The day passes profitably: Robert Raikes and the Sunday school movement

An essay about the role played by the Sunday school movement in widening access to education in England and beyond. For more on the advance of mass education during the 18th and 19th centuries, look out for my chapter on the subject in the forthcoming History of Education (Routledge).

Trouble on the Sabbath

By the latter half of the 18th century, demand for child labour was so great in the factories of the Industrial Revolution that, on six days of the week, it kept children busy for most of their waking hours. The seventh day, however, was protected: use of Sundays for anything other than religious worship and contemplation was considered to be a breach of the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy”. Even games and organised physical activity were frowned upon, thanks to the Puritanical temper of the times.

Ever since the early 1600s, it had been the duty of churchmen to provide a basic religious education on the Sabbath:

“Every Parson, Vicar, or Curate, upon every Sunday and Holy-day before Evening Prayer, for half-an-hour or more, is to examine and instruct the Youth, and ignorant Persons of his Parish in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of Belief, and in the Lord’s Prayer: and shall diligently hear, instruct and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.”

– 1604 canon law (1)

Yet in practice it seems this duty was mostly neglected. So it is hardly surprising that with neither religious worship nor formal physical exercise to occupy children’s one free day, some of them filled the vacuum with street games, gambling, poaching and “the language of hell” (blasphemy). The latter was particularly offensive to the mores of the time, and was still preoccupying the thoughts of this Sunday school historian half a century later:

“One thing more I would refer to, namely, the language of the ‘masses.’ I have said that the well-to-do were very ‘coarse,’ even to one another, so it will be no surprise to hear that the talk of the common people was shocking. Many of their words expressing love, or pain, or violent emotion could not be repeated here. Infant lips, in all innocency, lisped words of infamy; children at their games shouted in curses. As they grew their souls were stunted, and never leaped in gladness at the sound of words which give fresh life and hope and strength, such as children of to-day are accustomed to hear.” (2)

Some concerned individuals such as Hannah Ball in High Wycombe and the Rev J.M. Moffatt in Nailsworth took matters into their own hands and set up schools with the aim of keeping children more positively occupied on the Sabbath day.

These tentative and isolated experiments turned into a national movement during the 1780s, thanks in no small part to the promotional efforts of Robert Raikes (1735-1811), editor of the Gloucester Journal, the foremost journal in West England.

Portrait of Robert Raikes by George Romney, National Portrait Gallery, London.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Prevention rather than cure

Gloucester was an important centre of church life and manufacturing (chiefly producing pins, sacks and church bells) and the Gloucester Journal was widely read in adjacent counties.

Raikes spent over a decade as a prison reformer, campaigning against the unregulated penal system of the time, in which conditions were squalid, the sexes were imprisoned together, and many children were born in prison.

A depiction of Gloucester Castle and Gaol in the 18th century, based on a 1819 work.
From Old English Towns by William Andrew. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This led to his first foray into education. Realising that inmates were liable to be bad influences on each other, he attempted to introduce moral and religious instruction into prisons.

In contrast with those today who blame society for creating criminals, Raikes believed that society’s laws were reasonably fair. The problem, as he saw it, was that people did not appreciate the wisdom of obeying them. So he attempted to engender a law-abiding frame of mind amongst prisoners by establishing a crude form of peer-to-peer education: when he found a prisoner who could read, he set them to work instructing the others.

Yet despite Raikes’ best efforts, convicts kept reoffending and he eventually concluded that prevention, rather than cure, was the answer.

The wildest lot imaginable

Raikes’ experience in prisons had taught him that youthful misuse of Sundays was “by the declaration of every criminal, to be their first step in the course of wickedness”. (3) He was no stranger to this ‘misuse’, since his work preparing the Monday edition of the Journal was frequently interrupted by the sound of children playing under his window.

What Raikes saw in Gloucester Streets – a woodcut.
From Robert Raikes – The Man Who Founded The Sunday School by J. Henry Harris

Yet he claimed a religious experience was the catalyst that inspired him to establish a school – while on business in a Gloucester suburb, Raikes enquired about a group of particularly noisy boys. He was advised to return on the Sabbath when the noise and confusion was so great as to deprive locals of “the quiet enjoyment of the day”. At this point, Raikes silently asked God if anything could be done for the poor children and heard a voice in response commanding him to “Try”. (4)

Following a failed attempt to educate local ragamuffins in the grounds of Gloucester Cathedral, Raikes opened his first school in 1780, in the kitchen of a house in Sooty Alley, within the town’s chimney sweep district. He hired a dame school teacher named Mrs Meredith to run the school and give basic reading lessons using the Bible.

Raikes’ first Sunday school.
From Robert Raikes – The Man Who Founded The Sunday School by J. Henry Harris

Soon after its opening, local parents were sending “the wildest lot of children imaginable” for lessons. (3) J. Henry Harris, author of Robert Raikes: The man who founded Sunday School, tells us that “…the children sat on forms or stools, but learnt little, and poor Mrs Meredith’s patience was soon worn out with trying to keep them in order.” (2)

All the same, pupil numbers increased. Sarah Trimmer, an author of children’s literature who would go on to found a Sunday school in Brentford, provides us with an explanation for the appeal of education on the Sabbath: the ‘day of rest’ was actually ‘the most uncomfortable day of the week’ for families living in miserable and cramped accommodation. In such circumstances, children were glad to escape to the relative spaciousness and order of the schoolroom, a sentiment that may resonate with families today with the experience of lockdown home learning fresh in the mind. (3)

Within six months the school transferred to larger premises in Southgate, owned and run by a pub landlady named Mrs Critchley who was better equipped to keep rowdy children in line, perhaps thanks to her experience dealing with surly and drunken customers. Nevertheless some of the most poorly behaved boys still had to be “marched from their houses with logs of wood and weights tied to their legs to prevent their running away”. (2)

Attempting to coerce the children into good behaviour, Raikes resorted to bribing them with combs and money or punishing them for misbehaviour with birchings. In at least one case he deliberately blistered one child’s fingers by holding them against the fireplace. (3)

Yet, according to S.J. Curtis, “Raikes was neither a bully nor was he cruel, and he soon found out his mistake in resorting to harsh methods. At heart he was a most kindly man and experience showed him that the best way of controlling children was to try to understand them, win their liking, and discover the kind of things which interested them”. (5)

Charity school historian M. G. Jones tells us that pupils were soon attending the school of their own free will:

“The children presented themselves in crowds on Sunday mornings at the schools. They came ‘with great regularity’. Cold, dark, rainy mornings did not deter them. They clamoured to be heard the chapter and hymns they had learnt by heart, an honour allowed to none who could not produce clean hands and face.” (6)

Botanising in human nature

Pupils attending the school were kept busy and off the streets for much of the Sabbath. Lessons ran from 10am-12 noon and, after lunch, resumed at 1pm. The school day culminated in a visit to church, then repetition of the catechism till 5pm.

Unlike most of the Sunday schools that were established in its wake, the Southgate school also opened during the week. Teachers were paid one shilling for Sunday, and two shillings to “take the children once or twice a day during the recess from work at dinner-time or morning“, with parents paying a penny for the privilege. (Sunday lessons were probably free).

The children were taught in small classes, with Raikes repurposing his educational techniques from prison and recruiting elder pupils to teach the younger ones. In doing so he anticipated the monitorial system which would come to dominate education in the early 19th century. (3)

The Rise and Development of the Sunday School Movement in England, 1780-1980
by Philip B. Cliff

Echoing Rousseau’s famous use of gardening as a metaphor for education, Raikes:

“…looked upon himself as a Nurseryman, ‘botanising in human nature’, and these schools were his botanical gardens. There is always something natural in the relation of children to flowers, and when we cannot say of a child that it is beautiful, we know there is something wrong, somewhere.” (2)

Raikes impressed the children by wearing an eye glass – which he claimed enabled him to look right into them and discover whether they had been good, also giving him the power to see through stone walls. He engaged the children in imaginative ‘conversations’ about the abstract nature of morality, using, for example, magnets and needles to convey the invisible power and attraction of good. This mirrored his view of education: just as the power of good attracts, so would the power of learning encourage his pupils to attract other children to the school. And in a way, he was proven right. (3)

Keeping minds engaged

Practical assistance, moral support and, one assumes, religious guidance for Raikes were provided by his friend and collaborator, the Reverend Thomas Stock. In the three years following the opening of the Sooty Alley school, Raikes, Stock and the vicar of St Nicholas, one of the city’s largest churches, opened open seven or eight schools in the area, each taking around 30 children, including girls. (Raikes would later be criticised for not giving Stock due credit after the movement took off). (2)

Raikes chose not to publicise the schools in the Journal at this time, describing the experiment as “harmless and innocent, however fruitless may be its effect”. (3) But by 1783, any doubts seemed to have been dispelled, and his anonymous Journal article from 3rd November gives us an insight into his thinking as well as contemporary attitudes towards education. It is worth quoting in full:

“Some of the clergy in different parts of this County, bent upon attempting a reform among the children of the lower classes, are establishing Sunday Schools for rendering the Lord’s Day subservient to the ends of instruction, which has hitherto been prostituted to bad purposes. Farmers and other inhabitants of the towns and villages, complain that they receive more injury in their property on the Sabbath than all the week besides; this in a great measure proceeds from the lawless state of the younger class, who are allowed to run wild on that day, free from every restraint. To remedy this evil, persons duly qualified are employed to instruct those that cannot read – and those that may have learned to read, are taught the Catechism and conducted to church.

“By thus keeping their minds engaged, the day passes profitably and not disagreeably. In those parishes where this plan has been adopted, we are assured that the behaviour of the children is greatly civilised.

“The barbarous ignorance in which they had before lived being in some degree dispelled, they begin to give proofs that those persons are mistaken who consider the lower orders of mankind as incapable of improvement, and therefore think an attempt to reclaim them impracticable, or at least not worth the trouble.” (4)

This and and subsequent articles were republished in the London papers and periodicals such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, and struck a chord with many readers, not least philanthropically minded Methodists, Evangelicals and Dissenters. Harris describes their impact thus:

“The success of the ‘scheme’ was immediate. Sympathy, like an electric current, ran through the good and pious men and women in every town and village, wishing for a new life to be breathed into the masses, but knowing not what to do. This was the very thing. All that they had to do was to write to Robert Raikes for information. He was the mainspring of the movement.” (2)

Those inspired by Raikes’ article included John Wesley, who began attaching Sunday schools to local Methodist Societies, and Hannah More, whose role in the development of the Sunday school movement we shall cover on another occasion.

Sabbath breaker

The movement was successful where previous attempts to set up charity schools had failed, because Raikes acknowledged and worked around the constraints under which children and their parents lived, and gave a focus and outlet to the philanthropic impulses of the time. Yet inevitably he faced criticism for teaching on the Sabbath.

Raikes was used to being accused of a Sabbath Breaker since, as mentioned previously, his Sundays were spent preparing the Monday edition of the Journal. He stood his ground, writing:

“The minds of men have taken great hold on that prejudice that we are to do nothing on the Sabbath Day which may be deemed labour, and therefore we are to be excused from all application of mind as well as body… Our Saviour takes particular pains to manifest that whatever tended to promote the health and happiness of our fellow-creatures were sacrifices peculiarly acceptable on that day.” (2)

The objections were overcome by the improvements the Sunday schools seemed to make to the children’s general conduct and the quality of their work. Raikes took every opportunity to show off the transformation his schools had produced in the behaviour of their pupils. At a local feast day, known for “drunkenness and every species of clamour, riot and disorder”…

“The magistrates and gentry and farmers, the husbandmen, craftsmen and ‘the usual crowd that attended the feast’, came to survey ‘the truly affective sight’ of so many young people, lately more neglected than cattle in the fields, now cleanly, quiet, observant of order, submissive, courteous in behaviour. The church was filled, the galleries and aisles thronged like a play-house, while the ale-houses were empty.” (6)

Farmers and manufacturers spoke about the improvements they had observed in the quality of children’s work and conduct. At a 1786 meeting of the Gloucester Magistrates, they unanimously recognised the impact of the schools on young people’s morals. (3)

Similar reports followed the opening of Sunday schools in other towns. The schools sprang up rapidly around the country, funded by middle class subscriptions and church donations, with mostly volunteer teachers providing a mix of Bible studies and the 3Rs along with some secular knowledge. (5) Local clergy and employers put pressure on parents to send their children to the schools and in at least one case children were given clothes on condition they went to Sunday school.

Bennett Street Sunday School 1801-1966: A Manchester History by M W Lees
A Sunday School c 1830. Public domain.

Raikes took his role as ‘mainspring of the movement’ seriously, inviting interested parties to visit his schools and learn how they were run, organising Sunday school festivals which were open to the public and compiling a reading primer, the Sunday Scholar’s Companion. (3)

Limited yet liberating

For Raikes, the model Sunday school was the aforementioned Brentford school run by Sarah Trimmer. She believed that children came to her as savages but that after just a year of teaching, “the human soul becomes visible in the child.”

Sarah Trimmer, portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), National Portrait Gallery, London. Public domain. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Yet her broader attitude to education illustrated the limits of the Sunday school movement. In her book The Oeconomy of Charity (1787), Trimmer described the three immutable ranks of society she believed to have been created by God: the gentry, tradespeople and the poor, each with its characteristic virtues, those of the poor being “honesty, diligence, humility and gratitude”.

The Sunday schools were intended to teach poor children to know their place and accept it. Reading could be taught, but at her school and others, writing was off limits. To quote Trimmer: “It is not intended that the children of the poor should be instructed in the branches of a liberal education, but merely in English to enable them to read the Gospels.” (3)

Nevertheless, Trimmer and Raikes were relatively progressive at a time when many at the time were hostile to the idea of teaching the poor at all. In the wake of the French Revolution, William Pitt even considered introducing a Bill for the suppression of Sunday schools which, like the day charity schools before them, were accused of fomenting dissent and revolutionary ideas. In 1800 the Bishop of Rochester would complain that “schools of atheism and disloyalty abound in this country; schools in the shape and disguise of Charity Schools and Sunday schools, in which the minds of the children of the very lowest order are enlightened…” (7)

Pitt and the Bishop of Rochester were right to sense that, limited as it was, the education provided by Sunday schools carried an enlightening, liberating potential. Teaching poor children to read and, in some cases, write did indeed open up doors for many young children, helping legitimise the idea of liberal education for girls. It also gave a boost to working class self-education, a development which is explored in my essay The Liberating Power of Education

Sunday school societies

During the decades that followed the publication of the Journal article, several organisations built upon Raikes’ work. In 1785 the Society for the Establishment and Support of Sunday Schools throughout the Kingdom of Great Britain (more commonly known as the Sunday School Society) was founded by William Fox, a London merchant, and Raikes was elected an honorary member, “considered as the original founder”. The society was a charitable institution which distributed spelling books, testaments and Bibles to the schools.

It was followed by, amongst others, the London Society (1793), formed “for the support and encouragement of the Sunday Schools”, and the Sunday School Union (1803) which aimed to encourage teachers and improve their methods.

The Sunday school movement soon came to the attention of the great and good. Adam Smith wrote approvingly: “No plan promised to effect a change of manners with equal ease and simplicity since the days of the Apostles.” (3) Raikes was introduced to Queen Charlotte by Fanny Burney and invited to visit Catherine the Great in Russia.

By 1787 he would claim that a quarter of a million children were attending Sunday schools. (8) This may have been by an exaggeration, but by 1818 the more reliable source of parliamentary returns gives us a higher figure – 477,225 Sunday school pupils (over 4% of the population), rising to 2,407,622 (13% of the population) in 1851. (3)

Stockport Sunday School (1805-1971) which accommodated over 4,500 children.

As Harris writes, Raikes the educational botanist “lived to see what he loved to call a ‘little grain of mustard’ covering many lands with its grateful shadow”. (2) Sunday schools were particularly important in Wales and industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire where the day schools were least adequate. (In Scotland Sunday schools were seen as a challenge to the parish schools and viewed unfavourably.) (8)

A Grain of Mustard Seed – A Musical on the Life of Robert Raikes by Roger Jones

The movement also spread to the continent but was particularly influential in North America, where the separation of church and state prohibited religious instruction in state schools. (9) In 1848 Dr Clay Trumball, a Minister from Philadelphia, was moved to write: “America has practically been saved for Christianity and the religion of the Bible by the Sunday School.” After Raikes’ death, people made pilgrimages in his honour from America to Gloucester, an indication of the remarkable educational influence of this provincial newspaperman. (3)

Raikes’ legacy

Towards the end of his career Raikes shifted his philanthropic attention away from education to the anti-slavery movement. In 1802 he retired from the Journal and two years later was presented with honorary freedom of the city. While he remained interested in the local Sunday schools, he withdrew from public life until his death in 1811, age 75.

In recognition of his work he was honoured by the City of Gloucester with a memorial hall and tower. On the centenary of the opening of the Sooty Alley school, a statue by Thomas Brock was unveiled in London’s Victoria Embankment Gardens and casts of the statue can be seen in Gloucester and Toronto.

Statue of Robert Raikes, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London. Taken by the author.

For several decades Sunday schools became the form that education took for most children. In the words of Raikes biographer Thomas B. Walter: “He raised Sunday teaching from a fortuitous rarity into a universal system. He found the practice local; he made it national.” In doing so he helped establish the possibility of free and universal education in the minds of the public and pave the way for state provision of education a century after the Sunday School movement began. (3)


  1. Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical, 1604,
  2. Robert Raikes – The Man Who Founded the Sunday School by J. Henry Harris (The National Sunday School Union, 1930)
  3. Robert Raikes: A Critical Study by Guy Kendall (Nicholas and Watson Limited, 1939)
  4. The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools – A Biography of Robert Raikes and William Fox by John Carroll Power. Available online at Google Books
  5. History of Education in Great Britain by S.J. Curtis (University Tutorial Press Ltd, 1963)
  6. The Charity School Movement: A Study of 18th Century Puritanism in Action by M.G. Jones (Cambridge University Press, 1938)
  7. The Concept of Popular Education by Horace Silver (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965)
  8. A History of Adult Education in Great Britain by Thomas Kelly (Liverpool University Press, 1962, Third Edition, 1992)
  9. Sunday school entry on Britannica

Further reading

Robert Raikes Tour Notes by Ted Edmunds, Gloucester Civic Trust

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