Nineteenth Century Sunday School Books and Christian Literature for Children

One of the most important developments in American Protestantism in the 19th century was the rise of the American Sunday School movement. In the 1790’s, the first American Sunday Schools were modeled on British schools founded by Robert Raikes, Hannah More and others, to teach reading and writing to poor children in the cities on their only day free from work, and to reform their morals.

By the 1820’s American Sunday Schools had become democratized to include children from all social classes, not only the urban poor. At the same time the purpose of the schools became more focused on religious instruction in evangelical Protestant doctrines and more concerned with conversion of the young.

In the 1830’s the Sunday School movement, which had begun as an eastern and urban institution, rapidly expanded into rural and western frontier areas. In many cases the Sunday School served as a vehicle for introducing religious services in places lacking any other religious institutions.

A powerful adjunct to the 19th century Sunday School was the Sunday School library. It is estimated that several million small books were produced for the Sunday Schools between 1820 and 1880. The largest publishing houses for these books were the American Sunday School Union, the American Tract Society, and denominational publishers such as the Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia and the Presbyterian Committee of Publication in Richmond.

The William Smith Morton Library houses a significant collection of more than 500 of these 19th century Sunday School books, including large numbers issued by each of the major publishers listed above.

Our collection was established by Theodore G. Winter, the Special Collections Cataloger of the William Smith Morton Library, in 2003. Previously, most of these tiny and fragile volumes were dispersed throughout the collection.  Ted Winter assembled them and ensured that they received the secure shelving, delicate handling and climate control required to preserve them, and made them accessible to scholars in the Library’s Rare Book Reading Room.

Ted Winter also added to this collection as relevant titles became available on the market.  His bibliographic control emphasized complete description and ample subject headings, to facilitate research in education, missions, church history, the history of child development and spirituality, and other aspects of this unusual literature.

Ted Winter devoted years of expert professional service to Union Seminary and its Library, from 1984 until his retirement in 2012.

Sunday School books in the nineteenth century encompassed a remarkable range of topics. There were numerous aids and inducements to Bible study : Bible dictionaries, Bible stories and scripture biographies; biblical chronology, geography and natural history; and selections for memorization and Bible questions and answers for Sunday School examinations and catechisms. There were accounts of missions and missionaries and “heathen” converts. Works on church history included stories of the Waldensians, the Huguenots, Moravians and Scottish Covenanters, as well as biographies of the Reformers. There were books of religious verse, hymnals, and picture books. A genre characteristic of the 19th century included biographies of pious children and many accounts of the pious dying of young and old. There were descriptions of American Indians and of life and customs in remote parts of the world. Other topics included slavery, immigration, child labor, orphans, poverty, and temperance.

Above all, there were “moral tales” — entertaining stories with a wide variety of settings, characters and plots, all employed to teach moral conduct, ethics, Christian development and good citizenship. The dual purpose of entertaining and instructing is often suggested in the books’ titles and subtitles : Ann and her Mother, or, The Sin of Falsehood; Annie Lee, a Story Illustrating the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer; Fanny the Flower-Girl, or, Honesty Rewarded.

Taken together the collection provides a remarkable view into the American Sunday School movement from 1820-1880 and the role played in the movement by books and libraries. The collection represents a rich resource for studying 19th century attitudes towards childhood and child-rearing, methods of moral and Christian education, and the spread of culture, religion, and education — both on the frontier during the nation’s westward expansion, and in the cities during the waves of 19th century immigration.

Physically these books are usually little — five to six inches tall — easily managed by a child’s small hands. Many of the books feature charming illustrations to attract and instruct their young readers, and a great variety of styles of bookbinding.

In addition to books, the Sunday School societies published magazines such as The Youth’s Friend and Scholar’s Magazine by the American Sunday School Union. Published monthly, each 16-page issue typically contained Bible stories, inspirational biographies, moralistic fiction, poetry and a natural history section describing a bird, animal or plant, both scientifically and in terms of its biblical associations.

The Morton Library also has a number of auxiliary resources related to the Sunday School books which add further value to the scope of the collection. These include publisher’s catalogs from the Presbyterian Board of Publication and the American Sunday School Union, annual reports of the Union, and the 1817 Constitution of the Sunday School Society of the City of Richmond. The Constitution directs that prizes of Sunday School books be given for punctual attendance and learning Bible verses and catechism answers.

Scholars with an interest in doing research related to this material may consult our Special Collections page. The Morton Library Special Collections are accessible by appointment in advance.