Early English Sunday Schools and Literacy Instruction at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Pt. 2

In my last post I laid out a brief overview of the origins and development of Sunday Schools in England.  Now I want to turn more specifically to what was taught in Sunday Schools.  I have already laid out the contours of the debate over reading and writing instruction, but now I will more closely examine some of the most popular Sunday School textbooks.  These textbooks speak for themselves as a living record of how early Sunday School organizers, teachers, and students viewed the tasks of reading and writing instruction.

Early Sunday School Textbooks

Textbook publication by and for turn of the eighteenth century Sunday Schools was a major enterprise.  Laqueur estimates that, between 1809 and 1830 over 10 million copies of two of the most popular Sunday School readers were sold (114). The non-denominational Sunday School Union was especially active in producing Sunday School materials that were used by schools across the denominational spectrum.  Broadly speaking, though, Sunday School textbooks can be divided into two categories: Readers/Spellers and Catechisms/Moral Literature.  The aims of both were relatively similar and there was inevitably some cross pollination between the two genres, but each served a defined purpose within the Sunday School classroom.  Both were cheaply mass produced for a vast audience and distributed across the country.  As such, though the goals and aims of each Sunday School may have been different, many used the same curriculum.

Readers and Spellers

The first category of Sunday School textbook are the Readers and Spellers.  The most popular readers and spellers remained relatively consistent throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as they were both cheap to produce and readily available.  They included: William Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, T. Wise’s Reading Made Easy and Best Guide to Spelling, and Joseph Brown’s New English Primer, or Reading Made Easy.  Each textbook followed a relatively similar graduated curriculum that stressed progressive exercises in reading and spelling. Students would first be introduced to the letters of the alphabet and then progressively work through one, two, three, and multisyllable words.  Each unit also usually contained a short story or scripture passage that used many of the words included in the lesson.  These stories, if not from scripture itself, usually contained an explicit moral lesson for the child to learn.  Furthermore, rough woodcuts often accompanied the stories or words to illustrate the concepts visually for the student.

In this these early readers and spellers incorporated much of the Lockean educational theory that had been popularized by educators like Anna Barbauld and Sunday School advocate Sarah Trimmer.  John Locke’s 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education essentially applied the conclusions of his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding to the education of children – arguing that children’s mind’s were essentially blank slates and that all ideas are gained through the senses.  As such, children should be taught to read and write through an approximation of sensual experience:

If his Aesop has pictures in it, it will entertain him much better, and encourage him to read, when it carries the increase of knowledge with it: for such visible objects children hear talked of in vain and without any satisfaction whilst they have no ideas of them; those ideas being not to be had from sounds, but from the things themselves or their pictures.  And therefore I think as soon as he begins to spell, as many pictures of animals should be got him as can be found, with the printed names to them, which at the same time will invite him to read, and afford him matter of enquiry and knowledge.

In thus arguing for the incorporation of pictures of animals and other natural objects into a text, Locke posits a pedagogical role for illustrations which, according to Schultz, worked to “extend… the limits of the children’s knowledge and help… them to connect with a world larger than that of their immediate circumstance” (88).  This theory was picked up by Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) who in 1778 published Lessons for Children – a groundbreaking children’s book which not only included pictures but led children through basic concepts step by step – mirroring the complexity of the subject matter with the complexity of the language.

Paley’s Reading Made Completely Easy, for example, which was one of the most widely used Sunday School texts (Laqueur 114) was subtitled: A Necessary Introduction to the Bible: Consisting Chiefly of Scripture Sentences; Each lesson of which is disposed in such Order, as the Learner is led on with pleasure, Step by Step, from simple and easy, to compound and difficult words: which is allowed by All to be the most regular, speedy, and rational Method of Teaching.  By thus adopting the Lockean method of leading the student step by step through graduated lessons that stressed experience, Reading Made Completely Easy adopts a decidely “rational” approach to education that is based on theories of cognition instead of innate knowledge.  Furthermore, by explicitely illustrating its lessons through “scripture sentences,” and by concluding with a brief catechism that leads students through the basic tenants of the faith, it fulfills the other chief goal of the Sunday School – instruction in Bible reading and Christian living.

Likewise, as Shultz has pointed out, the woodcuts that accompany such texts cannot be ignored as tools of instruction (88).  The Lockean theory of education privileged sensory experience of the world and the illustrations that accompied the text worked to reproduce this experience.  Both Reading Made Completely Easy and Reading Made Easy, for example, begin with an illustrated alphapet that includes images that correspond to each letter:

This provided a concrete image that the student could then associate with each letter of the alphabet.  Likewise the New English Primer includes woodblock illustrations of scenes from everyday life that subtly inculcate a moral or social message:

Here children are encouraged to associate specific simple words and phrases with still life representations.  Representations that, interestingly enough, confirm the established divide between king and beggar and the traditional societal role of the farmer or miller.

Thus, even when the material included in the Readers and Spellers is not explicitely religious, it is specifically moral.  Reading Made Easy, for example, includes an entire section of fables that include a specific moral.  In the fable of “The Lion and the Mouse” the moral is that “the great and little may need the Help of one another – the most powerful or wealthy Person on Earth may want the Assistance of the smallest or poorest, in some Way or other. – for who could have thought that the Lion, so powerful as he is, could have been indebted to a Mouse for his Life.”  Even here, then, the reading exercise seeks to promote virtue and knowing one’s place in the social order.  And the woodcut that accompanies the story provides a vivid visual example for the young reader.

Overall, then, the Readers and Spellers that were used by Sunday Schools served a variety of purposes.  Not only did they teach reading and writing based on Lockean educational theories about experiential, graduated knowledge – they also promoted social and religious virtue through the reading exercises that accompanied the texts.  In some texts (Reading Made Completely Easy) the scriptural component was more pronounced than others, but all sought to promote literacy within the context of societal order.

Catechisms and Moral Literature

The second category of Sunday School textbook that was used by almost all the schools was some form of catechism and/or moral literature.  Remember that Hannah More only allowed the use of “two little tracts called ‘Questions for the Mendip Schools,’… the Church Catechism… the Catechism broke into short questions, Spelling-books, Psalters, Common Prayer-book, and Bible” (6).  We have already seen how catechistic and moral material could be woven into the readers and spellers that most Sunday Schools used, but there was also an entirely separate category of moral and religious literature that was used alongside these core texts.

In the case of catechisms, such texts were often abridgements of standard catechisms adapted to both the age of the audience and particular denominational differences.  Hannah More’s Questions and Answers for the Mendip and Sunday Schools is a brief (eleven page) text which abridges the Church of England catechism, asking questions like “Who made you and all the world?” and “Who redeemed you?”  By thus applying reading instruction to Church doctrine, More was able to both control what children read and inculcate religious virtue.  In this she also follows Locke who suggested that “as soon as he can say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, the Ten Commandments, by heart, it may be fit for him to learn a question every day, or every week, as his understanding is able to receive and his memory to retain them.”  Thus progressive reading and memorization are combined to instill moral principles for, as Locked argues in his Essay on Humane Understanding, these are the principles that, if learned while young, will guide a child through the rest of his or her life.

Likewise, the cheap moral literature spawned by More and the Sunday School movement worked to not only provide acceptable reading material for children, but also counteract a nascent popular culture that reformers like More thought both immoral and potentially politically radical.  Though little studied today, there was a tradition of cheap popular literature in England that dated to the early seventeenth century.  Broadside ballads, cheap pamphlets, and bawdy tracts were produced cheaply and en masse and then sold throughout the countryside by ballad hawkers (Pederson 87).  Such literature was tremendously popular but also deeply troubling to someone like Hannah More who objected to the often immoral sexual content of the broadsides.  This concern was exacerbated in the years after the French Revolution when pamphlets like Tom Paine’s Rights of Man began to circulate in cheap editions among the poor.

To counteract these influences, More first published Village Politics in 1792 and then began the Cheap Repository Tracts in 1795 (Pederson 84).  Village Politics is an explicit reaction to the French Revolution controversy.  It uses the characters of Jack Anvil, the blacksmith, and Tom Hod, the mason – two workmen on opposite sides of the controversy – to argue that the existing social system works in the best interests of rich and poor.  Likewise, the Cheap Repository inculcates these ideas on a more subtle level.  In The Cottage Cook, for instance, More introduces the character of Mrs. Jones, a middle class woman who (much like More herself) moves to the country and begins to teach the local population how to live moral, upright lives.  In The Cottage Cook she goes about teaching the women of the parish how to make the most of their meager resources and accept their social place.  Then, in The Sunday School she begins a Sunday School despite the opposition from local farmers and prevalence hawkers out selling their “immoral” literature to the young ladies of the parish.  By the end of the tract, however, she has established her Sunday School and is busy teaching moral virtue.  Finally, The History of Hester Wilmot follows the history of one of Mrs. Jones’ star pupils who, by exhibiting the Christian virtues she learns in Sunday School, leads her parents to lead better, more religious lives.  Thus, the Cheap Repository Tracts worked not only to provide acceptable reading material for the Sunday Schools, they also modeled More’s vision for how the schools could counteract the influence of popular, radical culture and reform society.

Finally, such works proved to be tremendously successful. In the case of More’s  Cheap Repository Tracts, 300,000 were sold or distributed between March 3 and April 18, 1795; 700,000 by July 1795; and over 2 million by March 1796 (Pederson 112).  Furthermore, More’s work paved the way for an explosion of nineteenth century moral periodicals written explicitly for Sunday Schools.  Titles like the Sunday School Magazine, which was published and distributed by the Sunday School Union, sprung up and gained circulation numbers the millions.  In fact, by 1839 25-30 million of such moral tracts and literature had been distributed – outselling even the most popular bestsellers (Laqueur 118).  Clearly, then, such literature worked to shape the way children learned to read, write, and relate to key social institutions throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Thus we return once again to the questions of class and social relations in Sunday Schools.  While this brief survey of Sunday School literature and practice is far from comprehensive, nevertheless is suggests some of the interrelated and complex ways that class and literacy interact both in the eighteenth century and today.  For if we take seriously Ruggles Gere’s argument that the extracurriculum is an important site of instruction that deeply influences how students think and write, we need to start to think past easy assumptions about the interplay between religion, social class, and education.  In particular we need to carefully reassess the class assumptions that have been made about eighteenth and nineteenth century Sunday School students and then apply these lessons to current composition practice.

In the first case it has been long assumed that Sunday Schools operated more as instruments of social control than social liberation.  This is primarily due to the influence of E.P. Thompson and to the fact that the early Sunday School reformers like Raikes, Hanway, and More were so socially conservative.  Furthermore, as an analysis of the actual Sunday School literature shows, many early texts did work to subtly inculcate religious virtues and stable class relations.  Nevertheless, here as elsewhere I would argue that Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies more than ever – for despite the texts socially conservative messages, the medium was really quite progressive.  Using progressive exercises and woodblock illustrations these early textbooks created a sort of spiritual literacy that grew out of the forms and structures of the classroom exercises.  Much as I learned to read and write through gradual repetition and structured scripture memory, millions of eighteenth and nineteenth century children also developed these skills in this way – skills that often opened avenues far beyond the intent of a Hannah More or a Robert Raikes.  Thus, not only did these children learn how to read and write in Sunday School, they learned how to relate to their rapidly changing world.  In this sense Sunday Schools became a sort of refuge for children from the brutal factory owner or mill foreman instead of a further instrument of repression.

Secondly, the study of these early Sunday Schools has clear implications for modern English and composition practitioners.  The Sunday School as a specific site of extracurricular instruction suggests ways in which locations outside of traditional schools can have a profound impact on the way students think, read, and write even today.  As in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of our students come to us with literacies that are shaped far more by extracurricular learning than school learning.  Teaching, as I do, in urban Detroit many of my students have had as little structured literacy instruction as the eighteenth century child. Nevertheless they have been shaped by writing and reading practices they have learned in their communities and/or religious institutions.  Thus it is that one of my African American students struggles to construct a coherent scholarly argument, but is brilliant at writing social commentary poetry in the tradition of religious spirituals.  By recognizing these extracurricular sites of instruction as important we can both legitimate our students’ literacy practices and begin to think about how we can better incorporate their literacies into our discourse.


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

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Tegg & Son, 1836.

More, Hannah. Mendip Annals: Or, A Narrative of the Charitable Labours of Hannah and Martha More in Their Neighbourhood. London: Nisbet, 1859.

Pederson, Susan. “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth Century England.” Journal of British Studies 25.1 (1986): 84-113.

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

Schultz, Lucille M. The Young Composers: Composition’s Beginnings in Nineteenth-Century Schools. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

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.

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