"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

Sunday Schools and American Public Education

Cincinnati Water Front on the Ohio River (1838)
America is no longer as it once was in terms of educating our children. This is more fact than judgment.

Prior to the 1840's, wealthy Americans used private tutors to educate their children, or paid to send their sons and daughters to private schools. Children of the urban poor worked in factories, even as young as five and six years of age, their parents unable to afford their education. Farming families usually sent their children to the fields to work, or in some cases, to neighboring villages to learn skills through apprenticeships. Only children of the privileged received formal education. Abraham Lincoln, born into Kentucky backwoods poverty in 1809, would later describe his lack of formal education as "the short and simple annals of the poor."1

Cincinnati Water Front on the Ohio River (2015)
But during the late 1700's and early 1800's Christians on both sides of the Atlantic grew burdened for the uneducated children of the poor.

Robert Raikes, a Christian businessman in Gloucester, England, started "schools on Sunday" in July of 1780 to help educate the children who spent twelve hours a day, six days a week, in the factories of Gloucester, England.  The story of how God led Raikes to start Sunday Schools is inspirational on many fronts.  "We'll teach the kids to read and write part of the day and teach them the Bible for the rest of the day," Raikes pledged.  After three years of success, Raikes published a series of articles in the Gloucester Journal on the success of Sunday Schools in transforming the character of an entire community,

The enthusiasm for the Sunday School system of education quickly spread across the Atlantic. For the first one hundred years of our American republic, children of the poor learned to read, memorized the Bible, and studied history from a Christian world view in Sunday Schools. Not many Americans realize that the great forefathers of our country who rose up from poverty, men like Abraham Lincoln, received their only education through effective Sunday Schools. I still believe the two greatest political speeches ever given by a United States politician were Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, both written by Lincoln himself. Read those speeches and marvel at the education given to the poor through Sunday School.

The American Sunday School Union

During the early 1800's American population rapidly expanded westward toward the Mississippi River Valley.  By 1830 an estimated four million Americans lived on the western frontier of the Mississippi Valley. However, these western pioneers had very little access to the books used as curriculum for American Sunday Schools in the east. In 1830, the American Sunday School Union (Philadelphia) sent out a plea to England for help in establishing "a Sunday school in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi."

My maternal grandfather (3x), Charles Tinsley Cherry, answered the call and became one of the Sunday School missionaries sent from England to the United States to help fulfill the Mississippi Valley Emphasis.

Shoreditch Church, London 1830
Charles was a product of Sunday Schools himself. Born to a poor family in Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire in 1801, Charles attended the Sunday School sponsored by his Anglican parish throughout his childhood. He moved to London in his early twenties, and on December 26, 1824, he married Mary Foreman at Shoreditch Church in London. Anglican curate Robert Crosby performed the marriage ceremony. For the next five years, Charles and Mary Cherry volunteered their time at Shoreditch Church, their home parish, instructing the poor children of London in Sunday School.

The couple's pastor, Robert Crosby of Shoreditch Church, was known for his ecumenicism and zeal for the gospel. While many Anglican clergymen sought to segregate from other denominations, Crosby allowed the Shoreditch Church building to be used by Methodists and other dissenters for all occasions. Crosby's charitable spirit brought him criticism from some of his fellow Anglican clergy, but his love for reaching the poor put Shoreditch Church at the center of Sunday School missions.2  From the beginning, Sunday Schools were advocated by "Christian laymen of different creeds, aided here and there by clergymen who had the grace to perceive, and the grit and greatness to declare, that Christ's kingdom was larger and more important than anyone or a score of sects into which Protestantism had divided."3 

America's plea to Great Britain for help in establishing Sunday Schools in the pioneer areas of the Mississippi Valley reached the British Sunday School Union during their 1830 preparations for the Jubilee Anniversary (50th) of Sunday Schools. Charles and Mary Cherry responded to that plea, and with funds raised by members of Shoreditch,  Charles, his wife Mary, and their only surviving child, five-year-old Mary Ann, sailed across the Atlantic to the United States in the spring of 1831.

To commemorate the British Sunday School Jubilee and the sending of Sunday School missionaries to America, British poet James Montgomery wrote the following poem, published the year the Cherrys came to America:

For the 1831 Sunday School Jubilee
Love is the theme of saints above;
Love is of God, for God is Love;
With love let every bosom glow: --
Love, stronger than the grasp of Death,
Love that rejoices o'er the grave,
Love to the Author of our breath,
Love to His Son, who came to save; --
Love to the Spirit of all grace,
Love to the Scriptures of all truth,
Love to our whole apostate race,
Love to the aged, love to youth; --
Love to each other -- soul and mind,
And heart and hand, with full accord,
In one sweet covenant combined,
To live and die unto the Lord.
Christ's little flock we then shall feed,
The lambs we in our arms shall bear,
Reclaim the lost, the feeble lead,
And watch o'er all in faith and prayer.
Thus through our isle, on all our bands,
The beauty of the Lord shall be;
And Britain, glory of all lands,
Plant Sabbath schools from sea to sea.

After arriving in America, Charles Cherry received help from Rev. Crosby's brother, who lived in Zanesville, Ohio. With Mr. Crosby's assistance, Charles T. Cherry arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio in the summer of 1831. Charles took the very important position of Western Agent for the American Sunday School Union. Over the course of the next several years, Charles T. Cherry headed the American Sunday School Union's efforts to establish Sunday School's throughout the Mississippi Valley. Charles established the western ASSU office and book depository at 186 Main Street, Cincinnati, Ohio (see above map with red dot), an address that now marks the location of Joe Morgan's statue in the plaza of Cincinnati Red's All-American Ballpark (see picture of ballpark at top of page).

After establishing the western American Sunday School Union's office less than two blocks from the Ohio River, Charles T. Cherry set about recruiting some of the leading businessmen, politicians, and preachers to help him establish Sunday Schools along the Mississippi Valley.

The Mississippi Valley Enterprise

Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1830's was called The Queen City of the West. People from the east desiring to get to St. Louis, the Gateway to the West, would  have to pass through Cincinnati via steamer on the Ohio. Following the Ohio River to its confluence with the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois, the steamship would then turn north and go up the Mississippi 160 miles to St. Louis. Traveling by steamship on riverboats during the 1830's was much faster than going by old fashioned stage coach. Cincinnati was the destination for all those traveling to the Mississippi River Valley from the east.

The ASSU library shipped by Charles Cherry to pioneer schools
Charles T. Cherry built wooden bookcases at his American Sunday School office on the riverfront in Cincinnati. He then filled those bookcases with 121 specifically chosen books, and shipped them down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River Valley to pioneer school districts, families, or churches. The individual books in the libraries had uniform bindings, and each volume was numbered to correspond with its number in the American Sunday School Union catalogue:  C. S. L. stood for common school library; P. S. L. for public school library, F. L. stood for family library, and C. L. stood for children's library.  The case would be shipped with a lock and key and all the necessary hangings and fastenings. Upon the door would be painted the words SCHOOL LIBRARY, words which the book agent could change upon request.

 On the inside of the door Charles Cherry would paste a catalogue sheet with the entire 121 volumes listed by title and author. Charles  he would also enclose another fifty catalogues which could then be passed out to families in the community where the bookcase was shipped, so that Sunday School teachers could know which individual books in the community library had been checked out.

The library case was placed into a shipping container and packed so that it could be transported safely down river. The entire library was sold for THIRTY-THREE DOLLARS which included shipping. When the book case reached its destination, the entire case would be removed from the shipping container, taken to the building where the Sunday School children would gather, and be suspended from the wall. The books, having been be approved by a  committee of two Baptists, two Episcopalians, two Methodists, and two Presbyterians, would be ready for immediate use and loaned freely to students and their families.

The Men of Cincinnati Who Served on the ASSU Board

As Charles Cherry worked hard to establish new Sunday Schools and to provide curriculum for those living all along the Mississippi Valley, he also began recruiting others to assist him. In January 1836, Charles established the Western Board of Agency for the American Sunday School Union (see picture left). He asked 22 Cincinnati civic leaders to serve on the board, promising to help him raise funds, prepare Sunday School bookcases for shipping, and work on recruiting volunteers to establish and strengthen Sunday Schools up and down the Mississippi Valley.

The men who served with Charles T. Cherry on the Western Board of Agency of the American Sunday School Union reads like a "Who's Who" of early American leaders. The fact that these men were involved in the establishment of Sunday Schools in pioneer areas shows how important early Americans considered the education of children from a Christian world view.

Though each of the twenty-two men listed as officers and members of the Western Board of the American Sunday School Union has a unique story, I would like to highlight just four men and the influence they have on American history.

Salmon Portland Chase (1808 - 1873)

In 1830 Salmon Chase moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he became well known as an abolitionist lawyer. He was asked by Charles Cherry to work with the American Sunday School Union, a position which he accepted (see above chart - S.P. Chase). By 1840 Chase had been elected to the Cincinnati City Council, the beginning of what would become a long and illustrious political career.  In 1849 Chase was elected to the U.S Senate from Ohio. During his service in the United States Senate (1849–1855), Chase was an anti-slavery champion. He spoke ably against the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Chase sought the Republican nomination for president in 1860, but lost to Abraham Lincoln. However, Lincoln chose Chase to be his Secretary of Treasury, and so Salmon P. Chase became a member of Lincoln's legendary Team of Rivals Presidential Cabinet.  Chase's Treasury Department created the U.S. Greenback (the American dollar) to fund the Civil War. It was Chase's picture, not George Washington's, that framed the first American dollar bill. After his service as U.S. Secretary Treasurer, Lincoln chose Chase to be the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. One of the largest banks in America today, Chase Bank, is named in his honor. Charles Cherry and Salmon Chase worked closely together in establishing Sunday Schools throughout the Mississippi Valley during the 1830's.

Benjamin Jennings Seward (1793-184)

Benjamin Jennings Seward was the brother of the more well known William Henry Seward (picture left). The Seward brothers were very close, and when William Seward decided to enter New York politics in 1838, he contacted his brother Benjamin (see above chart - B.J. Seward) and asked him to leave Cincinnati, Ohio and return to Westfield, New York to take over the family land business.  Benjamin was eight years older than his brother William, and had worked with Charles Cherry in Cincinnati to establish Sunday Schools all along the Mississippi Valley during the mid-1830's. But when his brother was elected Governor of New York, Benjamin Seward moved from Cincinnati to the Seward farm in upstate New York to take over the family business. William Seward moved to Albany and served effectively as the abolitionist governor of the largest state in the Union. William Seward was the odds on favorite to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860, but like Salmon Chase, lost to Abraham Lincoln, Seward also became part of Lincoln's Team of Rivals Cabinet, being appointed as Lincoln's Secretary of State. It is said that nobody was closer to William Henry Seward than his brother Benjamin Seward and the President, of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, the conspirators targeted William Henry Seward as well, brutally stabbing the Secretary of State and several members of his family. Charles Cherry's close relationship with the Seward family began in the 1830's while living Cincinnati and continued throughout the 1840's and 1850's when Charles T. Cherry also left Cincinnati and moved to New York to become the eastern Agent for the American Sunday School Union in Rochester, New York.

Thomas Brainerd (1804 - 1866)

Thomas served as pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian church in Cincinnati during the 1830's, and was a close personal friend to Lyman Beecher and Albert Barnes. His ancestors were the famous Indian missionaries David and John Brainerd, and Thomas would write The Life of John Brainerd, the Brother of David Brainerd.  Thomas gave up the study of law for theology, and graduated from Andover Seminary in 1831. He served as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati from, 1831 to 1837 and then pastor of the Pine Street (Third) Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1837 until his death. He was a leader of the New School branch of the Presbyterian Church and distinguished himself for his patriotic ardor and services during the Civil War. He was an excellent writer and published many articles in religious periodicals, served as editor of the Cincinnati Journal, a Presbyterian religious paper (1833 - 1836), Thomas Brainerd and Charles Cherry worked together for four years to establish Sunday Schools along the Mississippi Valley, and their friendship continued throughout the 1840's and 50's, when Thomas lived in Philadelphia and Charles in Rochester, New York.

Edward Deering Mansfield (1801 - 1880)

E.D. Mansfield was born in New Haven, Connecticut and graduated from West Point in 1818, but he declined to enter the army and chose rather to study at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1822. In 1825 he was admitted to the Connecticut bar, but then moved to Cincinnati in 1835 to become professor of constitutional law at Cincinnati College. However, shortly after arriving in Cincinnati, he abandoned the legal profession and took up journalism. He became editor of the Cincinnati Chronicle (1836–49), Atlas (1849–52), and the Railroad Record (1854–72). E.D. Mansfield also wrote and published several books including Political Grammar of the United States (1835); Life of Gen. Winfield Scott (1848); History of the Mexican War (1849); American Education (1851); Memoirs of Daniel Drake (1855); A Popular Life of Ulysses S. Grant (1868) and Personal Memories (1870), an interesting social and political chronicle reaching to the year 1841. While editing the Chronicle and Atlas E.D. introduced many young writers to the public, including Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher Stowe (1811 –  1896)  was an American abolitionist and author. At the age of 21, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832 to join her father, who had become the president of Lane Theological Seminary. There, she also joined the Semi-Colon Club, a literary salon and became friends with E.D. Mansfield. Harriett came from a prominent religious family, but is best known for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). It depicts the harsh life for African Americans under slavery. It reached millions as a novel and play, and became influential in the United States and Great Britain. It energized anti-slavery forces in the American North, while provoking widespread anger in the South. She wrote 30 books, including novels, three travel memoirs, and collections of articles and letters. She was influential for both her writings and her public stands on social issues of the day, and it is said that when Abraham Lincoln first met Harriet, he remarked, "So there's the little lady who started this war." E.D. Mansfield and Harriet Beecher Stowe worked with the American Sunday School Union in Cincinnati for the establishment of Sunday Schools along the pioneer areas of the Mississippi Valley.

The above four men and one woman only represent the more than  22 Cincinnati civic leaders who served with Charles T. Cherry on the Western Board of Agency for the American Sunday School Union. All of them were devout in their Christian commitment.

The greatest change in the education of American children may be the declining interest and involvement of civic leaders in the moral and intellectual instruction of children from a Christian world view. Everyone sees the world through mental prism. Educating children from a secular viewpoint without reference to God will reap generations of leaders with broken moral compasses. 

We may be actually reaping what we have sown since the 1870's and the cessation of Sunday Schools in favor of free, public, secular education.


1 William Lee Miller,Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2002), p. 17.

2 Melanie Barber and Gabriel Stewell and Stephen Taylor, eds., From the Reformation to the Permissive Society (London: Boydel Press, 2010), p. 309.

3Edwin Wilbur Rice, The Sunday School and the American Sunday School Union, (Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1917), p. 3.


Pege' said...

Wade. You most certainly did your research and home work on this one. Is it for a book? I agree our moral compass has not been "pointing true North"..if you will permit me some poetic licence, however we do have a bold and wise group of Christian teachers in the public domain and ones coming in the future. I am so proud of my daughter Annika as she is in her last year of preparation to be a History teacher. Like many believers before her who stepped in to the public school arena she will, even with all the regulations and restrictions, be a witness for the Lord. My kids did their Jr high and High school matriculation in public school and Jeff and I both as unbelievers remember the seeds of faith planted by faithful men and women who were our teachers. Faithfully and quietly making a difference...not with the same openness and freedom as these pioneers you identified once had, but believers are still making a difference.
I have a dream. It has been a prayer of mine for many years. That Christians come out of the shadows and the fear they have and begin once more to engage society in every day life. Christian schools close. Christian colleges be emptied and the children with their parents begin once more to engage in the public square, in the school boards, and the leadership. Can you imagine the impact millions of families could have in the schools, the boards and in the curriculum if they would engage like the people you wrote about did in their day? Can you imagine the lives changed and then in turn society? With God nothing is impossible. Look at the examples in your post.

May God strengthen those who now teach and serve in schools.

Wade Burleson said...


Annika will be a superb teacher! Had Annika lived in previous generations of America, she could have read from her Bible, prayed, and encouraged her students morally, intellectually and spiritually. It's the reason I believe home schooling and private education should still be an option for all - and the voucher system should be used - so that parents can send their kids wherever they please. Competition in education will cause those schools which are best - be it Muslim, Hindu, Secular or Christian - to rise to the top. Annika will make a great teacher!

Pege' said...

Wade, yes competition will straighten out so many problems with the public school system. Government monopoly is never good for any enterprise. I also consider your point about other options to be fair...I do still deep down believe that the reason our culture and society is in a moral decline is that many believers have disengaged and became secluded. There are many home school success but there is a painful dark side to home school. Many young people are suffering because of the isolation and fear taught to them about the world. Can you just imagine with me...that if all the parents who home school...and have their kids in Christian education came out again into the society and took all the energy and commitment for a great education for their children...how much change there would be? If they supported their teachers and principles, got on school boards. Coaches, volunteers....
here in Colorado we have amazing charter schools that are shining examples of what I am saying. The whole school is effected when there is this type of dedication and engagement. The children of un believers...their parents...its a win for all. We change the society and culture by being salt and light.
My parenting /educating experience has been all the spectrum...home school, Christian ed and public school and Secular College. I do not in any way want to limit any parents freedom and conviction to educate their children. I do however reject the fear mongering and manipulation of some leaders in Christianity and Preachers that use fear to push parents out of the public arena.
We must learn form these men and women of our history...when we take care of the least of us, the children, we can change culture and society for God.
I am not sure what kind of teacher Annika will be, I pray she will be superb. I pray she can be THAT teacher who plants seeds of the faith and love to the heart of a child like I was. I pray she will walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before her and be a shining light in muddy...politically correct waters and other will come on in and join her.
Nature abhors a vacuum....it will fill itself with something. When believers leave the public discourse and institutions...as we see now...others who have sinister agendas step right in.
Thanks for your thoughts.

Aussie John said...


I can only speak as a member of the Australian society, and would insist that the catastrophically declining moral compass of the population of my country is directly related to the failure of Christian parents to model, and teach.

It would seem to me that of those examples of individuals you have given, parents were the prime cause of their moral compass.

It is far too easy for Christian parents to relinquish their God given responsibility for the teaching of their children to S.S. teachers and blame secular influences for the failures of their children.

Having spent most of my life in congregational activity, half of that as a pastor,I have been saddened to see the fall of many children of very active, outspoken "pillars of the church". Interestingly, those children, not attending S.S., who sat through church services with their parents,are those who now stand tall morally and ethically.

Pege' said...

John, I have observed the same things here in the U.S. It is difficult to take your children in to a church service and the wiggliness and noise can be a distraction. I am not a huge supporter of Children's church. My reason is, a lot of it has become entertainment, veggie tales films and games. I am a proponent of parents teaching their children in the worship service and being taught proper behavior. Interacting with the adults and hearing the word of God even though they may not understand it. God says his word will not come back void. We tried to have out children with us but alas peer pressure and dis approving looks caused me to fall into submission.
I agree, whole- heartedly in your assessment.

Mary B. said...

Thanks for doing all your research. I love learning about our history and especially those who have contributed to society in such a positive way. I didn't like history courses in school, but when it's presented in story form and especially about ancestors, I'm very interested. Fun. Thanks again.

Thy Peace said...

A different view of learning (but not so different in my view):

Noam Chomsky > Work, Learning and Freedom

Interview with Noam Chomsky on education | Noam Chomsky interviewed by Arianne Robichaud