The Sunday School Movement In The United States
It would be difficult to exaggerate the part the Sunday school movement has played in educating American Protestantism for more effectiveness in the Christian nurture aspect of their churchmanship, now recognized as central for persons of all ages. As contrasted with the missionary and student movement origins of European ecumenicity, the most conspicuous forerunner of later American church cooperation at the state and local levels was the Sunday school movement. This persistently lay enterprise, which for many decades was undenominational, by substantially supplementing Protestantism as denominationally organized had become a chief precursor of American ecumenicity.
Francis Asbury established a Sunday School in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1786.1 Sunday schools were started in Philadelphia and Boston in 1791, in New York City in 1793, in Paterson in 1794, in Pawtucket in 1797, and in Pittsburgh in 1800.2
A marker at Greensboro, Vt., commemorates "the first Sunday School Convention in New England, June 25, 1817." There were Sunday School "Unions" in New York, Brooklyn, and Boston as early as 1816, in Philadelphia in 1817.3 Numerous local, county, and city conventions were held about 1820. The American Sunday School Union was organized in 1824.
The Sunday school enterprise, which had quickly gained support from enthusiastic lay persons, was met with initial indifference, apathy, or even open hostility on the part of some clergy. Many church leaders viewed it with open concern, partly because it so often proceeded without getting permission from the ministers, and did not involve itself in the regular denominational procedures.
Soon the Methodist Sunday School Union and similar denominational bodies were also organized. Sunday schools, too, soon tended to "become parts of churches, and came under denominational care." By 1829 even the early publication work of the American Sunday School Union proved "no longer indispensable."4