Today Is The Birthday Of Robert Raikes, The Founder Of Sunday School Movement

Robert Raikes and Sunday schools
Robert Raikes Known as the founder of the Sunday Schools movement, Raikes used his position as editor and proprietor of the Gloucester Journal to publicize the cause. However, many Sunday schools (and chapel and church communities) became crucial working class institutions and centres for mutual aid and association.
There is some debate concerning the origins of Sunday Schools. As Sutherland (1990: 126) has commented, Robert Raikes (1735-1811) is traditionally credited as pioneering Sunday Schools in the 1780s; ‘in fact teaching Bible reading and basic skills on a Sunday was an established activity in a number of eighteenth century Puritan and evangelical congregations’. In Wales, the circulating schools offered one model of such activity (see the development of adult schools). That said, Robert Raikes made a notable contribution to the development of Sunday schooling.

Robert Raikes started his first school for the children of chimney sweeps in Sooty Alley, Gloucester (opposite the city prison) in 1780. Described as ‘cheery, talkative, flamboyant and warm-hearted (Kelly 1970: 75), Raikes was able to use his position as proprietor and editor of the Gloucester Journal to publicize the work. After his first editorial in 1783, schools spread ‘with astonishing rapidity’ (op. cit.) In 1785 an undenominational national organization, the Sunday School Society, was set up to co-ordinate and develop the work. By 1784 there were said to be 1800 pupils in Manchester and Salford, and Leeds the same. Significantly, ‘it was a characteristic of Sunday schools in both the North of England and in Wales that they were attended by adults as well as children (Kelly 1970: 76)

The idea of the Sunday School caught the imagination of a number involved in evangelical churches and groupings. Most notably, Hannah More and her sister Martha founded a number of schools in the Mendip Hills that involved innovation. These lay in the pedagogy they developed; the range of activities they became involved in; and the extent to which publicity concerning their activities encouraged others to develop initiatives. They attempted to make school sessions entertaining and varied. Programmes had to be planned and suited to the level of the students. There needed to be variety and classes had to be as entertaining as possible (she advised using singing when energy and attention was waning). She also argued that it was possible to get the best out of children if their affections ‘were engaged by kindness’. Furthermore, she made the case that terror did not pay (Young and Ashton 1956). However, she still believed it was a ‘fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings’ rather than as beings of ‘a corrupt nature and evil dispositions’ (More 1799: 44, quoted by Thompson 1968: 441).

Sunday schools as working class institutions
While the activities of middle class philanthropists were significant, it could be argued that Sunday Schools came to represent a significant strand of organized working-class activity. By the mid-1800s many Sunday Schools had passed into the control of working people, although the membership of chapels would appear to have been drawn rather more from the skilled than the un-skilled working class (McLeod, 1984, p.24). Three quarters of working class children were attending such schools in 1851 (Lacquer 1976: 44). This was popular provision on a massive scale.

Laquer suggests that the key element in the success of Sunday Schools was that they provided the education and expressed the values that working-class parents wanted for their children. In particular, it was the transmission of the values of the ‘respectable’ working class or labour aristocracy that were stressed: self-discipline, industry, thrift, improvement, egalitarianism and communalism. Sunday Schools, when considered in this light, paralleled other working class institutions such as friendly societies, trade unions and savings banks. Sunday Schools were used not simply to improve literacy and religious knowledge but also, arguably, to enhance the culture of working class life.

However, the view that Sunday Schools were the actual creation of a working class culture of respectability and self-reliance has been questioned. Dick (1980) claimed that Sunday Schools have to be seen as essentially middle class conservative institutions directed at the improvement of working class young people from above. Thompson argued that they helped contribute to the political defeats of working-class radicalism (1968: 411-440), although other writers have advanced the counter argument that the chapels and Sunday Schools were actually an integral part of the same movement (Hobsbawm 1964).

Sunday schools and informal education
We can see something of the contribution of Sunday schools as formal educational institutions. There is the obvious area of Christian education. However, the need to access the bible directly also entailed some teaching around reading. Yet perhaps their more informal and associational qualities are of equal significance. Services, Sunday schools and associated activities had the special advantage of being one of the few organized and ‘respectable’ social occasions where sex segregation was not imposed. By the 1890’s Joseph Lawson was able to write:

Chapels are now more inviting – have better music – service of song – which cannot help being attractive to the young as well as beneficial to all. They have sewing classes, bazaars, concerts, and the drama; cricket and football clubs, and harriers; societies for mutual improvement and excursions to the seaside (quoted in Cunningham 1980: 181)

The scale of such associational activity is of great significance – and its educational power should not be underestimated.

In the early 1990s Konrad Elsdon (1995) and his colleagues undertook a large scale survey of local voluntary organizations in Britain. Two things were striking about their work. First, the sheer scale of involvement. Around 12 million women and men were involved in running 1.3 million bodies – and what is especially interesting here is that these were what we might describe as associations – ‘small democracies’ (1995: 39). Second, Elsdon and his colleagues demonstrated empirically the educative potential of voluntary groups. They comment on:

… the great range of learning, change and satisfaction over and above those which are deliberate, inherent in the organization’s objectives, and expected by their members. The one which was given priority almost universally, and reported as being of greater importance than the content objective of the organization, is quite simply growth in confidence, and its ramifications and secondary effects of self-discovery, freedom in forging relationships and undertaking tasks, belief in oneself and in one’s potential as a human being and an agent, and ability to learn and change both in the context of the organization’s objectives and in others. (1995: 47)

Besides individual growth, there are significant political gains. Malcolm Knowles argued, for example, that, ‘these groups are the foundation stones of our democracy. Their goals largely determine the goals of our society’ (Knowles 1950: 9).

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.