Sunday schools were certainly not original to Robert Raikes, but he put them on the map

Robert Raikes – The man who ‘invented’ Sunday school

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Sunday schools were certainly not original to Robert Raikes, but he put them on the map. Through his diligent promotion the movement took off until a quarter of all the children in the country were enrolled…

Like so many innovations that transformed the moral and spiritual climate of Britain, Sunday schools were a product – albeit indirectly – of the evangelical awakening that shook the country in the 18th century. In ‘A Short History of the English People,’ the Oxford historian, John Richard Green, writes: “A yet nobler result of the religious revival [of the 18th century] was the steady attempt, which has never ceased from that day to this, to remedy the guilt, the ignorance, the physical suffering, the social degradation and the poor.

“It was not until the Wesleyan impulse had done its work that this philanthropic impulse began. The Sunday schools established by Mr Raikes of Gloucester at the close of the century were the beginnings of popular education.”

Although Sunday schools were not original to Robert Raikes – they were in existence many years before he started his first in 1780 – it was he who put them on the map and whose efforts gave huge momentum to the movement in Britain. Hence, when in 1880 a statue was erected on Victoria Embankment in London to celebrate the centenary of the Sunday school movement, the statue featured Robert Raikes.

Raikes was born in Gloucester on 14 September 1736. His father (also named Robert) was a prominent citizen and businessman, the owner of the influential Gloucester Journal. His mother’s name was Mary Drew. The family was comfortably middle class, enabling Robert to attend the St Mary de Crypt Grammar School. At the age of 14 he enrolled as a scholar at the College Cathedral School.

The Raikes family was certainly well connected, both spiritually and naturally. They were related by marriage to the reformer, William Wilberforce, and were also well acquainted with another famous citizen of the town, the great evangelist, George Whitefield, who a few years earlier had started his ministry around Gloucester by preaching his first sermon in St Mary de Crypt in 1736.

As Robert grew up he was aware of the ministry of Whitefield and the blessing of revival, the more so as Whitefield and the Wesley brothers were regular visitors to the Raikes’ family home.

Family business

It would not be an overstatement to say that the Raikes were one of the most influential families in the life of Gloucester, with almost anyone of any importance who visited the city being entertained in their home. However, family life was disrupted when, in 1757, Robert senior died suddenly, leaving his eldest son in charge of the considerable family business at the age of 22. In addition to the business, Robert Jr also had the responsibility of looking after his aged mother and his five younger brothers and one sister.

On 23 December 1767 Raikes married Anne Trigge. The marriage appears to have been a success, producing three sons and seven daughters!

Raikes’ initial philanthropic concern was for prison reform. He was a lifelong friend of the great evangelical prison reformer, John Howard, and in 1773 accompanied Howard on a visit to Gloucester jail. Although Howard reckoned that Gloucester was actually one of the better jails in the country, Raikes was shocked by what he found.

“Men, women and even children put under arrest for the most trivial of offences and small debts were herded together with criminals of deepest dye,” he wrote. “In the debtor’s prison, many prisoners died from smallpox and gaol fever, children were born and men and women were kept in the same room together. There was no proper provision for poorer inmates, and those who received no help from friends and relatives were forced to beg their food from fellow prisoners.”

Through his newspaper Raikes was able to make regular appeals for food, clothing and small amounts of money to enable the prisoners to buy essentials. He also used the media of the day to highlight the plight of those who were stuck in prison merely due to debts or minor offences.

It was through his work in the prisons that the idea of the Sunday school was born in Raikes’ thinking, in that he saw a direct connection between ignorance and poverty and vice.

“Ignorance is the root of the degradation everywhere around us,” he wrote. “Idleness is a consequence of ignorance; idleness begets vice, and vice leads to the gallows.”

Reformation of character

To Raikes, as ignorance was the cause of vice, then the logical cure of ignorance was education. Some have criticised Raikes, claiming this stand is in opposition to the evangelical stance of Wesley, Whitefield, and other leaders of the revival, who pointed to reformation of character through the saving of the soul.

However, rather than seeing them in opposition to each other, we might observe two perspectives from different ends of the spectrum. Obviously if a person learned to read and write – especially the Scriptures and the catechism – he or she might very well come to a knowledge of salvation. In any case, they would most likely grow to be a better and more worthy citizen.

Initially, Raikes attempted to sponsor the education of prisoners, but these efforts often proved fruitless as evil habits were by that time entrenched and established. Hence, he decided, he would start with the young, aiming “to check the growth of vice at an early period by an effort to introduce good habits of acting and thinking among the vulgar.”

Again, Raikes has been criticised for not having a clear evangelical theology which could transform the sinner, but in gathering the children he was surely fulfilling the Lord’s command, “Let the children come to me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” He was also merely taking on the natural wisdom of the famous saying, attributed variously to St Ignatius Loyola, Aristotle and the Jesuits: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

So it was in 1780 that Raikes turned his attention to the dirty little neglected children of the slums, who were beforehand singing lewd, brutal songs and rioting in vice and ignorance on Sundays in the streets of the cathedral city. Certainly if Raikes was looking – as some suppose – for working with examples of uncorrupted innocence, he would have gone elsewhere!

The contemporary historian, Nathaniel Kent, paints a picture of what life was like for those at the bottom of the social heap in the 18th century: “Those who condescend to visit these miserable tenements can testify that neither health nor decency can be preserved in them. The weather frequently penetrates all parts of them, which must occasion illness of various kinds, particularly agues – a fever, which frequently visits children. And it is shocking that a man, his wife and half-a-dozen children lie all in one room together.

“Great towns are destructive both to morals and health, and the great drains in cities and manufacturing towns where they put up with bad accommodation and an unwholesome confined air, which breeds contagious distempers, debilitates their bodies and shortens their lives.

Appalling conditions

“Since knowledge of such appalling conditions was common what kind of monarch, what type of government and why a national church professing Christianity remained unmoved by it?”

Up to the middle of the 18th century, many poorer families had at least a piece of land to work, but the terrible ‘Enclosure Act’ of 1773 left them bereft of even this meagre means of eking out a living and they left in droves for the towns and cities in search of work. Here they sadly found the streets were certainly not paved with gold and, with the industrial revolution just beginning, many were sucked into the factories with appalling conditions and low pay.

With the children forced to work long hours to help eke out a family’s meagre existence, there was little or no room for education, and ignorance abounded.
It was to combat this appalling ignorance among the poor that Raikes, in 1780, determined to start his first Sunday school. Telling the urchins and ragamuffins to meet him at 7am in the Cathedral yard, he gathered about 50 children and began to teach them the catechism. However, this initial attempt ended in failure, possibly because the children did not want to learn, but more likely because they were suspicious of Raikes’ higher social class.

Undeterred, Raikes found a woman named Mrs Meredith, whom he paid a shilling2 a week to run the school on a Sunday in the kitchen of a house in Sooty Alley, where the chimney sweeps lived. The first week about 12 or 14 boys came along and were taught basic reading using the Bible. Unsurprisingly, it is said that Mrs Meredith had one or two disciplinary problems with the boys and, although it was a start, the enterprise was not entirely what Raikes had in mind.

Hence, a few months later Raikes started a second school in Southgate Street under a Mrs Critchley, the landlady of the Trumpet Inn. She was evidently a strong-willed and capable woman, able to handle the children, and soon original scholars from Sooty Alley were transferred to the Southgate Street school. Here, not only did they have a better teacher and better facilities, but they were situated just opposite the St Mary de Crypt Church near where Robert Raikes lived.

Emphasis on literacy

It must be emphasised that Raikes’ Sunday school was far from the Sunday schools many of us can remember. They were more like what is now a day school, only taking place on a Sunday, with the emphasis on literacy. According to one Raikes biographer, “the early Sunday school basically aimed at teaching reading and writing with the Bible as a text book.”

Lessons would take place in the morning from 10am to 12 noon. The children would then return at 1pm for more lessons until 4pm, then walk across the road to St Mary de Crypt Church to attend a short service, during which they were catechised. Finally, to round off a full day, they would return to school with more lessons until 5:30 when the children would go home.

Looking at this we might say that Raikes’ crusade against ‘idleness and ignorance’ had gotten into full swing! However, we must remember what a God-given opportunity this was for so many of the children to find a way out of poverty with some sort of education, however rudimentary.

Raikes was a disciplinarian; he carried a cane and was not afraid to use it! There were rules against cursing and swearing, and good behaviour and reverence during the Sunday sessions were always insisted upon. The boys were taught to bow and the girls to curtsey. In the case of recalcitrant scholars, Raikes would see to it that parents administered proper discipline themselves.

The effect on the streets of Gloucester on Sundays during the years of 1780 to 1783 was remarkable – noise and disorderly behaviour was markedly reduced, and a greater sense of peace prevailed across the city. Hence, during this time more Sunday schools were opened throughout the city as the benefit of these institutions began to be seen.

Of course, as owner of the influential Gloucester Journal, Raikes was in a prime position to publicise the success of the work, and in 1783 he wrote an anonymous article referring to the Sunday school as ‘a grain of mustard seed’. From that time on the ‘seed’ certainly bore fruit as the article was picked up by newspapers in London and other cities, and the work of the Sunday schools was publicised around the country and also further afield.

Raikes continued to give updates on the progress of the Sunday schools and this had the effect of mobilising other movers and shakers in 18th century society to try their hand. Although Raikes paid his teachers a shilling a week, most of the workers in the Sunday schools that sprang up throughout the land – run by churches or individuals – were staffed by volunteers.

In 1784, John Wesley wrote in one of his letters: “I find these [Sunday] schools springing up wherever I go. Perhaps God may have a deeper end therein than men are aware of. Who knows but some of these schools may become nurseries for Christians.”

Wesley showed his support by re-printing some of Raikes’ original articles in his Arminian Journal and allowing Raikes to write letters through the magazine.
In May 1784 Raikes wrote in the Gloucester Journal: “The good effects of Sunday schools established in the city are instanced in the account given by the principled persons in the pin and sack manufacturers wherein great reformation has taken place among the multitudes whom they employ.

Clean and decent

“From being idle, ungovernable, profligate, and filthy in the extreme, they say the boys and girls are becoming not only clean and decent in their appearance but are greatly humanised in their manners, more orderly, tractable and attentive to business. The cursing and swearing and other vile expressions which used to form the sum of their conversation are now rarely heard among them.”

By 1787, Raikes’ celebrity had grown and he was invited to an audience with King George III and Queen Charlotte at Windsor Castle to talk about his work. A year later, in 1788, when the royals were staying in nearby Cheltenham, they spent a Sunday with the Raikes family and were shown around some of the Sunday schools in Gloucester in order to see the work at first-hand. Following this, articles about the visit appeared in the Gloucester Journal, and this was further promoted by the London newspapers.

In all, Robert Raikes – like Thomas Barnardo after him – showed not only a great compassion for the poor and a zeal for their education, but also a great flair for publicity. In addition to the many articles he wrote, he also published a book, wrote many letters and had correspondence from people all across the country who were interested in starting up Sunday schools.

Robert Raikes died in 1811 but the growth of the movement he pioneered was quite phenomenal, and it is estimated that after 50 years, in 1831, there were 1,250,000 children attending – a quarter of the population!

These schools, which preceded the first state-funded schools for the general public, are today seen as the forerunners of the English state school system, a tribute to a man who rightly believed that poverty and ignorance have no place in a Christian society.

From Heroes of the Faith issue 45

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