What’s the use of Sunday School?

According to the American Unitarian theologian and preacher William Ellery Channing (1780 – 1842), the aim of Sunday School was to “awaken the soul of the pupil” (329) not to instruct them in the principles of their faith laid down in a catechism. He regarded children as “rational, moral, free beings” who were born with a conscience, and were able to make their own minds up when it came to moral decisions.

Channing likened teaching children about religion to teaching them about nature. He expected free-minded children to be sceptical about received opinion, and encouraged them to “observe for themselves and submit to experiment what they hear” (330). This rational principle works better with moral questions like ‘should you steal?’ or ‘should you lie?’, than with speculative questions like ‘How do I know God?’ It is obvious if you think about it, that if everyone lied then you couldn’t trust what people told you and there would be total confusion, so your own reason would lead you to be moral. But it is less obvious that personal observation and reflection would bring you round to the idea that God exists. Channing met this objection by claiming that anyone could see God’s work in Nature {see my previous blog on Channing and Nature}, and that the clearest manifestation of God was Christ’s life.

Channing believed that he best way to raise a child’s awareness of God’s divine presence was to study the life of Jesus as it appeared in the Gospels. I recognise this approach, as it was the one I experienced at the Sunday school I attended in the 1950’s. I thought that the best part of the lessons was when the teacher gave out coloured stickers illustrating episode from the life of Christ that I could take home to stick in an album they had given me specially for them. It says something about my interest in Sunday School that I remember these little pictures better than the lessons from which they came. In fact, Channing strictly forbade ‘mechanical’ teaching of the scriptures because he thought it robbed religion of its personal, affective character. I can agree with him on this point.

Channing was ahead of his time in focussing attention on the historical realities of Christ’s life and teaching rather than his divine purpose. Christ’s life, if understood correctly, was a perfect example of goodness and “disinterested loving” (332) and being a Unitarian, Channing saw Christ not as part of the ‘Holy Trinity’, but as a truly inspirational human being whose life testified to God’s imminence in the world. Thus by teaching “the parables, the miracles, the actions, the suffering, the prayers and the tears of Jesus” (331) Sunday School teachers could help a pupil to relate to God through Christ’s actual life and this, he believed, would awaken their religious consciousness.

Channing’s teaching methods were modern too. He advised Sunday School teachers to interest the child in what was being taught; to tell stories with lots of graphic detail, and to ‘teach much by questions to encourage the spirit of inquiry and appeal to [the child’s] own experience” (334). Engaging a child’s interest through story telling and questioning could enliven otherwise tedious lessons about moral duty and the virtues of self-sacrifice. However, Channing did not underestimate the value of these topics. He worried that science had given people too much power over their environment and led them to prefer the values of “liberty and innovation” (335) to religious virtues. He saw Sunday School as a way to prevent children growing up to be “rash and reckless” (332) in the booming free market economy of 19th century America. The most effective corrective to self-interest, in his view, was to learn “Christian benevolence and the love of God”. Sunday Schools were there to make sure that children learned high moral values from the life of Jesus.

Artwork by Richard Crawford

All page numbers refer to ‘The Complete Works of Charles Ellery Channing’ (1884) London and New York. Routledge & Sons.

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