Sunday Schools: Past, Present, Future

By Gary North, (, 4/4/2015

The Sunday school was a very specific form of evangelism, which was begun in the late 18th century. It was not a way to teach Christian children anything about God. It was a way of teaching pagan children how to read. These kids lived mainly in industrial cities. They were waifs. They worked in factories during the week. They had one day off, which was Sunday. The churches recognized these children as targets for evangelism. So, Sunday schools were set up to teach these children how to read. They got some Bible instruction, but the basic idea was to let them get enough knowledge of reading so they could get out of the extreme poverty in which they found themselves.

Almost no Christians know about this background. It is all available on Wikipedia. But Christians, never having been educated in the history of the church, despite all the hoopla about Sunday schools’ teaching Christians about the history of the church, know nothing about this. They do not recognize the fact that the Sunday school was invented to help poverty-stricken pagan children learn how to read and learn about God.


Protestant Christians, being lazy, did not miss an opportunity to do even less for their own children. So, in the 20th century, they found a way to unload their own kids for another hour a week onto teachers in the local churches. They did not want to do the teaching, because teaching is hard work. So, a way for churches to compete for Christians was to establish Sunday schools. This way, parents could get away from their kids for an extra hour a week. This remains a tremendous tool for recruiting members from other denominations.

So, churches began to expand their Sunday school programs. There is now no need to teach kids how to read, because that is what the public schools do, and that is exactly what Christians want. They love the public schools. They can unload their kids this way for an extra 40 hours a week. They can get other people to pay for their kids’ educations. What a deal! So, not wanting to teach their kids during the week, and not wanting to teach their kids on the weekend, they began selecting their congregations in terms of Sunday school programs.

There are some Baptist churches that still use Sunday schools as tools of evangelism. These are the ones that send out the Sunday school buses. I rarely see them any more. I used to see them in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They would have the name of the church painted on the side of the bus. Usually, they were painted white.

People do not want to read the Bible. They certainly do not want to study the Bible. So, they will listen to one sermon a week, as long as it is less than 30 minutes long. They will attend one Sunday school a week, as long as it does not take more than an hour. The quid pro quo is that they get to get rid of their kids for that hour.

A lot of churches have what they call children’s church, so this way the parents get rid of the kids for an extra hour. Again, there is real competition within the Christian denominations. Any denomination that lets parents get away from their kids has a strong hook.

Parents do not teach the kids Bible materials during the week. The idea of the father as a household priest is not common. Sunday school materials are not geared to enabling fathers to serve as the heads of their household spiritually.

Sunday school materials on the Web vary between abominable and utterly boring. There is nothing like a systematic Sunday school program on the Web. If denominations were serious, every denomination would have a series of 12-week Sunday schools, and they would have courses targeting each of the major age groups. This way, a very small church could get all the teaching materials that it needed, free of charge. All the church would need would be a large screen TV for each of the age groups.

The best approach would be to have the same Bible lesson taught at four different levels: young children, preteens, teenagers, and adults. This way, everyone would hear the same story each week. Everyone would get the same basic message. There would be free PDF materials for parents to download. They could discuss the materials during the week. This way, there would be education going on during the week.

But Christians are not interested in educating their children during the week. What they are interested in is palming off the responsibility to teach their kids on somebody else. They do it with the public schools for most of the week, and they do it with the Sunday schools on the weekend.

If you think I am totally sceptical about Sunday school as it is designed today, you get the idea. If you think I am totally cynical about parental motivations about Sunday school, you get the idea. I am cynical about the Sunday school movement as a whole. I think it is just a way to fill in time, which is what Christians want to do. They want a little entertainment. They do not want serious study. They will listen to a 40-minute Sunday school presentation. It is usually presented by somebody with no theological training. The person is not a good speaker. But it fills in an hour when they can get rid of their kids.

I have had two really good Sunday school teachers. They were laymen. They were excellent speakers. One had a PhD in chemistry. The other one was a professional counselor. So, this makes two good teachers in a period of 50 years.

I do not think the Sunday school is an institution that offers anything of significant spiritual value to anybody. But it does let Christians get away from their kids for an extra hour week, so the institution survives.


The major interdenominational Protestant evangelical Sunday school materials in the first half of the 20th century were produced by Gospel light. Gospel Light was an extension of the ministry of an unmarried lady named Henrietta Mears. Her story is here.

When the northern Presbyterian Church threw out nine conservative representative ministers out of 10,000 in 1936, it made a break with traditional Calvinism and traditional conservative orthodoxy. At that point, there was zero Calvinist leadership left in the northern Presbyterian Church; it was committed to a rejection of the creeds and catechisms of the denomination — creeds that had been dominant since 1648. I wrote a book about how the liberals did this; it is over a thousand pages long: Crossed Fingers. Hardly anybody has read it.

The handful of conservatives who remained did so to get their pensions. I mean this literally. It was in the Great Depression. The liberals elected the head of the pension committee as Moderator of the 1936 General Assembly. Every minister knew what was at stake: his job and his pension. These men had been beaten by liberals. They could no longer exercise leadership. Their compromise undermined them after 1936. A few vaguely evangelical ministers did lead, the most famous being Peter Marshall. He was an immigrant from Scotland. He was a great preacher, but no Calvinist. He did not care about creeds and confessions.

At that point, Miss Mears, who taught the adult Sunday school at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, became the unofficial head of the entire evangelical movement within northern Presbyterianism. People came to her Sunday school from all over Southern California. She trained several of the denominational leaders of the mid-1950’s, including the man who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, Bill Bright. She trained two men who later served as chaplains of the United States Senate. She trained Donn Moomah, who later became Ronald Reagan’s pastor. She was a very pleasant lady, but she had no interest in the history of Presbyterianism. Out of her classes came printed materials: Gospel Light. This became the dominant interdenominational Protestant Sunday school publisher in the United States by 1950.

She trained the next generation of conservative leaders in northern Presbyterian circles. They were not theologically precise. They did not like the old Calvinism of the denomination. They were Arminians. Above all, they were not scholars. So, the education of the generation of evangelical Protestants in the mid-1950’s was transferred to this pleasant lady who taught Sunday school. She had one thing going for: she never attended seminary. So, at least she could communicate. And she did.

I met her in 1960, very briefly. She was instrumental in the founding of a Protestant spiritual retreat center, the Forest Home Christian Conference Center. It was located a mile up the side of a hill in Southern California. Its motto: “One mile closer to heaven.” In the 1950’s, Protestant young people came from all over Southern California, from many denominations, to get trained theologically. At that point, there were probably 300 or 400 of these students, and they came in for a week just before college started. The main theologian who trained them was a Baptist, Bernard Ramm. He went Barthian in the 1980’s. He could not sustain his faith. He was a theological sellout from the day he started. He compromised on everything, and then he finally abandoned the faith. Yet he was the primary theological leader of these students.

It was all based on Henrietta Mears’ Sunday schools. That became the backbone of evangelical Protestantism by the late 1950’s.

Some backbone.


I am not impressed by Sunday school materials. They serve the lowest common denominator. They are designed to avoid controversy with any particular denomination. They do not rock the boat. They are indescribably boring. Nobody goes back to read them on his own when he is older. They are just a way to justify sending kids into the public schools. They are salve for the consciences of parents who do not want to educate their kids.

I plan to produce Sunday school materials at some point. Maybe they can help a little. Who knows? I am going to post them on YouTube. I can teach almost any age group. My Sunday school materials will be suitable for the high school and adult age groups, and maybe the junior high level. I know how to talk in such a way that I do not put people to sleep. If I have enough time, I am going to produce a couple of dozen 12-week Sunday school courses. Then I will give them away. Anybody will be able to use them.

With YouTube, there is not much competition for Sunday school materials. If my videos are any good, I will be able to get my ideas into lots of local congregations. Local congregations rarely have anybody who can teach. Sunday schools are insufferably dull. The teachers are untrained. The teachers have read practically nothing. They cannot communicate well. So, it is an ideal way to compete. Go where the competition is weak. Offer something for free that will enable lots of small congregations to escape the terrible burden of Sunday schools taught by local congregational members. I figure I am able to compete in that market.

The problem is this: I am busy on really significant projects. I have to write my final magnum opus on Christian economics. I will have to do videos related to it. This is my calling. Producing Sunday school materials is not my calling. But I am still motivated by the old rule: you can’t beat something with nothing. I am competing against something that is only one level above nothing.