During an email exchange with a colleague regarding the history of early twentieth century Unitarian religious education, I came across a 1912 report from the Unitarian Sunday School Society.
This brief report gives an interesting look into the beginning of the Progressive era of religious education. Based on the insights of the new science of psychology, the Progressives were implementing closely graded classes, an improvement over older ungraded, or three-grade, classes. The Progressives felt that key outcomes of religious education included providing children with religious knowledge inculcating children with the ideals of social service, and teaching “religion itself.” And, although still focused on the Bible, the Unitarian Progressives were introducing non-Biblical and non-Christian topics to Unitarian children.
For me, the most interesting part of this essay is the penultimate paragraph. With some rewriting, this Progressive statement could serve as a pretty good summary of what we’re still trying to do in our Sunday schools today — something like this:
“We should teach our children about religion — they should know religious history, literature, and theology.
“We should teach our children how to apply religion — they should know that as a tree bears fruit, so religion should produce good works.
“Finally, we should teach our children religion itself. Knowledge about religion points towards religion itself; and religious service grows out of the high ideals of religion itself. But when we teach religion itself — as opposed to knowledge about it, or service based on it — we won’t teach it through classroom instruction. Like all our best knowledge, religion is transmitted by contagion and inspiration, not by instruction; it is caught, not taught. To reach and quicken the child’s religious nature is the highest task of religious education.”
The full text of the essay appears below.