What’s Sunday school got to do with Betsy Devos?

By the Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D.

The mention of Sunday school brings to mind take-home sheets clutched in small hands and urgent pleas for volunteer teachers. The present-day institution is but an echo of the radical — albeit flawed — reform effort that began in England and crossed the Atlantic to help form a new nation.

The “Sunday School Movement” began in the 1780s, when Robert Raikes, Thomas Stock and William Fox pioneered a system of schools that held Sunday classes to meet the educational needs of factory children. Within a decade, the movement had made its way to the United States, where it led the movement toward universal education. This is a kairos moment — the time is ripe for Christians to revisit, reclaim and revive the legacy of the Sunday School Movement.

With the rise of the Industrial Revolution in England, poor children migrated to towns and cities, where they labored in factories six days a week. Raikes, a newspaper owner and prison reformer, came to associate the increase in prison population with a lack of education, so he turned toward educating the lower classes. Sunday schools spread throughout England and, in 1785, a decade after William Fox formed the first Sunday school association, it claimed 65,000 participants. Not everyone celebrated this success, however. In general, the upper class opposed educating the poor, and church leaders came to resist Sunday school because of its association with reform movements, its “violation” of Sunday and its focus on secular subjects.

Sunday — or “First Day” — schools first appeared in the United States in the 1790s with paid teachers and the Bible as the foundation for providing rudimentary instruction to child workers. The concern of Sunday school founders in the United States was related to growing numbers of working children who were slipping through the cracks and not receiving the literacy or religious knowledge that would make them good citizens of the republic. As in England, the schools also addressed the problem of unsupervised children running wild on Sundays.

Acting on the belief that education should not be available to the wealthy alone, First Day Societies were instrumental in the establishment of free and common schools. As tax-supported education began to take hold in the United States, the Sunday school mission shifted toward plugging gaps, providing literacy education to blacks, immigrants and girls, all of whom were often excluded from common schools. Eventually, the American Sunday school was adopted and domesticated by churches to become the primary vehicle for religious education.

The Sunday School Movement was both a critique and a product of its culture, at times leading society toward a more just reality and at times perpetuating faulty societal norms. At its best, it stood against the culture by insisting on basic education for all. At its worst, it promoted a nationalistic agenda and moralistic intolerance. The Sunday School Movement offers one incontestable lesson for followers of Jesus in 21st century America: Involvement in public education is not optional. The rise of public education in this country largely depended on the hard work of faithful Christians. The ongoing effort to provide fair, quality education to all requires no less.

Recent decades have seen profound challenges to quality universal education in the United States, from funding cuts and No Child Left Behind to Common Core and the push for school vouchers. But it is the appointment of billionaire Betsy Devos as secretary of education that demands reclaiming the radical legacy of the Sunday School Movement. While Devos’ lack of qualifications is a concern — she has no training in education, has never been a public school student, never worked as a teacher, administrator or state level education bureaucrat — the greater concern is what Devos has done in the education field.

As former chair and primary funder of the dark money group American Federation for Children, Devos promoted school privatization, supporting programs and laws that drain resources from public schools to pay for private school tuition. She lobbied to lift Detroit’s cap on charter schools and block a provision that would have prevented failing charters from expanding and then helped design Detroit’s charter-school system, which charter school proponents describe as one of the biggest school-reform disasters in the country. During her nomination hearing, Devos demonstrated both a lack of understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and an absence of commitment to meeting the educational needs of all children.

The call of Jesus is to care for those at risk in society and to advocate for and serve those on the margins. The conviction that education should not be available to the wealthy alone still holds true. It is past time for Christians to revive and reclaim the legacy of the Sunday School Movement by actively opposing threats to universal education and dedicating ourselves to catching those who slip through the cracks, even as the current administration seems dedicated to expanding those cracks.

The Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, Ed.D., is American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ national program director for discipleship.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.