“Nurseries of the Church of God”: Sunday Schools, Childhood, and the Expansion of Evangelicalism in the Early American Republic

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:50 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Elise Leal, Baylor University
Early nineteenth-century America experienced a remarkable upsurge in evangelical social reform sparked by revivalism. Historians assert that evangelical reform offered opportunities for minority groups, especially women, to claim spiritual empowerment and social uplift. However, most scholars fail to note that another significant portion of the population, children, also benefitted from these religious reforms in significant ways that influenced the larger mobilization of evangelicalism. My paper corrects this oversight by analyzing the creation of Sunday schools in the early Republic. I discuss ways that Sunday school workers modified concepts of “age” and “youth” to develop child-centric methods of religious education. By developing and popularizing these new educational tools, reformers not only established Sunday schools as a nationally-recognized movement, but helped make children active participants in the expansion of evangelical Protestantism. 

My paper supports this argument using case studies from leading Sunday school organizations from Philadelphia. I begin by describing the broader religious and social context, showing how increases in youth conversions during revivals and the spread of sentimentalized views of childhood inspired reformers to seek new ways of generating child conversions. My paper illustrates the impact of these changes within the Sunday and Adult School Union, an evangelical organization created in 1817. In contrast to traditional views, this society affirmed that youth were easier to convert than adults and devoted its resources to designing educational methods just for children. Finally, I discuss the society’s transformation into a national organization in 1824, which solidified the pursuit of childhood conversion as a legitimate religious reform. By exploring how reformers made Sunday schools into a child-centric institution based on shifting conceptions of age, my paper shows how children shaped the mobilization of nineteenth-century evangelicalism and offers an entry point for integrating children into the broader narrative of American religion.