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Robert Raikes, the founder of the Sunday Schools

Posted in Education, Historical articles, History, Religion on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about Robert Raikes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 236 published on 23 July 1966.

Raikes' Sunday School, picture, image, illustration

Robert Raikes, the Founder of Sunday Schools, and the House where the First Sunday School was held in hare Lane, Gloucester, in 1780

Ever since the earliest days of Christianity there have been special arrangements for explaining the teaching of the church to children.

What was called the catechism (a Greek word for “teaching”) formed a part of the earliest Prayer Books, including those first published in English. In them the teaching took the form of question and answer, and we still talk sometimes about “catechizing” people when we ask them a lot of questions.

In England the custom from the time of the Reformation was for the children to come into church after the second lesson at the evening service, and to be taught the catechism, there and then. Such things as Children’s Church or Sunday Schools were unknown.

It was a Gloucester man, Robert Raikes, who planned the first Sunday Schools. Raikes was born in 1735, and, as a young man, became more and more troubled at the fact that so many children in the towns were growing up in ignorance and idleness. On Sundays many of them got into all kinds of mischief and trouble, and the day seemed to mean nothing to them as a Christian holy day – which is what a “holiday” really means.

He therefore decided to gather all those who were willing to come into a large hall, and to give them some instruction. At first it was almost impossible to get them quiet. He is said to have amused them with a mop on the end of a pole to gain their attention. Gradually they were organised into classes, with senior pupils in charge. He called these senior pupils “monitors” and was the first to do so.

These were on both Sunday mornings and afternoons. All sorts of things were taught in addition to Scripture. Many children could neither read nor write, for there was no national system of compulsory education at that time. Simple arithmetic was also taught, and the parents of poor families were glad to take advantage of such opportunities for their children.

A number of people were strongly opposed to Sunday Schools. Some regarded them as a breaking of the Sabbath: others feared that too much popular education would pave the way for revolution! But the movement spread.

John Wesley wrote to Robert Raikes in warm support of what he called “this blessed work of Sunday Schools”, and before Raikes died in 1811 the movement had become nation-wide and the National Sunday School Union had been founded.

A statue of Robert Raikes, bearing the words “founder of Sunday Schools” and showing him with an open book in his hand, stands in the garden on the Thames Embankment in London.

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