One day in 1780, Robert Raikes's newspaper business took him to an impoverished suburb of Gloucester. He was shocked to see so many children "wretchedly ragged, at play in the street." He asked a local woman about this.

"On a Sunday you would be shocked indeed," she replied, "for then the street is filled with multitudes of the wretches who, released on that day from employment, spend their day in noise and riot … cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid as to convey … an idea of hell."

In 1700s England, it was generally agreed that something must be done about such children's poverty and ignorance. After his firsthand exposure, Robert Raikes figured out what to do.

Dandy reformer

He wasn't the first to try. In the 1700s, 1,500 charity schools had been established by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge. Wesley and Whitefield had preached to the young. But most efforts were like the school conducted by Hannah Ball, a Methodist stalwart. She had worked "instructing a few of the rising generation in the principles of religion."

"They are a wild little company," she said, "but seem willing to be instructed."

Yet reformers faced several difficulties. Class separation kept the learned from the poor. Class condition was attributed to "breeding," which education could not change. Individual reformers worked alone, and the public had no appreciation of their success. Then there was the law: until 1779, it was illegal for non-Anglicans to start a school or teach.

Raikes (1735-1811) learned concern for the poor from his father, from whom he also inherited an influential newspaper. He was a bit of a dandy-walking about town in his wig and claret-colored coat, and carrying a gold snuff case. But he was also a committed member of the Church of England. "I see my own unworthiness more clearly, and with this plea, I go more boldly to the throne of Grace."

His first efforts to live out his Christian convictions focused on prison reform, but he then decided children must be put on the right path before evil habits were formed.

Immediately after his shocking encounter in the Gloucester slum, he hired four women to teach the children that next Sunday. After securing permission of the parents, Raikes sent 20 children to each teacher. School began at 10 a.m., let out an hour for lunch, then continued until 5 p.m. The children also attended an afternoon church service. The Bible was the basis of instruction. Raikes's announced purpose was to prevent vice and to encourage good work habits, and cheerful submission to God, the law, and their station in life.

In 1783 he wrote an article in his paper, without mentioning his own involvement, noting the success of these "Sunday schools." Readers were fascinated and asked for more information. Raikes provided enthusiastic replies, which were printed and reprinted in publications across England. Other schools soon formed, and Raikes publicized their successes. He was soon able to document a national phenomenon.

His publicity campaign reached its zenith when he was summoned to an audience with the royal family. King George III wished that "every child in my kingdom should be taught to read the Bible."

Explosive growth

Sunday schools grew dramatically. In 1787, four years after his first article, there were 250,000 Sunday school students. By 1811 there were 500,000, and by 1831, 1.25 million students in England. Between 1830 and 1833, the population increased 24 percent, and Sunday school attendance increased 225 percent. In 1833 the government began subsidizing the schools. Sunday schools spread to the United States, Scotland, Ireland, and the continent.

Eventually children's education passed into the hands of the state, and religious instruction was eliminated. The Sunday school movement lost its zeal and went into a 50-year membership decline in the early 20th century. Today we see only its faded remnants in the mere hour spent with the clean and well-mannered children of believers.

But in its day, it was a remarkable institution. Adam Smith, author of the classic Wealth of Nations, declared that no plan so promising for improving morals had been devised since the days of the apostles.

Kelvin Crow is president of Education Support Services and contributor to the Historical Dictionary of the United States Army (Greenwood).