Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sunday school

In an earlier entry, we covered some of the issues with educating pioneer Hoosiers.

In keeping with that, it also pays to remember that from about 1804 through 1820, the Whitewater Valley was the engine that drove the economy of a fledgling Indiana. What started on the Ohio River moved north through the valley, where it was massaged, modified, molded and adapted to a fast-growing population.

Those who settled the valley were often anything but the stereotypical rabble one would expect to find in a tree-clogged wilderness. On the contrary, these were sometimes learned people, often more than slightly affluent ... and they were driven by their beliefs.

In other words, strongly Christian.

As the need for schools improved, the problem was simple. What the settlers wanted from their schools was something far different than the territory-soon-state was willing to provide. Teachers were in extremely short supply in those early days for a couple of reasons. Generally, the profession wasn't considered desirable and the way to a future was in labor, not pontificating in front of a classroom.

And, the pay was ... brutally bad. Teachers were as likely to be paid next to nothing as a reward for being generally disregarded as useless in the first place.

Enter the alternative to public education.

The Sunday school.

Books were in short supply anyway, and most pioneer families believed that if they were to read anything, it ought to be practical. The Christian Bible was their inspiration, their law, and their literature.

The odds were that if a person wanted to read and interpret literature, the best place to get that was from the men of the church, who were often of higher moral standing, and were permanent residents, unlike the migratory subscription-paid teachers who could drift from town to town and earn enough to ... go somewhere else.

August Reifel's 1915 history takes a look at the nature of the Sunday school in Brookville through a letter written by the Rev. L.D. Potter:

"Soon after the organization of this church (Presbyterian, 1818) a flourishing Sabbath school was commenced, in which nearly all members engaged as teachers. It is believed to have been one of the first, if not the first, established in the state, and was continued until most of the members had moved from town."

Reifel's reference to the loss of membership was due to a population drain that occurred around 1820 after newer sections of the state were opened to settlers.

The Presbyterians and the Methodists were the leading Protestant denominations in the valley in those early years. They both boasted active and large congregations.

"One of the first Sunday schools attempted in Brookville was in the summer of 1831. Michael S. Taylor was the preacher. His suggestion of a Sunday school was at first met with indifference upon the part of many, and actual opposition by some, while the most sanguine looked upon it as of doubtful utility, if not wholly impracticable."

But Sunday was the only day when the kids weren't doing farm chores, and they were expected to be at worship anyhow.

One would wonder why a Sunday school could be opposed by a Christian-heavy population.

It was school. Learning occurred. "A section of that Sunday school, which was equal to the best of that period, would be a curiosity to the present generation. The whole thing was new and without precedent, and what was done had to be done by main strength and awkwardness."

Reifel, quoting the Rev. Potter, says:

"The exercises were opened by the Superintendent's reading a Psalm or chapter from the New Testament -- the whole chapter, generally. Then he would give out a hymn, almost always a common meter, and as apt to be 'plunged in a gulf of dark despair, we wretched sinners lay,' as anything else." (Old-school Presbyterianism!)

Then came a prayer, and then ... the lessons.

"It never happened that any two classes had the same. Yonder was a lot of little boys saying A-B-C's; yonder a class of girls at work at the same foundation principles of English literature; next a class of bigger boys in the spelling book, and yonder a class in the introduction to the English reader, though after the first summer all who could read were put into the Testament as more appropriate for Sunday reading. One feature of the school was the recitation of Scripture, from memory beginning each spring with the fifth chapter of Matthew."

To that end, one can presume that the nature of early pioneer Sunday school was something far more than just a place for the kids to sing songs and practice arts and crafts. And it's probably safe to assume that attendance wasn't always optional.

It would be many years before Indiana held itself accountable for educating its population. Those early Sunday schools were as good as it was going to get for most settlers.

No comments:

Post a Comment