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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Sunday Schools, Non-Catholic

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The Sunday school movement, probably the most far-reaching educational activity in the field of religion since the Reformation, was initiated by Robert Raikes (1735—1811), a native of Gloucester, England. In 1780 he started a school for factory children in his own (Anglican) parish for teaching the Bible, reading, and other elementary subjects on weekdays and Sundays. Although he had to face opposition from conservatives who felt that popular education spelled revolution, as well as from strict Sabbatarians who objected to teaching on Sundays, his use of new methods (phonetics and monitors) triumphed. His example was soon followed by others, notably Hannah More (1745—1833), and by the end of the 18th century Sunday schools had become part of the educational program of Protestant churches in England and the American colonies.

The early American phase of the Sunday school movement filled a special need because of the high degree of illiteracy and (some claim) of low morals in the colonies. But with the establishment of the U.S., a new problem arose. As public sentiment slowly crystallized on the subject of separation of Church and State, most formal religious instruction was transferred from the public schools and put into the hands of the churches. At first the churches did not want the Sunday school, particularly on account of its lay leadership, but there was dire need of an organization to do the work that the public school was relinquishing. In time, Protestant churches adopted the Sunday school and quickly changed its scope and curriculum. Catechisms appeared, and in general the school policy became that of its supporting denomination.

In 1791 the Philadelphia Sunday School Union was organized to promote the establishment of Sunday schools, of which the oldest on record was the school formed (1804) by the Broadway Baptist Church, Baltimore, Md. A new dimension was reached by the middle of the 19th century, when the Bible began to supplant catechisms and doctrinal emphases. But denominationalism continued to dominate until curriculum materials became less sectarian; in 1872 the “International Uniform Lessons” for Sunday schools was adopted. The fourth cycle of growth occurred about 1900 when a shift was made from the material-centered curriculum to what is now known as the organized curriculum with the needs of the pupil at the center.

Several features characterize the modern Protestant Sunday school: its instruction through guidance, evangelism, creative worship, and service activities. Not all churches favor every feature, and in general more doctrinally conscious denominations stress instruction and evangelism, while more liberal churches favor service activities. By the 1960s, Protestant churches were critically reexamining Sunday schools; within a single decade at least 20 full-length volumes had been published on the theory and future policy of the movement. The numerical and percentage growth had been phenomenal. From 13 million pupils enrolled in 1906, the total had increased to 37 million in 1960. Since the Sunday school operates in close relation with the church and serves a constituency of the church, the practice of teaching religion (and not merely attending worship) on Sundays appears to be the single factor most responsible for the vitality of American Protestantism.

Sunday schools operated by the Eastern Orthodox bodies are less prominent than among Protestants. Normally every parish conducts a school, taught either by the priest or by laymen trained for the work, but the ratio of pupils to total church membership is less than a fifth of the Protestant percentage. Church doctrine and especially the liturgy are stressed, since most Orthodox children attend public schools.

Jewish Sabbath schools have more than kept pace with their Christian counterparts. In 1964 a yearly increase of 10 per cent in the enrollment had been recorded for more than a decade, and the ratio was increasing in all three segments of American Judaism. The highest quota was among the Conservative congregations, with the Reformed a close second. Orthodox Jews operated congregation-sponsored and non-congregational schools. In all these programs the emphasis was on developing familiarity with the Scriptures, knowledge of Jewish history, ritual, and dietary practice, and often facility in the use of Hebrew as the language of revelation and the liturgy.

Sunday and Sabbath schools, outside Roman Catholicism, often grow into complete church-affiliated educational institutions. In 1964 enrollment in the U.S. had been increasing almost 100 per cent every 10 years, notably among the *Lutherans, *Seventh-day Adventists, and adherents of the *Christian Reformed Church.

Bibliography: American Jewish Yearbook (New York 1899— ). Yearbook of American Churches (New York 1915— ). K. B. Cully, ed., The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Education (Philadelphia 1963). R. C. Miller, Education for Christian Living (2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962). J. M. Price et al., A Survey of Religious Education (2d ed. New York 1959). P. H. Vieth, ed., The Church and Christian Education (St. Louis 1947).

New Catholic Encyclopedia
Vol. 13, 1967, p. 806-807

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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