Sunday School

Church plants these days, especially those of the hipster or urban-chic variety, are much less likely than in previous generations to include Sunday School. An institution that began among Anglo-American Protestants around 1820 to provide instruction in the rudiments of learning for children who worked during the week and could not attend common or private schools, by 1870 — thanks to the rise of public schooling and compulsory attendance laws — had become a vehicle for educating children in Scripture and Christian song. It is hard to believe, but Sunday school was arguably more influential than church services, likely because parents did not have to go and because it was less churchly than the churches themselves. Along with Vacation Bible School, Sunday school was a significant vehicle in extending the reach of Protestant Christian civilization.

That is, at least, the strong conclusion that confronts readers of memoirs by H. L. Mencken and Eudora Welty. I am teaching a seminar this term on memoir and Sunday school figured prominently in the childhood of these two very different writers, separated almost by a generation (Mencken was born in 1880, Welty in 1909). First Welty:

Both our parents had grown up in religious households. In our own family, we children where christened as babies, and were taught our prayers to say at night, and sent as we were growing up to Sunday school, but ours was never a churchgoing family. At home we did not, like Granpa Welty, say grace at table. In this way we were variously different from most of of the families we knew. On Sundays, Presbyterians were not allowed to eat hot food or read the funnypapers or travel the shortest journey; parents believed in Hell and believed tiny babies could go there. Baptists were not supposed to know, up until their dying day, how to play cards or dance. And so on. We went to the Methodist Episcopal Church South Sunday School . . . .

In the primary department of Sunday school, we little girls rose up in taffeta dresses and hot white gloves, with a nickel for collection embedded inside our palms, and while elastic bands from our Madge Evans hats sawed us under the chin, we sang songs led and exhorted by Miss Hattie. This little lady was a wonder of animation, also dressed up, and she stood next to the piano making wild chopping motions with both arms together, a chair leg off one of our Sunday school chairs in her hand to beat time with, and no matter how loudly we sang, we could always hear her even louder: “Bring them in! Bring them in! . . . Those favorite Methodist hymns all sounded happy and please with the world, even though the words ran quite the other way. “Throw out the lifeline! . . . went to a cheering tune. I was sinking deep in sin, Far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, Sinking to rise no more” made you want to dance, and the chorus — “Love lifted me When nothing else would help, Love lifted me!” — would send you leaping. . . . many of the Protestant hymns reached down to us from the same place; the were old English rounds and dance tunes, and Charles Wesley and the rest had — no wonder — taken them over. (One Writer’s Beginnings, 31-32)

Not to be outdone, here is Mencken on the joy that Sunday school brought to boys:

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Mencken himself wondered why his father, an infidel, would send his boys to a Methodist Sunday school. The reason is that dad tired of shushing:

What moved him, he confessed, was simply his overmastering impulse to give over the Sunday afternoons of Winter to quiet snoozing. This had been feasible so long as my brother and I were puling infants and could be packed off for naps ourselves, but as we increased in years and malicious animal magnetism and began to prefer leaping and howling up and down stairs, it became impossible for him to get any sleep. (177)

Here we have an example of the best laid plans. While evangelical Protestants thought they were improving on catechesis with Sunday school, they were providing a social service that domesticated Christianity. The Weltys and Menckens felt no threat from the Christianity on tap in Sunday school. Even the whiff of brimstone in the songs were no match for household demands and childhood vigor.

This is not to say that the passing of Sunday school will not be without its disadvantages. But those who worry about the demise of the institution should not overestimate its accomplishments.

37 thoughts on “Sunday School

  1. I wonder though, if Welty and Mencken underestimated the place of Sunday School in their knowledge of the stories of the Bible. Knowledge of the stories (if only as a christened version of Aesop’s Fables) and some (very) rudimentary theology was part of the cultural inheritance of Protestant Americans until the most recent generations.


  2. Even when I was a dumb Southern Baptist I knew there was something wrong with their oft-stated contention that SS was the primary means of evangelism. They elevated it almost to means of grace status. And selling the “resources” was a huge source of revenue for Nashville.


  3. “Even when I was a dumb Southern Baptist…” I needed that laugh today, Mr. Chortles, I really did. Thanks.


  4. In the Southern Baptist Church where I grew up, there was a large mural depicting Jesus surrounded by little children similar I’m sure to many that you have all seen. I’ve searched google images and never been able to find the exact one that I recall, but it has stayed firmly in my mind for over 50 years, for one Sunday when I was 10 it suddenly became absolutely certain to me that one day I would hear Jesus telling me stories in heaven. I was Baptized a few weeks later. So, Sunday School as a means of evangelism is effective for some and not others. This should be surprising to Calvinists? Its accomplishments should be measured how?


  5. Dan, are we talking about SS or images here? It sounds like you’re conflating the two in your experience. Bible study and teaching – good. Unbiblical, sentimental, possibly idolatrous images – bad. Lots of Catholic children probably had similar visual experiences.


  6. The stories and songs came together to me in the image and the place. I clarified that the mural was in the Sunday School room, not our Church art museum, so I assumed that a fair reader might assume that songs and stories happened there.

    Do all you reformed types thank all images are bad all the time, with no slack being given for 10 year olds? Maybe that’s a dumb question, but I’m just a dumb Baptist. We also used felt story boards, is that idolatrous?


  7. DGH,

    Our now-particularized church plant is neither hipster nor urban-chic, so I guess it makes sense that we have attempted Sunday school from the very beginning. Our lofty expectations, however, seem to be dashed nearly every semester by poor attendance. We’re working on making family worship and catechism part of the discipling process. But I also feel the need to go deeper into church history, the Standards, and special theological topics. Without Sunday school, however, where do we put such studies?

    Stumped in SoCal,


  8. We also used felt story boards, is that idolatrous?


    Did you ever bring your Lottie Moon offering to the felt storyboard?


  9. Stewart, we didn’t bring the Lottie Moon offerings to the story board specifically, but it was close by. (Ubiquitous presence?) As I told some of our high school students a few years ago, when I was a child I believed in Santa Claus and Lottie Moon; I still believe in Lottie Moon. (Our church left theSBC several years ago, but we still take up the LM offering and send it to their IMB, probably just to humor some old codgers like me)


  10. Dan, not dumb at all. But have you ever considered that to affirm images is to concede the insufficiency of Scripture? God gave us his spoken Word, he speaks and we hear. Why is that not enough?


  11. Zrim- sigh. The mural was just there, nobody ever mentioned it, but in my 10 year old mind something clicked and I realized that the scripture stories were meant for me. That picture is in my mind today, and gives me great comfort, even to the point of making the P in TULIP seem plausible. Stop straining at gnats. Hard habit to break for folks who fight over the WFC I know, but try.

    It is awfully hard to figure out why Welty and Mencken add anything to a judgement of the effectiveness of Sunday School. You just can’t ever tell how these things will work out. One kid I grew up with who went to the same SS I did never darkened the door of a church again after high school, until he became a Christian in his late 30’s. He is now a PCA stalwart– and only has vague memories of the mural, btw, but when he knew he couldn’t go any lower with drugs, he says he kept hearing us singing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” which was a thought that hadn’t crossed his mind in years. I would submit that a focus on SS is about as effective an evangelical strategy as any a local church can engage in, though it is far and away not only that.


  12. D.G. – I am teaching a seminar this term on memoir

    Erik – So you are teaching courses on the Civil War & pop culture and on memoir. You live with your wife and cats and when you are not at work you read interesting books and watch movies.

    What is it like living in Utopia? How can I move there?


  13. Dan,

    Here’s the thing . . . God is sovereign, and he works out his decrees through creation and providence. In his providence over all things he normally makes use of means (even though he is able to work without them or even against them). There are the ordinary means that he uses in bringing us to faith (the Word, for example), but since God is able to do whatever he wants, he can use means that are not “normal.” SS, images, and children’s songs are examples of what is not “normal”, and yet God can use them for his purposes. It’s sorta like Baalam’s ass. It’s not normal for an animal to talk sense into a human being, but God can use an animal for task if he so chooses. The question is: should we expect God to work normally through means he has not prescribed (or even forbidden), or should we mainly rely on the means he has prescribed and stand in awe and wonder when he uses something else?


  14. Dan, my point wasn’t to exasperate, and I get that iconoclasm has fallen on hard times as some cranky variety of philistinism. But on top of the classic Calvinist case for it, I’d add that without it we get things like “The Passion of the Christ” and the unbecoming fawning and religiotainment from both evangelicals and Catholics alike. And the rationale is the same: it kindles the fire of religious sentimentality. That’s not to mock affect, but for those with Calvinist sensibilities the upshot is to in point of fact brew irreligious affect. Good that something clicked for you, but here’s to you also seeing that iconoclasm isn’t just “straining at gnats.”


  15. Z & D, one could make the case that there’s a lot more biblical mandate for iconoclasm than many popular pseudo sacraments like “daily quiet time,” aisle walking, parachurch organizations, prayer walking, religious drama, revival meetings, or “special” music. Victorianism brought us many of these things. The worst of them were kept out of worship services until the middle of the 20th century when they suddenly realized they had no rationale for suppressing them and understandably thought “Why not?” — the fumes of classic protestant doctrine having dissipated by then.


  16. And what starts in the Sunday School hour or special meeting almost always ends up in the worship service sooner or later.


  17. Three of the best TV shows in recent memory are “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, and “Boardwalk Empire”. The latter gets better with each passing season. In Sopranos and Boardwalk some of the best storylines are when the protagonists have to go on the lam. I am at a magical moment in “Boardwalk” right now when the three shows are linked together in a special way – Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), who has key roles in Sopranos and Boardwalk, is on the run with the help of Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), who has key roles in The Wire (Omar Little) and Boardwalk.


  18. Dan and Stuart, here’s the point I was making though very indirectly. Sunday school flourished when Protestants were running the show and expectations and assumptions about the U.S. were largely generically Protestant. It’s like Turkey in the 1960s where even though a secular republic cultural instincts are Muslim.

    And with that Protestant culture in abeyance (for good and ill), institutions like Sunday school and VBS have lost plausibility.


  19. As you age you realize that life is largely about finding a few things that are meaningful and authentic. The interesting thing you discover is that the authentic and the inauthentic can be found in all times and places. It’s not as if everything in the church is authentic and everything in the world is inauthentic. Alas, you find both authenticity and inauthenticity mixed together wherever you look. Sifting, examining, testing, and experiencing allows one to discover a few authentic things along life’s long journey.


  20. Erik:As you age you realize that life is largely about finding a few things that are meaningful and authentic.

    My prayer is to find this out all by my own thinking and learning from mistakes; before the lawyers get invovled…


  21. Erik, that’s a main legal battle for most… I work in trying to resolve about 50 other types of things that pigheadedness has resulted in lawyers doing all the talking…


  22. Does SS today bear any resemblance to its former self? In my limited experience, SS is an opportunity to hear the unordained pontificate (aka “share”) on things pseudo-theological. I last attended SS in 2004 when I was traveling and attended a PCA church in North Carolina. It was the Sunday before the 2004 election, and the SS hour included a special prayer time to petition the Lord for a GWB victory in the upcoming week’s election.

    Say what you want about Tim Keller, but at least he doesn’t wear his politics on his shirtsleeves the way that Southern PCA folks do. In the Todd Akin/Marsha Blackburn wing of the PCA, right-wing politics is just part and parcel of the gospel. I went to another PCA church in the South that “dedicated” an infant because the parents didn’t agree with infant baptism. So, apparently “Presbyterians” in the South don’t even believe in Presbyterianism.

    These days, I just attend PCUSA churches when I’m South of the Mason-Dixon line or the Ohio River.


  23. Bobby, the South is still home to ardent spirituality-of-the church-types who (though almost uniformly right wing politically) keep their political opinions to themselves and eschew flags in the worship hall and patriotic music. But you might have trouble finding our tribe in most places.


  24. Dan:

    One basic problem with images of Jesus is that they don’t look like him. Our images of Jesus are the product of the human imagination not divine revelation. God did reveal himself in a specific visible physical form in the Incarnation. The invisible became visible. Whoever saw Jesus saw God. But he withdrew for a time this visible revelation of himself in the ascension. We can’t see him. So we have nothing to base our images on, and I fear that any attempt to add images to God’s prior visual revelation of himself would be like adding words to scripture.

    The church isn’t allowed to say what God hasn’t said. It cannot go beyond what is written and add to what God has said. In the same way it can’t show anything that God hasn’t shown. Jesus’ physical body is God’s visual revelation to us. We should long to see him (1 John 3:1-4 and several others). Seeing Jesus face-to-face is a basic part of our Christian hope. But we don’t know what he looks like. The images are lies.


  25. Dan,

    To add to previous comments – consider the following verses: II Cor. 5:16, I Peter 1: 7-8, Romans 1: 21-23, and Acts 17: 16 -31 (especially vs. 29).

    Reading the surrounding verses will also help gain the context. After reading these verses WLC #109 is clearly expounding Biblical truth and is a helpful summary of the doctrine of God and the proper means of knowing Him.

    Hopefully this is helpful to you as it was to me.


  26. If Scripture says:

    Without faith it is impossible to please God. Heb. 11:6
    Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Rom 10:17
    What so ever is not of faith is sin. Rom. 14:23

    That would seem to be the end of the story or an appeal to personal experience or memories.

    Even further, Paul tells Timothy that from a child (brephos/infant) thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Tim. 3:15. Is Paul talking about flannel boards and cutouts of the apostles?

    IOW maybe saving faith does not come by pictures, plays or puppets regardless of whether the local PCA SSchool approves of them or not.


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