The Archibald family was one of the first Scottish Presbyterians to migrate to Ireland following the Battle of the Boyne (1690). Around 60 years later Scottish-Irish Presbyterians were encouraged to emigrate by the British to the renamed New Scotland, Nova Scotia in North East America, with promises with ‘Grants of Lands’. Samuel Burke Archibald along with his three brothers and three sisters and their families sailed from Londonderry to Halifax, Nova Scotia Three generations later George Hamilton Archibald was born to Thomas Ellis Archibald (1824-1893) and Sarah nee Hamilton (1822-1905). George’s father made a good living running a logging mill. Young George had a comfortable home with freedom on weekdays and in the summer to hunt, fish, horse-ride and track in the forest and on the wide open plains. Sundays were a misery. They had to go to the Kirk where George had to sit upright on straight backed uncomfortable pews, for the two hour long service and listen to what seemed endless sermons which he did not understand. When they returned home everybody had to stay indoors in case they were tempted to get into mischief. A double tragedy changed George’s life. Firstly the logging mill caught fire and the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts. George now 13 started work as a cash boy in a local store earning $2 a week. In 1873 uncle John Archibald started a business in St John’s, Newfoundland and took George’s elder brother William into the business as a partner. William lost his life and the essential machinery for the business when the George Washington sank in a storm. George took his brother’s place and became a partner in the business. George attended St Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk where he became a Sunday school teacher and later Superintendent. In 1880 he married Grace Murray (1854-1929). They had a daughter Ethel (1881-1955), who became her father’s assistant and Head of Sunday school Work at Westhill College. When John Archibald relocated the business to Montreal in 1888 George, Clara and Ethel moved. George soon became Superintendent of the largest English speaking Sunday school in Protestant area of Montreal.
Five years later George sold his share in the business to his uncle. With his fortune and future secure he became a man of independent means. George looking for a new career became a student at the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts. After a year he left the School turning down the opportunity to be trained as an ordained minister.
On returning to Montreal George was appointed the Provincial Secretary to the Protestant Sunday School Union of Quebec. In this capacity along with his wife, also a delegate, he attended the Seventh International and the World‘s 2nd Sunday School Convention in St Louis, Missouri U.S.A. in 1893. He was elected a member of the International Executive Committee 1893-96. At the Convention England and Wales was reported as having the largest number of Sunday Schools in Europe. There were 37,201 Sunday Schools, with 585,457 teachers and 5,976,537 scholars. Attending the Conventions put George in touch with delegates from many countries, including England, Wales and Scotland. It also introduced him to the new thinking about how to teach children and young people.
A new approach to Sunday school teaching The general approach to education at the time was ‘subject-centred’. John Dewey (1859-1952) the American forward thinking educationalist was encouraging ‘student-centred’ learning. Dewey’s philosophical approach was pragmatic. He advocated solving problems through experience. Armstrong seeing the value of Dewey’s learning through activity instead of by rote and wearisome reputation encourage the Canadian Sunday School teachers to put the ‘child first’ before the subject. Armstrong’s enthusiasm for Dewey’s method of teaching drew him to the notice of international leaders attending the 1896 Boston and the 1899 Atlanta Conventions. The British delegation saw the need to review Sunday school teaching. 1905 was a pivotal year. Firstly Archibald was invited to give a 5 week lecture tour in major British cities. The tour was strenuous which frequently saw George giving two and sometimes three lectures a day. Secondly Peake, Dr Arthur Samuel A. S. Peake (1865-1929) wrote a series of articles in ''Primitive Methodist Leader'', beginning on 7 September entitled 'The Reform of the Sunday School'. Based on the comments of students entering Hartley College, Manchester about Sunday schools Peake wrote of the unsatisfactory quality of the ‘International Uniformed Lesson System’ although he acknowledged that it had improved. Thirdly George received an invitation from Frederick Taylor, of the Friends’(Quakers) Firstday (Sunday) School Association, to be the guest speaker at their Easter Conference at Northfield Manor House, the home of George Cadbury, the chocolate manufacturer, benefactor, and Sunday school teacher. George Cadbury listened carefully to Archibald’s lectures about children and their intelligence, temperament, and their worlds of make believe. He outlined the place of fantasy, myths and legends in the child’s imagination. He also outlined the role of teachers as teachers. Based on his research into children’s intelligence Archibald reminded his listeners that ‘A child of twelve is nearer to a person of twenty in mental outlook than a child of six is to one of twelve. George Cadbury was impressed but said does your theory work. Yes replied Armstrong. With this assurance Cadbury, invited him to open a demonstration Sunday school in Ruskin Hall in Bournville Garden village to demonstrate his methods. John William Hoyland (1855-1927) the Director of the Friends’ College for training missionary candidates offered him a number of young men and women to assist him. This was providential because these young missionaries used on the mission fields Archibald’s techniques to teach children. In the demonstration Sunday school Armstrong had comfortable child sized chairs, a blackboard, sand trays, plasticine, pencils, paper and building blocks. He graded the classes according to age. There were no wearisome tasks, no bribes offered to learn unrelated memory passages. The Bible was presented imaginatively and graded to suite the different age groups. so that the children were fascinated and thrilled by its stories and uplifted by Christ. This venture soon led to the opening of Westhill College, Birmingham with George Hamilton Archibald as Principal. Archibald's impact on Methodism came through his lecture tours and through Westhill College students such as Miss Ethel Bossons the Primitive Methodist/Methodist Archibald method demonstrator. The Methodist Westhill College lecturer Hubery, Douglas Stanley (1916-1988) by his publications such as The Experiential Approach to Christian Education (1960) further developed the method.