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How Sunday school shaped Britain

Sunday school children

It's not just learning the words to Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, says Huw Edwards. Early pioneers rocked the boat by teaching poorer children to read, and football clubs like Everton owe their existence to the religious classes.

Mention Sunday school today and many will think of an institution that feels fusty, cosy and quaint. Some might even feel outright hostility. But others remember kindness, rich storytelling and singing - happy memories of some of the best moments of childhood.

This remarkable movement, founded in 1774 with the first class held in a house in Gloucester, has had a deeply radical effect on British society. In the early days, it was seen as dangerous and subversive to give the tools of literacy to the lower orders. In Victorian times, Sunday schools helped shape future MPs, women teachers and a large number of the current Premiership football clubs.

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And well into the 20th Century, Sunday school students parading at Whitsun could turn out in their thousands, bringing city centres to a standstill.

These days Sunday school is usually a break-out activity from the main morning church service. The parents stay in for the sermon while the children and their teachers file out. But in my time - I attended Sunday school in South Wales until I was 16 - it was an afternoon session of singing, Bible study, scripture knowledge competitions, drama and so on.

Girl in a church service with her mother
Children are usually called out during the main service

It's a world remembered with huge affection by prominent figures such as Ann Widdecombe, Roy Hattersley and Patricia Routledge. Along with countless others, they bear witness to the crucial influence of Sunday school in their personal developments. Cartoonist Bill Tidy has rich memories of singing, Christmas parties and the gentle touch.

"[My boys'] school was rough, tough and manly; Sunday school was gentle, with angels drifting slowly by."

What's striking is the sense of fun and enjoyment, far removed from the grey received image. Mary Wilson, of Lancashire, remembers the annual performance of songs and recitations.

"One year, we did Children of Foreign Lands, and it was a big slip-up. I was Miss Greenland, dressed accordingly, and the hymn was different verses for different lands. And, somehow, I got shuffled round. And when it was 'from Greenland's icy mountains' Miss India walked in, and when it was 'from India's balmy shore' I clopped in. But everybody pretended not to notice."

Tools to learn

It's a far cry from the experience of early figures such as the robust Gloucester newspaperman Robert Raikes and the playwright Hannah More. Both got into trouble for teaching the poor to read. In fact, local opposition in Somerset gave More a nervous breakdown.

Teacher rounds up children on an LCC estate at Mottingham for Sunday school class in 1937
Children respond to the call to Sunday school class in 1937

And during the 1790s conflict with revolutionary France, William Pitt sought to suppress these "dangerous" schools - if you could read the Bible, you could also read Tom Paine's The Rights of Man.

The movement grew rapidly and by Victorian times, the majority of working-class children attended. There was strong attendance across the spectrum of social class but the biggest impact was experienced by the less well-off. The support to literacy continued to be crucial until the development of state education.

But it was the social and leisure activities which lifted the hopes and aspirations of so many young people, especially in industrial areas.

A museum in Aberdare holds a remarkable collection of richly-decorated banners carried in public processions on key religious holidays, a statement of affiliation and pride.

Sporting activities were also central, training for body as well as the soul.

Aston Villa fan
Aston Villa fan worships at a different altar to his forebears

A number of Premiership clubs, and a remarkable percentage of those who set up the Football League in the 1880s, grew out of Sunday schools - names as famous as Everton, Aston Villa and Fulham. Such teams grew out of the men's sections of Sunday schools - Catholic, Methodist, Anglican - and started as a winter addition to the popularity of cricket in summer.

The social impact of the schools in Victorian times was anything but conservative and establishmentarian. Women were given a rare opportunity for public office, and they exercised major influence as teachers; the male superintendents often built a power base in the school hall and went on to become political leaders.

Donkey rides

In the 20th Century, there was a gradual but certain decline. It matched the general falling off in church attendance, the advance of state provision in education and the post-World War II explosion of leisure activity and consumerism among the young.

There was no fascism - just simple interpretations of what life was about
Bill Tidy

Nevertheless, many former pupils speak of an oasis of support, storytelling and performance activity - and outings that might otherwise be out of reach. Ann Widdecombe was an avid donkey-rider on trips to Weston-super-Mare, while Patricia Routledge loved the excursions into the country. While there may have been cases of rigid schooling and indoctrination, that does not seem to have been the general story.

"There was no fascism, or anything like that," says Bill Tidy. "No 'Kill the Jews', or the Catholics, or the Prods, or whatever - just simple interpretations of what life was about. It was nice people putting forward decent values and I thought, 'This is the kind of religion I like'."

The influence of Sunday schools has waned, but the need for decent values has not.


Below is a selection of your comments.

There has been a decline in the literal belief in the God described in the Bible, but no decline in spirituality (God has got "out of the box"). And there is no decline in the need for social cohesion, compassion and ethics. Why not teach the latter without the former?
Justin Farquhar, Banbury, UK

I was born into a family of 10 children in the UK. My parents were very poor and our relatives lived 50 miles away, so we had no family support. I can remember those happy days of being involved in Sunday School (Salvation Army) where we felt loved by the people who ran it, there were hot pot suppers in the winter, and once a year we had a day's holiday with them to the seaside - the only holiday we ever had. They sometimes invited our family (one at a time) to Sunday tea where there were the luxuries of food we never had, and toys to play with. My parents were not church-goers, but they had morals, and liked us to go. We can thank the protection of God to us as a family at that time, through the love and care of godly people.
Victoria, Charleville, County Cork, Eire

Sunday school mostly used to bore me rigid, for the few years that I went - but on the other hand it did provide a significant chunk of my biblical learning, which, if nothing else, has been very useful in pub quizzes.
S Weekes, Cardiff

Iris Murdoch, then an agnostic, wrote as an adult that being brought up a Roman Catholic (as she was) gave her a framework of reference for life. Assuredly, my Welsh Sunday school did this and so much more for me. Now in my 70s, my wife and I shop in Tesco-Lotus (in Thailand - we look around and are reminded of the delightful hymn we sang so long ago, "Remember all the children, That live in far-off lands". Sunday school was my opening to the world.
Tony Hopkin, Hat Yai, Songkhla, Thailand

Sunday school was a welcome relief from the incessant humanist brainwashing of state school.
Simon, Birmingham

I attended Sunday School and didn't really like it. Yes we sang songs about God's love for us and how Jesus came to save us from sin and its consequences, which truthfully didn't mean a lot to me then. However as an adult and my life in a mess, I remembered the teaching that Jesus loves me and I called out to Him and he gave me something worth living for. Now I am a community development manager and a co-pastor of our Church Shiloh Christian Fellowship which is housed in what was my local Sunday School.
Mark Tatty Gordon, Bangor, Northern Ireland

As a youth worker in an Anglican church I can happily confirm the fact that children's groups on Sundays are still fulfilling their vital role of nurturing, supporting and encouraging children and young people in their growth and development. The core values that Jesus taught are still there - respect for one another, loving the unlovely, making a positive difference in your community, along with the astoundingly good news that we can be friends with God and He wants to be friends with us. Sunday school is not dead (although it might be known by a different name nowadays).
Sharon Court, Portsmouth

This Sunday, 7 July, will see the annual Sunday School anniversary at Wrekenton Methodist Community Church with about 30 scholars taking part in a musical production. This will be followed by the annual trip to the beach the weekend after for traditional races and sandcastle competitions. A thriving Sunday School in Gateshead still providing enjoyment and fun and values that society is all the better for.
Keith Wood, Gateshead

The day of the week I hated most as a kid. Sod all to do except go fishing or leaf through those copies of Parade that you kept under the mattress. Sunday school, don't make me laugh. At least I never had to attend these brainwashing sessions. My mother managed to drag me unwillingly to church until I was about 11. That's 50 years since I last set foot in one. Good riddance to Sunday schools, and I would like to be able to say the same for religion.
Lawrence Taylor, Osaka, Japan

I also have very fond memories of Sunday School in the 1950 and early 60s. My experience was one where all children came together from a variety of backgrounds and were taught how to live in harmony together - I agree with Bill Tidy, it was simply about life and values. It was at these classes that many learned confidence to stand up in public and speak at the anniversary services, leading to many public speakers and performance artists. Let us work together to develop schools in which children learn values for life, learn to love people, and learn to live in diversity.
Sandra Duffty

There are probably too many choices of different things to do on a Sunday now, whereas it did used to be a day of rest. My own daughter attends the local church, although not necessarily every week. The activities vary, but whatever they do they enjoy it and she has made some good friends there. It is probably the case that it is down to individuals whether something is successful and appealing to children. What is nice though is that there is a real sense of community within the church, of people who have those important decent values. I suspect we are lucky living near such an active church, but I sadly suspect they may be few and far between. I hope not.
Bev Ansell, Huntingdon, UK

Too often people think that the legacy of religion is war, little realising that without it they would not have the fantastic society that we now enjoy. And not just in the UK, because the British Sunday School movement and the benefits it stimulated spread out to enrich other nations too.
Simon

"Great Sunday schools build great churches" - this was the banner at my old family church, and I've grown to still love it. Going to Sunday school gave me team building tools I still deal with at work. I loved taking part in all the after school (weekday) activities as well as the internal goings-on in the church. Now I'm not at all religious, but I do have a clear idea of my own relationship with God. The principles, standards and values installed in me so long ago and now being passed onto my nephews and niece who now attend the same classes I did so many years ago.
Angie, London-Bexleyheath

I am a Hindu in my mid-40s and both myself and my husband were made to go to Sunday school. It was one of the best things that I remember from childhood. We learned so much about kindness, patience and tolerance to others as well as the marvellous singing of hymns and storytelling.
Meena Patel, Berkshire

Just to note my own fond memories of Sunday school - both as a child in a Naval SS in Yeovil, a teenager with Covenanters in Hereford and as a Sunday school teacher myself. Great input, character forming and fun. Parents loved the break on a Sunday afternoon too. It lives on in the many after school children's clubs & church-based groups - long may it do so.
Steve Grisman, Hereford, UK

This article is for me most refreshing. Sunday School was where we were civilised. I recommend we all revert from NOW to THEN, maybe we could become safer in our streets and homes.
Patsy Foster, Brisbane, Australia

Patsy, I agree. Being one of seven who all attended Sunday School in 50s & 60s in Bristol, it definitely helped teach us right from wrong and gave us enough insight to make up are own minds in regard to religion when older.
Julie Williams, Perth, Australia


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