The Medium is the Message: Sunday School Literature in England, 1780-1800

This paper was presented at the Midwestern American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies Conference, Terre Haute, IN, November 4, 2011.

In 1780 a prominent Gloucester publisher and philanthropist named Robert Raikes (1736-1811) was walking on a Sunday when he noticed 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).

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 own Gloucester Journal that, “In those parishes where this plan has been adopted, we are assured that the behaviour of the children is greatly civilized” (qtd in Power 35-36).

Thus at 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.  There was, of course, no comprehensive system of public education in England until well into the nineteenth century and, 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.  Their success over the course of the next fifty years was phenomenal – By 1800, 200,000 children attended Sunday Schools, by 1818 – 240,000, by 1833 – 1,400,000, and by 1851 – 2,100,000 out of a total population of 21 million (Laqueur xi).  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).

By and large, though, the history of Sunday Schools has been dominated 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 and Hannah 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 Raikes. Instead Sunday School instruction quickly became far more dependent upon local and denominational circumstances than the opinions of a few influential reformers (Lacquer).  Furthermore, the contributions of even the socially conservative Sunday School advocates like More have been reassed in recent years by feminist scholars like Myers, Mellor, Stott, and Hilton.  What these scholars have pointed out is that the activities of reformers like More in many cases worked to reform education (especially women’s education) in innovative ways.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the production, distributrion, and use of Sunday School textbooks which, by the turn of the eighteenth century 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.  By and large these texts were cheaply mass produced for a vast audience and distributed across the country.  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.  Though sometimes used in the service of conservative social ideas, nevertheless the progressive medium of the Sunday School textbook in many cases trumped any conservative message.

While ample scholarly research has been conducted on the development of literacy within school walls, little has focused on what goes on outside them, in what Anne Ruggles Gere terms the “extracurriculum.”  Furthermore, histories of literacy that have considered the extracurriculum have largely viewed it as a stopping point on the way to scholarly engagement with literacy and education 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 practices of a far wider group of people.

Thus I will argue that Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies more than ever – by using pedagogical strategies like progressive exercises and woodblock illustrations, Sunday School textbook and tract authors created a sort of spiritual literacy that grew out of the forms and structures of the classroom exercises.  Such methods subtly shaped the types of literacy that the early Sunday School produced and these types of literacy in turn informed how an increasingly literate, industrial populace engaged with the larger social questions of the day.  By examining the material texts of early Sunday Schools – textbooks, spellers, catechisms – we can develop a clearer perspective on how Sunday Schools shaped the minds of an entire generation of Britain’s children.

Early Sunday School Textbooks

The main genre of Sunday School textbook that was produced during the period was 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 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 advocates like Hannah More and 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 accompy 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.


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.  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.  To be sure many early texts did work to subtly inculcate religious virtues and stable class relations.  Nevertheless, I would argue that Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the medium is the message” applies more than ever – for, as I have shown, 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.  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 useful 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.

Works Cited

Brown, Joseph. The New English Primer, or Reading Made Easy. London: MacPherson, 1790.

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.

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

—. Some Thoughts Concerning Education. London: Churchill, 1693.

Paley, William. Reading Made Completely Easy. London: Piguenet, 1791.

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.

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.

Wise, Thomas. Reading Made Easy and Best Guide to Spelling. London: Hollis, 1790.

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