The Post story notes that not all of Carter’s acolytes are fellow Democrats. But the origins of Sunday School tell a story about the kind of progressive evangelicalism that Carter is known for. The movement began in 18th century England thanks to the efforts of a reformer named Robert Raikes, who the religion scholar Martin E. Marty once called “the Eli Whitney or Thomas Edison of the Sunday school.”
Visiting a factory town on business one day, Raikes was appalled by the spectacle of “wretchedly ragged” children playing in the street. When he asked a local about the problem, he was told that on Sundays, it was even worse: “The street is filled with the multitudes of these wretches, who...spend their time in noise and riot, playing at chuck, and cursing and swearing in a manner so horrid, as to convey to any serious mind an idea of hell rather than any other place.”
Raikes’s solution was to provide a school for them to attend on their one day off from factory work. At “Sunday school,” they would learn reading and writing, as well as moral and Biblical lessons. The classes were imbued with an ambient Christianity, to be sure, but their first purpose was to educate the poor.
The idea spread quickly within Britain, and by 1790 a group of Philadelphia Quakers had imported the plan to America. Over the course of the 19th century, Sunday School became increasingly evangelical and less academic. Gradually, respectable church families were encouraged to send their own children to Sunday School.
Still, the mission remained focused on the poor: The American Sunday School Union, established in 1824, made it a goal to establish programs in every needy place between Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the Rocky Mountains. One Sunday School booster wrote to The New York Times in 1851 that the city’s children were “a field that needs a faithful and thorough cultivation as much as any along the coast of Africa or Labrador.”
The Sunday School movement was remarkably successful. According to one estimate, about 80 percent of new church members in 1900 first came to church through a Sunday School class. It was also thoroughly woven into the fabric of American life, including its political life. Carter is arguably the most famous living teacher of Sunday School, but he carries on a rich presidential tradition. Zachary Taylor observed a Sunday School program on the day he came down with the mysterious illness that killed him. Franklin Pierce erected the first White House Christmas tree for a group of Sunday School children. Benjamin Harrison taught Sunday School, and so did Richard Nixon in his college years.
Today, there are signs that it’s Sunday School itself that could use some charity. Fewer Americans identify as Christian at all, and Sunday School attendance was already declining when Barna conducted his survey a decade ago. The Southern Baptist Convention—the country’s largest Protestant denomination—reported declines in enrollment every year between 2004 and 2012, prompting a Baptist denominational news service to ask “Can Sunday School be saved?”