When the Sunday School movement began to spread across America in the 1790s and early 1800s as part of the Second Great Awakening, these gatherings were the only places many poor children had a chance to learn to read. Christian philanthropists wanted to both acquaint youngsters with the Scriptures and free them from a life of illiteracy. The Bible was the textbook, and all the requirements of reading and writing—alphabetic instruction, word sounds, penmanship—were assiduously taught in church classes. Millions of children became literate by copying out Biblical passages. The appetite for Bibles, language primers, and religious instructional materials in turn stimulated the growth of publishing houses and other aids to reading.
Christian morality and virtues were inculcated by the Sunday School movement. And pupils often graduated to become Sunday School teachers—providing a leadership opportunity the poor rarely enjoyed in other parts of their lives. Every state had Sunday Schools by 1826, and the percentage of New York children attending Sunday School was double the enrollment of the public schools in 1829. By the mid-nineteenth century, Sunday School attendance was a near-universal aspect of American childhood; parents who were not regular churchgoers often insisted that their children attend. Even Marxist atheists observing from abroad credited the Sunday School movement with being important in elevating the working classes in the U.S.
With Sunday Schools dramatically increasing the overall U.S. literacy rate, the U.S. ended up at the top of international lists in this area. Literacy in turn “sparked an avalanche of organizational activity” that fed American prosperity. Historians argue that the learning and personal habits spread by charitable Sunday Schooling improved social conditions, fueled commercial prowess, and revved the nation’s economic metabolism.
- Anne Boylan, Sunday School: Formation of an American Institution 1790-1880 (Yale University Press, 1990)