, The Rise and Development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1780-1980 (Redhill, 1986)
  • History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain 4 (1988) pp.373-5, 399-404
  • Margaret Batty, Stages in the Development and Control of Wesleyan Lay Leadership, 1791-1878 (1988), pp. 69-86
  • Ronald Coxford, 'A Working Class Sunday School?', in WHS Proceedings, 54 pp.11-16
  • Kenneth Lysons, A Littler Primitive: Primitive Methodism from Macro and Micro Perspectives (2001) pp.115-19
  • Chris Hughes Smith, in Vital Piety and Learning: Methodism and Education (Oxford, 2005)
  • Catriona M. McCartney, 'Wesleyan Methodist Sunday Schools during the First World War' in Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, vol.61 no.3, October 2017 pp.120-9