Being such an ancient church, the Old South on Federal Street has faced conditions that frankly most of us in today’s world; would be totally unfamiliar. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to take hold in America. If you study the building on 29 Federal Street, it is a mixture of ancient first growth logs literally shaped by axes and adzes into massive beams. But by looking around the building, you can also see the smooth boards and timbers made by steam and water powered mills that were located along the Merrimack River.
The Industrial Revolution was an explosion of manufacturing that brought about natives actually having some money jingling in their pockets and the idea of weekly wages began to be a powerful draw attracting workers from the surrounding countryside and city. As factories sprung up across New England, farmers and poor fishermen would often send their children to be employed in the city’s mills from Monday to Saturday. Their work hours were often 12 plus hours a day and very little time was left for the parents to even teach the basics of education. Robert Raikes (1736-1811) from Gloucester, England started the Sunday School Movement to reach out and try to teach these children who were already suffering this type of life in England. The main thrust was to educate them on a Sunday before services using the Bible and other literature.
In America, the idea of Sunday Schools was started in Philadelphia among the Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other reformed churches in 1824. To avoid denominational strife, the Bible was stressed as the ‘curriculum’ and not church catechism. The group formed the American Sunday School Union that year and sent 49 missionaries out to establish these Sunday Schools in churches all across the country but especially on the Frontier. The Old South, often called the Third Religious Society of Newburyport were pioneers in Christian Education and started the fourth sunday school in the country!
It quickly became a tradition by working class parents, even parents who didn’t attend church; to bring their children to sunday school. They knew their children were going to get a good education! Not only learning Scriptures, they would learn ethics and morality and good citizenship and often would learn basic traditional studies.
As public schools began to be mandatory in the 1870’s in America, the sunday schools began to turn their focus back to training up believers in the faith. According to the Bible, studying the Scriptures daily is supposed to be a necessary part of a believer’s life. Unfortunately, the practical reality is the cares of making a living, and raising families and doing civic duty; chokes out most who are not given to extreme discipline or a habit early formed when they were young. Great many ‘believers’ haven’t the faintest notion of what they are supposed to ‘believe’. Many a church has gone apostate simply because it was way too easy for a demagogue minister to steer them away and there were simply not enough in the congregation to stop him! Sunday schools have endured as a great way to strengthen the typical Christian church and avoid a congregation full of ignorant followers easily swayed by con men, extremists and flim-flammers. In addition to stopping this great danger, the training time has allowed for a great resource of students who would learn to be teachers themselves and thus guarantee sound instruction continuing in the congregation in the future.
Whenever you see the words, Sunday School, posted on a church marquis; that is a lasting tribute to that effort that was so powerfully needed in the past. It was an effective solution for the rather deplorable state suffered during the 18th Century in England and especially in America, during the early years of the 19th Century.