Born September 14, 1735Robert Raikes lived his entire life in Gloucester, England. He spent most of it in the family news-paper business. As a Christian, he used the Gloucester Journal to espouse social causes he believed in. His involvement in one of those areas led to him being credited to this day as “The father of Sunday schools.”
THE WRITTEN WORD
His was born into a family that didn’t just belong to the Church of England, but also held positions in it. Grandfathers on both sides served as ministers in the church, proclaiming God’s word.
Robert followed the footsteps of his non-clerical father, also named Robert. The senior Robert lived his faith by using words in a different way. He founded the local newspaper, the Gloucester Journal, in 1722. At age 19, the younger Robert began serving as his father’s apprentice.
The senior Robert Raikes died two years later (1757). The son then began a long career operating the newspaper. He oversaw the Gloucester Journal as a Christian for the next 40 years.
I WAS IN PRISONAfter his father’s death, Robert visited Gloucester’s local prison known as “The Castle.” What he saw there appalled him. Felons and debtors shared the same room. Food was not always provided, and the conditions were so unsanitary that every month prisoners died from disease.
He alerted the public by reporting in the Gloucester Journal what he saw . He included a call for financial contributions toward improving the plight of the prisoners. Donations came in. He used them wisely to help the neediest of the prisoners.
But he didn’t stop there. Robert took books to the inmates who could read. He encouraged them to read to those who couldn’t. He also helped the debtors find work. Along the way, he instructed them in the Christian virtues of self-control and kindness.
In 1774, Parliament passed prison reform bills that improved some of the horrid conditions in prison facilities throughout England. (Another Christian, Elizabeth Fry, raised the quality of prisoner’s lives beginning at England’s Newgate Prison).
LET THE CHILDREN COME TO ME
Robert Raikes didn’t invent Sunday school. Others before him in both England and the American colonies provided Bible classes for children on Sunday. His far from small contribution did, however, pour much fuel on the fire.
It began for him on a day in 1780. He went searching for a gardener he needed to talk to. He went to the man’s neighborhood in a poorer part of town. The gardener wasn’t home, so Robert waited for his return. He noticed a noisy situation in the street. The source was a group of rowdy boys who’d gathered there.He asked someone about the lads. He was told they were even noisier on Sundays when, according to the gardener’s wife, “they are given up to follow their inclinations without restraint—as their parents totally abandoned themselves, have no idea of instilling in the minds of their children, principles to which they themselves are entire strangers.”
Like he had in the prison, Robert caught a vision for improving their lives. He employed some Christian workers to teach the children on Sundays. He also held Sunday morning prayer meetings in a local cathedral, where children began assembling as well. Their behaviors improved. The neighborhoods became more peaceful as God’s word changed lives.
GOD GAVE THE INCREASE
After three years, Robert praised the Sunday school’s success in the pages of the Gloucester Journal, but didn’t connect his name to it. Other newspapers parroted his article. A few years later, a man who knew Robert promoted the movement in a sermon, stating that in England it had already grown to 200,000 children.John Wesley visited Leeds, England in 1784. What he saw taking place impressed him. There were 2,999 students in 26 different Sunday schools. Thereafter, he launched Methodist Sunday schools.
In 1785, the Sunday School Society was begun in England. It didn’t take long for it to cross into the rest of the United Kingdom. Around the same time, Sunday schools increased in popularity in America, in large part via promotion through the Methodist Church.
Around Christmas of 1787, England’s Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) requested an audience with Robert. For over an hour he answered her questions about the benefits and the growth of the institution he so strongly promoted. Sunday school kept expanding.
A CLOUD OF WITNESSES
In the second half of the 1800s, D. L. Moody started a class for children in the slums of Chicago. It grew to over a thousand. Around that same time hymn writer Philip Bliss became a Sunday school superintendent.Christian business leader John Wanamaker oversaw what was at one time the largest Sunday school in America. When he retired as president of the Pennsylvania State Sunday School Association, another Christian businessman, Henry Heinz, became president.
These outstanding Christians and thousands of others carried on the idea that Robert helped popularize. Robert Raike’s role in the history of Sunday school? According to one biographer, “He found the practice local; he made it national.” He also promoted it beyond the boundaries of his home country.
His contribution was not forgotten. In 1880 the Sunday School Union of England erected a statue to honor Robert Raike’s involvement in the Sunday school movement. Other statues have gone up since. His greatest homage is what happens every Sunday week after week in locations all around the world.
LET ME KNOW: How has Robert’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Larsen, Timothy, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
- Gregory, Alfred. Robert Raikes, Journalist and Philanthropist. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877- http://archive.org/stream/robertraikesjou00alfrgoog#page/n18/mode/2up.
Books about Robert-
- At Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=robert%20raikes.
- CBD offers one title: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/easy_find?Ntt=robert+raikes&N=0&Ntk=keywords&action=Search&Ne=0&event=ESRCG&nav_search=1&cms=1&search=.
It takes only 2:46 to listen to Ruthie Oberg’s Robert Raikes devotional at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PEy30j_A-1E.