The Sunday school movement began in Britain in the 1780s and spread to America in the 19th century. But the Sunday schools of that day were nothing like we have today; they were schools very much like our public schools today, only with the Bible as a core component. They were established to provide an elementary education on Sunday for children who were employed in factories, stores, and farms the rest of the week. Eventually, child labor laws were instituted and the institution of the public school was created, relegating religious instruction to the churches. The American Sunday School Union, a cross-denominational national organization founded in Philadelphia in 1824, published curricular materials and children’s books that were used in many Sunday schools in that day.
The Bible does not mention the Sunday school. The idea of teaching, however, is present in the New Testament Greek word paideia and is translated “nurture” in Ephesians 6:4. This word is also translated “instruct” and “chastise” and has the idea of correction and instruction. This is also the purpose of the Word of God. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the word of God is profitable for teaching (which is the meaning of the word doctrine), for reproof, for correction and instruction so that the believer is equipped to obey God.
Israel was instructed to teach their children the statutes of the Lord, and the essence of that teaching is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-7: “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God is One LORD.” This is known as the Shema, which is the first word of verse four. Instructions to teach children are also found in Deuteronomy 4:10 and Deuteronomy 11:19. Throughout their history the Jews have conducted, and still conduct, the Yeshiva which is a school for teaching the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. It usually began when the child was three to five years old and it was taught only to the boys. That is no longer true. It could be that the Sunday school, which evolved in the evangelical movement, is based upon the premise of the Yeshiva.
We need to remember that in the early years of the church, believers met in homes or caves or areas where they would not be discovered due to persecution. The teaching of God’s truth to children was the job of the parents and was done in the home. Sadly, this practice is no longer a priority in the homes of many believers, and many leave the instruction in God’s Word to the church and what we now call the Sunday school. But what is taught in Sunday school should only be a supplement to what is taught at home. The ideal situation is when the church and family work together to educate children in the faith.