Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1

This is the first part of a larger project on the early English Sunday School movement and the literacy practices it inculcated through the use of graduated readers and moral literature.

As far back as I can remember words have always been a part of my life.  From the time I was an infant, my parents read to me constantly – The Wizard of Oz, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Chronicles of Narnia were only a few of my favorites that absorbed before I could even read.  We had a televisionbut this was before cable and satellite (we couldn’t have afforded it anyway) and my television watching was limited primarily to Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Reading Rainbow – all programs that were full of stories and words.  I didn’t have access to the internet until I was in junior high school and, even then, my usage was strictly limited.  By the time I was in kindergarten I could already read and write simple sentences.

When I entered kindergarten, I was exposed to different types of literacy practices.  I attended a conservative religious school where my father taught and where modern literacy theories like “whole language” were viewed with suspicion.  Instead, I was given a Victory Drill Book, a navy blue, hardback volume with gold lettering on the cover.  It was filled with list upon list of words – single syllable words, multiple syllable words, rhyming words.  Each week, it would be my task to learn all of the words on one page of the Victory Drill Book and read them to my teacher, without error and within a prescribed amount of time.  I quickly became a master at this, completing the entire book before all but one of my classmates.

Finally, my journey towards literacy was deeply informed by my experiences at church.  Sunday School, though a far cry from the educational Sunday Schools of the 18th and 19th centuries that are the focus of this essay, was a focal point of my life.  Each Sunday I would attend a graded Sunday school class in the morning and “Children’s Church” during the adult service.  In these classes the focus was on learning to read and understand Scripture.  Bible stories were taught through a combination of memorization, activities, and instruction as we learned the make the Bible the focus of our lives.

As my own experience makes clear, my journey towards literacy and writing was informed by powerful forces both inside and outside the classroom.  Moreover, each of these literacy influences continues to inform how I think about reading and writing to this day.  While ample scholarly research has been conducted on the development of literacy and composition within school walls, little has focused on what goes on outside them, in what Anne Ruggles Gere terms the “extracurriculum.”  This is in part because, as Ruggles Gere points out, “we in composition studies have sought to establish our right to a place in the academy by recounting our past, and this historiography has focused inside classroom walls” (78).  Furthermore, histories of composition studies that have considered the extracurriculum have largely viewed it as a stopping point on the way to scholarly engagement with writing instead of as something that, “extends beyond the academy to encompass the multiple contexts in which persons seek to improve their own writing; … includes more diversity in gender, race, and class among writers; and… avoids, as much as possible, a reenactment of professionalization in its narrative” (Ruggles Gere 80).  By thus considering the extracurriculum (in this case the Sunday School) in its own terms, we can better gauge how specific sites influenced the literacy and composition practices of a far wider group of people.

In this early Sunday School textbooks are a particularly important resource for understanding the broader implications of the movement.  For, while few actual Sunday School exercises by children are extant, many of the most popular textbooks are available in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) database, though little scholarly work has been conducted on them.  As Ferguson Carr, Carr, and Schultz argue in their study of nineteenth century American textbooks, this is largely because such texts are considered largely derivative:

Textbooks have a particular status in the history of the book.  They are unusual and difficult books in the variety of their parts, the mode of their author, and their publication history.  Like cookbooks, children’s books, and popular fiction, they often slide beneath bibliographers’ and historians’ radar, mentioned as a totality rather than in their particularity or difference (11).

It is in this particularity and difference, though, that we can begin to unravel what influenced these texts and how the texts were used in early Sunday Schools; and it is in tracing the multiplicity of these texts that we can begin to understand the far reaching effects of Sunday Schools in late eighteenth century Britain and today.

Interestingly enough, each of my literacy influences illustrate the key aims and methods of turn of the nineteenth century Sunday Schools that I will trace in these textbooks.  For the eighteenth and nineteenth Sunday School, as for my Sunday School, the goal was scripture literacy and the methods employed to reach that goal were often repetition of lists of words, memorization, illustration, and imitation.  What I want to argue is that such methods, far more than larger social or cultural factors, subtly shaped the types of literacy that the early Sunday School produced.  These types of literacy in turn informed how an increasingly literate, industrial populace engaged with the larger social questions of the day.  Thus, by examining the material texts of early Sunday Schools – textbooks, spellers, catechisms – we can develop a clearer perspective on the often turbulent relationship between reading, writing, religion, and society at the turn of the nineteenth century.

A Brief History of Sunday Schools in England

Until the middle of the nineteenth century free public education did not exist in England.  While the aristocracy hired governesses or sent their children to expensive private academies like Eaton and later on to Oxford and Cambridge, there were few viable options for the vast majority of the population.  Though local grammar and finishing schools did exist, they were prohibitively expensive and families would send at most one child to such schools.  As such, the demand for basic education was high among England’s rapidly expanding working class population.  Parents realized that learning to read and write was a vital skill, but they simply could not afford it.  Thus Sunday schools are a case of a fortunate confluence of religious, social, and economic forces that collided to create a movement that, by 1851, served over two million children (Laqueur xi).

Robert Raikes

Though the Sunday School movement in England evolved slowly over the course of the eighteenth century, with isolated schools appearing across the country, it was Gloucester philanthropist Robert Raikes (1736-1811) who is credited with systematizing and popularizing the movement.  Raikes was the editor and publisher of the Gloucester Journal and he used his position to promote various causes, including prison reform, poor law reform, and the abolition of the slave trade (Tolar Burton 269).  A deeply religious man, Raikes was disturbed by what he saw as the abuse of the Sabbath by unruly poor children.  As he wrote in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1784:

I was walking into the suburbs of the city, where the lowest of the people (who are principally employed in the pin-manufactury) chiefly reside [when] I was struck with concern at seeing a group of children wretchedly ragged, at play in the street.  I asked an inhabitant whether those children belonged to that part of the town, and lamented their misery and idleness. – Ah! Sir, said the woman to whom I was speaking, could you take a view of this part of town on Sunday, you should be shocked indeed; for then the street is filled with multitudes of these wretches who, released on that day from their employment, spend their time in noise and riot and playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid, as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell, rather than any other place (qtd. in Tolar Burton 270).

Robert Raikes on the Street

This was the impetus for Raikes’ founding of a Sunday School in Gloucester in 1780.  Other schools quickly sprung up in the area so that by November 1783 Raikes could write in his Gloucester Journal that:

In those parishes where this plan has been adopted, we are assured that the behaviour of the children is greatly civilized. The barbarous ignorance in which they had before lived being in some degree dispelled, they begin to give proofs that those persons are mistaken who consider the lower orders of mankind as incapable of improvement, and therefore think an attempt to reclaim them impracticable, or at least not worth the trouble (qtd in Power 35-36).

Thus as their inception Sunday Schools, much like the charity schools that had preceded them, sprung from a desperate need for education among the still coalescing working class.  Unlike Scotland, England had no system of free public education and most poor families could not afford to send their children to school; thus Sunday Schools filled a much needed gap in the education of children and illiterate adults.  Though expressed by Raikes as a concern for public order among the poorer classes, his Sunday Schools met a real social need and also responded to rapidly changing social conditions in England during the 1780’s.

Jonas Hanway

Like Raikes, London philanthropist Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) was also deeply concerned about the living conditions of the working poor and the moral effect these conditions had on individuals and society.  Best known for his work with foundlings, Hanway was a tireless advocate for what he saw as the inexcusable treatment of children (Taylor 286).  To this end, in 1785 he published A Sentimental History of Chimney Sweeps in London and Westminster Shewing the Necessity of putting them under regulations to prevent the grossest Inhumanity to the Climbing Boys with a letter to a London Clergyman on Sunday Schools calculated for the preservation of the Children of the Poor which detailed the deplorable conditions under which young chimney sweepers, or “climbing boys” worked.  According to Hanway, boys as young as five were apprenticed by master chimney sweepers who forced them to climb up “chimnies [sic] which are on fire; or to climb chimnies too strait in their dimensions” (xvii).  In addition, these boys would often be forced to live in filth and often contracted cancer from the amount of soot they had to breath in.  In response, Hanway urges his readers to both support reforms that would change the way such working boys were treated and proposes the establishment of Sunday Schools as a means shaping the boys moral education.

Indeed, in his 1786 Comprehensive View of Sunday Schools Hanway goes even further by laying out a justification for Sunday Schools that frames them explicitely in terms of a reformation of manners among the poor. “The better condition the labourer’s children are put in, with regard to moral and religious instruction,” he writes, “the less they will turn their thoughts to pilfering and beggary.  They will become more industrious, be tighter and cleaner in their garments, and be better nourished” (iii).  Thus, for Hanway, Sunday Schools were a means to raising the condition of the poor only as high as their societal station allowed.  By inculcating moral and religious principles, middle class philanthropists like Hanway hope to better regulate the poor so that they would quiescently accept their station in life.

Nevertheless, at least until 1800, there was a deep anxiety among the middle and upper classes over the wisdom of teaching the poor to read – nevermind write.  The fear among the ruling classes was that if the poor were taught to read they would be more susceptible to dangerous or seditious literature like Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man.  Especially in the years following the French Revolution when radical pamphlets and tracts abounded, the propriety of teaching the poor to read was profoundly questioned.  It thus became the job of Sunday School proponents to convince their wealthy donors that by teaching the poor to read they were actually guarding against radical activity.  As Hanway writes in Comprehensive View, “The better Christians they are, the better subjects they will make” (xii).

Hannah More

Hannah More (1745-1833) was one of the most visible proponents of this view. A prominent writer, poet, philanthropist, and social reformer More, with the help of her sister Martha and the financial support of William Wilberforce, founded a system of Sunday Schools in the poor Mendip Hills around Bristol in 1789.  Both deeply conservative and deeply evangelical, More was fundamentally interested in inculcating religion and social order among the poor.  In her account of the Sunday School project in Mendip Annals, More recounts how she structured her curriculum to instill these values through reading:

…my plan for instructing the poor is very limited and strict.  They learn of week-days such coarse works as may fit them for servants.  I allow of no writing.  My object has not been to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower class to habits of industry and virtue.  I know no way of teaching morals but by infusing princoples of Christianity, nor of teaching Christianity without a thorough knowledge of Scripture.  In teaching in our Sunday-schools, the only books we use are two little tracts called “Questions for the Mendip Schools,”… theChurch Catechism (these are hung up in frames, half-a-dozen in a room), the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible (6).

For More reading was a vital skill, but it had to be the right kind of reading.  Thus she provided her students with a very circumscribed curriculum and supplemented it with her own Cheap Repository Tracts which were meant to explicitely combat the popular and/or radical broadsheets and pamphlets that typically circulated among the poor.  Her tract titled The Sunday School, for instance, includes an explicitely moralistic message about the transforming effect a Sunday School can have on individuals, families, and communities when everyone learns to make the best of their proper social place.

Note, though, that More explicitely opposes teaching writing in Sunday Schools.  In this she echoes the concerns of earlier middle class social reformers like Hanway who saw writing as unecessary to the poorer classes:

As to the connexion between reading and writing, as vulgarly understood, I discover none that concerns those who depend for their bread on their manual labour, and not on the pen.  The first is necessary to them for learning their religion, and filling up their vacant hours, and to prevent that vacuity of thought, or mischievous consequence which ignorance often occasions; the last is not necessary or expedient (Hanway, Comprehensive View xiii).

This disconnnect between reading and writing instruction is perplexing to a modern audience, but it was a fundamental principle to these early middle class social reformers and it became the defining controversy of the Sunday School movement in the nineteenth century.  Reading was so necessary for religious instruction that these early reformers were willing to risk providing people with the tools to also read what they considered “dangerous” literature.  Writing, however, was more closely associated with thinking and social action and thus for reformers like Raikes, Hanway and Hannah More it had no place in Sunday School.

Up to this point, the history of Sunday Schools in England would seem to accord with E.P. Thompson’s famous argument in The Making of the English Working Class that Sunday Schools mainly operated as middle class instruments of social control and indocrination (375-376).  Though no doubt prompted by the best of motives, reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More did see themselves as defenders of the existing social order.  The conditions of the poor could be bettered and they could be taught to be better stewards of their time and money, but they ultimately could not expect to rise above their God-ordained place in society.  Nevertheless, recent scholarship has questioned the extent to which the ideas of these prominent Sunday School advocates spread to the Sunday School movement at large.  What began as a relatively circumscribed movement among middle class evangelical Anglicans quickly spread across the country and among Methodists, Dissenters, and even political radicals.  What is more, control of these local Sunday Schools rarely rested in the hands of wealthy patrons like More.  By 1800, 200,000 children attended Sunday Schools, by 1818 – 240,000, by 1833 – 1,400,000, and by 1851 – 2,100,000 (Laqueur xi).  Such figures are staggering and they indicate the extent to which Sunday School instruction quickly became far more dependent upon local and denominational circumstances than the opinions of a few influential reformers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of writing instruction in Sunday Schools.  For conservatives like Raikes, Hanway, and More teaching writing was predominately a social and political question and that is how it has been portrayed in the literature since (see Thompson 377).  However, as Laqueur has pointed out, this rather limited view of the subject does not take into account the broader scope of the argument in the early nineteenth century (124-125).  In reality, many of the fears over writing instruction had faded after 1800 and the opposition to writing was based mainly on religious conviction and denominational politics.

In the case of religious conviction, many people were worried that teaching writing on the Sabbath violated the command to “honor the Sabbath day.”  Reading instruction was excused because children could be taught the Bible, but some argued that writing was not strictly necessary.  This did not indicate an opposition to writing instruction, in fact many Sunday Schools offered writing courses on weekday evenings, but it did limit the number of people who were able to learn to write (Laqueur 138-139). However in denominations like Methodism, which had the highest number of children in Sunday Schools and where the debate over writing was the most fierce, the issue went much deeper.  Here, the debate over writing instruction really came down to issues of control with Methodist leader Jabez Bunting attempting to bring the relatively independed Sunday Schools more closely under his supervision (Laqueur 142).  In both cases, however, class regulation was not really at issue and, despite the heat of this controversy, many Sunday Schools continued to offer writing instruction throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century.

In my next post I will explore how the textbooks of the Sunday School movement shaped both literacy and social practice in more depth.  Stay tuned…


Ferguson Carr, Jean, Carr, Stephen L. and Schultz, Lucille M. Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.

Laqueur, Thomas Walter. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780-1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Power, John Carroll. The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools. New York: Sheldon, 1863.

Ruggles Gere, Anne. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” College Composition and Communication 45.1 (1994): 75-92.

Taylor, James Stephen. “Philanthropy and Empire: Jonas Hanway and the Infant Poor of London.” Eighteenth Century Studies 12.3 (1979): 282-305.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Tolar Burton, Vicki. Spiritual Literacy in John Wesley’s Methodism: Reading, Writing, and Speaking to Believe. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2008.

3 responses to “Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 1

  1. Hi Andrew:

    Your post fascinating, as always. Your recollections of learning to read stirred my own. Very different, but equally precious. I was most taken, in the historical account of Sunday Schools and teaching reading to the poor, with Hannah More, and the dispute about the need to be able to write. The idea that one can read, but not write, is so very laden with the control issues of the rich over the poor. Reading is seen as a passive activity, while writing is an active one. The poor are to be consumers of the writing of the rich, or at least the members of the power structure who are certainly wealthier than the workers. By consuming only, it is assumed that they will carry out their instructions like the drones of _1984_, but never have an “idea” of their own. The arrogance of this position is stunning.

    I look forward to your continuation of this line.



  2. Since I love Methodist history, I find it fascinating that the Methodists played a big part in the growth of Sunday schools, especially Sophia Cooke (who influenced Raike’s thinking).

  3. Pingback: Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2 | 18th Century Religion, Literature, and Culture

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