Sunday school, institution for instruction in religion and morals, usually conducted in churches as part of the church organization but sometimes maintained by other religious or philanthropic bodies.
In England during the 18th cent., occasional efforts were made by charitable individuals to provide some education in religious matters as well as secular instruction to children of the poor. Probably the first to be called a Sunday school was that started (1780) by Robert Raikes for factory children in Gloucester. The curriculum largely consisted of simple lessons in reading and spelling in preparation for reading the Bible, and memorizing Scripture passages and hymns. The plan was copied in other places; sometimes Saturday instruction in writing and arithmetic was added to that on Sunday. An important educational movement was thus started; by 1795 the Society for the Support and Encouragement of Sunday Schools had helped found more than 1,000 schools.
In 1803 the London Sunday School Union was founded to promote the extension of schools with voluntary teachers. This organization published simple lesson plans, catechisms, spellers, and other aids. Unions were developed in Ireland and Scotland. In 1862 a general Sunday school convention was held in London, at which a program was initiated for extending the movement to the Continent.
In the United States there is evidence that instruction in the Scriptures was given to children on Sundays at Plymouth in 1669 and at Roxbury, Mass., in 1674, but it was not until 1786 that a Sunday school patterned on Raikes's plan was founded in Hanover co., Va., by the Methodist preacher Francis Asbury. The American Sunday-School Union, formed (1817) among various churches of the East, determined to establish Sunday schools as rapidly as possible in the pioneer communities of the Mississippi valley. This project met with wide support and considerable success.
In 1832 a national convention of American Sunday school workers was held. At the convention of 1872 a plan of uniform lessons was adopted in cooperation with the British Sunday School Union, and from that time the movement was international. The first World Sunday School Convention met (1889) in London; in 1907 its name was changed to the World's Sunday School Association, and in 1947 to the World Council of Christian Education. It has units in many countries; the North American unit is the International Council of Religious Education. The arrangement of periodic world Sunday school conventions and aid in leadership training and curriculum are among the chief concerns of the council.
See studies by R. Swann (1961), E. W. Rice (1917, repr. 1971), and R. W. Lynn and A. Boylan (1988).