British Sunday Schools in the era of the First World War, 1900 – 1939 

– Caitriona McCartney

My thesis intends to address importance of British Sunday schools and assess their effectiveness in the era of the First World War. In doing so my research will demonstrate the significance of religious belief and practice in Britain during the early twentieth century. It is difficult in a more secular twenty-first century Britain to envisage how Christianity played a central role in society, culture, and politics. Callum Brown suggests that there was a vast machinery of Christian ‘agency’ which even penetrated the public house.[1] The Sunday schools played a crucial role in shaping British religious belief and practice at this time. They were a significant working-class institution. Both Hugh McLeod and Callum Brown argue that Sunday schools saw near universal working-class attendance.[2] Thomas Lacquer also asserts that Sunday schools were the domain of the working classes in terms of attendance and organisation.[3] Therefore, it is not surprising that the First World War was seen by much of the British population as a Christian conflict.[4] Michael Snape argues that for the vast majority of British Tommies, Christianity shaped their moral and spiritual lives.[5] The rank and file of the British Army were largely recruited from the working classes.[6] Many soldiers therefore would have attended Sunday school at some point during their childhood. The time spent at the schools had a profound influence upon them. Christian iconography was omnipresent across the Western Front, especially in France. This imagery resonated with many ordinary soldiers who had been exposed to similar imagery at Sunday school.[7] Likewise, Sarah Williams discovered that ex-scholars found great comfort from the hymns they had learnt at the schools and also used them to bond with other soldiers.[8]  Therefore the majority of the men involved in fighting in this conflict were exposed to the ideas and hymnody of Christianity through the work of Sunday schools.

The literature concerning the history of religion in Britain often acknowledges the importance of the Sunday schools but fails to study them in greater depth.[9] Alan Wilkinson acknowledges the role that Sunday schools played in the formation of the religious faith of many soldiers.[10] Nonetheless, and disappointingly he does not develop this argument. Overall there is a lack of detailed scholarship concerning the Sunday schools from 1900 to 1939. While there is a plethora of studies concerning the schools during the Victorian period, few expand the years of study into the twentieth century.[11] The limited number that do discuss the schools during this period do not do so in detail.[12] Given the importance of the schools this gap in the literature is perplexing. My thesis intends to readdress this oversight. Additionally, there is little scholarly consideration of the experience of scholars and teachers, and how effective they perceived the schools to be. Contemporary criticisms of them, despite being freighted or biased, are taken as indisputably accurate. For example, Alan Wilkinson gives much attention to the criticisms that they received from church leaders and chaplains and concludes that the Sunday school “was no preparation for the world of the trenches.”[13] However, he does not provide substantial primary evidence for this conclusion. S. J. D. Green similarly states that Sunday school teaching was “of course…rarely sophisticated.”[14] Jeffrey Cox also argued that the schools were an ineffective tool for imparting religious knowledge compared with day schools due to a lack of discipline and large classes of children.[15] These assessments have led to many painting all Sunday schools with a broad brush rather than engaging in the complexity of the historical record.

My research intends to address the Sunday school as a significant agency of religious socialisation, particularly among the working classes. Furthermore, it aims to draw out the importance of the institution, assess its effectiveness, and its reach in British society. To consider these aspects, my research will ask the following questions:

  • What was the impact of Sunday schools on national life?
    • What were the attendance patterns?
    • What did important figures in society think of the schools?
    • How were Sunday schools perceived in popular culture?
  • How effective were the Sunday schools in achieving their aims?
    • What sort of scholar did the schools produce?
    • Did the teaching scholars received from the schools have an impact on their lives?
    • How effective did they perceive their teaching to be?
    • What reforms were proposed and how were they received?
    • What training was provided for Sunday school teachers?
  • What was the purchase of Sunday schools on working class culture?
    • Were the schools popular with the working classes?
    • What were the reasons for sending children to Sunday school?
    • Did the schools empower members of the working classes?
    • What was the interface between the schools and their alumni during the First World War?
  • Why did the Sunday schools decline?
    • Did social changes contribute to the decline of the Sunday school?
    • Did the relaxing of Sabbatarian laws lead to the decline of the Sunday school?
    • Did a change in what was considered to be religious behaviour, for example regular church attendance, contribute to the weakening of the position of the Sunday school in British culture?
    • Was the First World War a major cause of decline?

My thesis will principally argue that the Sunday school was an integral part of religious life in Britain and therefore deserves a much more thorough treatment and appreciation in the historiography of the British religion in this period.


[1] Brown, Callum. Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, Second Edition London: Routledge, 2009, 57.

[2] Brown, Death of Christian Britain. 169 and McLeod, Hugh. Religion and Irreligion in Victorian England Bangor: Headstart History, 1993, 36.

[3] Lacquer, Thomas. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780-1850 London: Yale University Press, 1976. 87 and 63.

[4] Snape, Michael. God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars London: Routledge, 2005, 19-58.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Snape, God and the British Soldier, 244.

[7] Ibid., p. 43.

[8] Williams, Sarah Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark c.1800-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 148-149.

[9] For example, see Schweitzer, Richard. The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt among British and

American Great War Soldiers. London: Praeger, 2003, 6, Wilkinson, Alan. The Church of England and the First World War. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2014, 239 and Kitchen, James. The British Imperial Army in the Middle East:

Morale and Military Identity in the Sinai and Palestine Campaigns, 1916-18. London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 75.

[10] Wilkinson, The Church of England, 7.

[11] For example see Lacquer, Religion and Respectability, Snell, Keith ‘The Sunday School-Movement in England and Wales: Child Labour, Denominational Control and Working-Class Culture’, Past and Present, 164(1999): 122-168 and M. Dick, ‘The Myth of the Working Class Sunday School’, History of Education 9(1980): 27-41.

[12] Orchard, Stephen and Briggs, John H. (eds.), The Sunday School Movement: Studies in the Growth and Decline of Sunday Schools. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007 and Cliff, Phillip. The Rise and Development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1780-1980. Redhill: Christian Education Publishers, 1986.

[13] Wilkinson, The Church of England, 81 and 97.

[14] Green, Religion in the Age of Decline, 215.  

[15] Cox, Jeffrey. English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth 1870 – 1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. 95-97.

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