Anne Boylan traces the formation of the Sunday School as an American institution from 1790 to 1880. Sunday School examines “the creation and evolution of Sunday schools in five evangelical Protestant denominations…and through the interdenominational American Sunday School Union [ASSU]” (1). Boylan argues that “Although now primarily an instrument of denominational education, the Sunday school became an American institution because it promised to fulfill the broad millennial expectations of evangelical reformers” (4). Sunday schools emerged as an institution in the 1820s as workers helped “transform the schools from a temporary expedient for teaching the poor reading and religion to a permanent means of religious training for all Protestant children” (21). This transformation enabled Sunday schools to prosper by “taking them out of competition with their weekday counterparts,” the common schools (59). Antebellum Sunday schools formed institutional networks, like the American Sunday School Union, to “remake society along evangelical lines” (60). By the 1880s, Sunday school convention leaders systematized the institutional networks along denominational lines. As an American institution, Sunday schools “represented effective ways of ordering indivual lives in an increasingly disorderly society.” Sunday schools “offered protection from individual and national chaos” and “were to play a crucial role by introducing children to evangelical Protestantism, training them in proper habits and values, and guiding them through the treacherous waters of adolescence” (169-170).
Sunday School is an important contribution to the study of voluntary associations and institutions in nineteenth-century America. Boylan suggests that “The importance of institutions in American history has long been the subject of scholarly contention” (1). Scholars have debated whether Americans are “rugged individualists” descended from Enlightenment ideology, or “a nation of joiners” committed to the Benevolent Empire (1-2). Boylan argues that scholars should understand the Sunday school movement as one of many institutions that “united disparate people in a shared Amerricanness” (3). Moreover, Sunday schools were a part of the emerging American middle-class vision “committed to an expanding free labor economy and a democratic state” that had close ties to “the urban mercantile and manufacturing economy” (3). Sunday schools endorsed “social control” in the sense that they transmitted to others the personal qualities that reformers “believed essential to individual and national progress” (3).
Boylan’s book shares similarities with others works about Sunday schools as institutions for social control and education. In The Shaping of Protestant Education (1966), William B. Kennedy examines how American Protestantism adopted “a general strategy of education that depended heavily upon the public school and alongside it utilized the Sunday school as the major church-related instrument for Christian education” (11). Similarly, in “In Every Destitute Place” (1973), Ralph Ruggles Smith examines how the ASSU developed the domestic Missionary program “whereby Sunday schools were brought to the American West and South” in an attempt to Protestantize and socialize American children.
Smith’s scholarship departs from Boylan’ work in its emphasis on the domestic Mission Program of the ASSU. Smith foregrounds the work of the ASSU in the West and South to highlight the rural nature and development of Sunday schools, and their relation to Westward expansion and slavery. Thus, Smith’s works focuses less on the urban, mercantile, and capitalistic nature of Sunday schools. It questions the capitalistic narrative of progress that is associated with industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century. Sunday schools were an important part of Northern urban life, the marketplace, and the free labor economy. But, they were as equally important in “civilizing” white children of the West and South, who were a part of agrarian and slave wage economies. By emphasizing the urban nature of Sunday schools, Boylan simplifies the nature of Sunday schools and the complex relationship created between Sunday schools, children, adults, race, class, and economy in different regions of the U.S.
Boylan and Smith also disagree over the extent to which Sunday schools taught American children how to read. Smith argues that “Thousands of children learned to read as a result of the American Union’s efforts, and thousands more could not escape from the religious beliefs inculcated by the Sunday School” (5). However, Boylan suggests that “By the late 1830s the various Sunday school unions had virtually ceased discussing the teaching of reading in the annual reports” (24). Boylan concludes, “Thus, although many rural and frontier schools continued to teach reading–and even writing and spelling–after the 1830s, these were seen as incidental, not essential, aspects of their mission” (25). Boylan dismisses the importance of reading in Sunday school, perhaps, because she privileges Northern, urban Sunday schools over rural schools. Moreover, Boylan ignores the Union Spelling Books and other books published by the ASSU that were intended to teach children to read. Perhaps, Boylan deemphasizes the importance of reading in Sunday schools in order to emphasize the shift in American Sunday school curriculum from a focus on reading and arithmetic to religion, morality, and social order.
Nevertheless, Boylan’s work is significant in that it considers the agency of individuals, particularly women and children, in Sunday schools. Boylan notes, “Not surprisingly, women responded with greater alacrity than men to this calling [as Sunday school teachers], a fact which reflects both their narrower social opportunities and their acceptance of the evangelical conception of womanhood” (101). Women as the arbiters of religion and society fulfilled their duties in educating American children. Thus, Boylan recognizes the agency of women in the Sunday school movement. However, in a strange twist, Boylan also dismisses women’s agency and the importance of women’s work in the Sunday schools. Boylan suggests “It comes as no surprise to find that women who dedicated themselves to Sunday school teaching did not join the ranks of reformers or feminist” (123). Women only played the roles that society allowed them as mothers, wives, and females in the education of children in Sunday schools. Boylan treats women as cogs in the machine of the Sunday school institution. The institution was intended to reform society and women played a role, but were not agents, in this process of reformation.
Sunday Schools is also noteworthy in that it recognizes children’s participation in Sunday schools. Boylan notes “For despite their numerical preponderance in the Sunday school and its existence for their benefit, children are often entirely missing from the institution’s chronicles” (156). Children influenced the institution as they demanded the preservation of rewards programs, and the continuation of special events and performances. The recognition of children’s agency in Sunday schools and mission programs is an important insight. Evens so, Boylan only discusses the agency of children and their participation in Sunday schools in a few paragraphs.
Boylan’s work is significant in that it urges scholars to examine the agency of women and children in Sunday schools. It is also important for its suggestions that Sunday schools were a part of a larger American institution designed to reform children for the progress of America as a Protestant and capitalist nation.