The earliest recorded Sunday schools were the schools of catechumens, organized, according to Tertullian, in A. D. 180, though less formal instruction of Christian children and novitiates prevailed earlier. The schools of the catechumens flourished till the 6th century. In 1527 Luther established Sunday schools in Wittenberg for the instruction of children who could not attend the day schools. In 1560 Knox inaugurated them in Scotland. In 1580 Archbishop Borromeo of Milan established a system of Sunday schools throughout his diocese, and about the same time there were similar schools in France and the Netherlands. In the 17th century the clergy statedly catechised the children in some parishes of England; and Joseph Alleine, author of the "Alarm," opened a Sunday school in 1668. There was a Sunday 'school in Roxbury, Mass., in 1674, and one in Plymouth, Mass., in 1680. About 1740 Ludwig Hacker established a school in Ephratah, Lancaster co., Pa., which continued until the building was taken for a hospital during the revolution. Modern Sunday schools, however, were originated by Robert Raikes, who in 1781 gathered poor children from the streets in Gloucester, England, and employed female teachers at a shilling a day for their instruction.
The children were taught from 10 A. M. to 12; then, after an hour's recess, read a lesson and went to church. After church they repeated the catechism till after 5, and were then charged to go home at once and quietly. Raikes published an account of his work in the "Gloucester Journal" in 1783, which was republished in the " Gentleman's Magazine," and schools upon his plan were soon established in the principal towns of England. Scotland had similar schools as early as 1782, and they were established in Ireland in 1785. The London Sunday school society was organized in 1785, and in 16 years it spent £4,000. In 1786 it was thought that there were 250,-000 children in Sunday schools in Great Britain. Bishop Asbury established one in Hanover co., Va., in 1786, and Bishop White one in Philadelphia in 1791. In 1790 the Methodist Episcopal conference at Charleston, S. C, resolved to establish schools for whites and blacks. Katy Ferguson, a poor negro woman, is said to have established one in New York in 1793. Samuel Slater opened a Sunday school for his operatives in Pawtucket, R. I., in 1797; and Mrs. Isabella Graham and her daughter, Mrs. Divie Bethune, who had seen the English schools, opened one in a private house in New York in 1801. The important change from paid to volunteer teachers is said to have been adopted by the Methodists at Bolton, England, about 1786. The "Gratis Sunday School Society" was established in Scotland in 1797, and voluntary teaching was general in England in 1800. In 1803 the London Sunday school union was formed, to foster voluntary teaching.
Soon the churches began to assume charge of Sunday schools, in the United States about 1809; and the instruction then became more exclusively religious. Schools were opened in the Protestant churches of all denominations in Great Britain and the United States, later among the Roman Catholics, and more recently among the Quakers. Since 1848 special attention has been given to mission schools for the vagrant children of large cities. In 1875 there were 140 Protestant mission schools in New York. As now organized, a Sunday school has a superintendent with various assistants and a number of teachers, each of whom has a class of scholars. The classes are of different grades, but generally study the same Scripture lesson, their study being separate, but all the classes uniting in worship. The session generally continues an hour or an hour and a half. Schools upon this plan have been introduced by English and American missionaries in all lands; but the system has been adopted in the national churches of continental Europe only within the last 20 years.
The following table gives the fullest statistics accessible for 1874 :
Norway and Sweden...
Great Britain and Ireland (estimated)......
Among the most important societies formed for the promotion of Sunday schools are the following:
Expended for missionary work in 1874.
London Sunday school union ..............
American sunday school union ........
Methodist Episcopal Sunday school union .......................................
These societies also publish hymn books, books and papers explaining the Bible lessons, and books for the lending libraries, with which most schools are furnished. Sunday school publications are now issued by regular business houses, as well as by church boards and tract societies. (See Tract and Publication Societies.) Conventions of Sunday school teachers have been held in the United States since 1832. A world's convention met in London in 1862. A German national convention was held in Hamburg in 1874. In 1875 there were in the United States 21 state conventions, and. a national and international convention. Since 1866 a uniform series of Bible lessons has been widely used in the United States, and since 1872 has been adopted in Europe and in the missionary schools of Asia and Africa. Comments on these uniform lessons have been prepared by distinguished clergymen, translated into many languages, and issued in pamphlets and papers for teachers, and in "lesson leaves" for scholars, in many millions of copies.