Progressive religious education in 1912

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.


Monthly report of the Unitarian Sunday School Society, in “Unitarian Word & Work: Monthly bulletin of the American Unitarian Association, National Alliance of Unitarian Women, Unitarian Sunday School Society, Young People’s Religious Union, and Unitarian Temperance Society,” vol. 15, no. 8, May, 1912, pp. 18-21.

[p. 18] What to Teach

Among religious educators of all denominations the question what to teach is at the present time in the foreground. After a generation devoted to developing the Sunday school as a magnificent organism comes another generation intent on making that organism more efficient. To this end, progress is making along two lines: the training of teachers and the development of material to be taught. It would be difficult and perhaps useless to say which of the two is the more important. But the second, the development of a better curriculum, is the easier to bring about, since it may be done by the competent few. A scene which the writer of this article witnessed at a session of the International Sunday School Association in Toronto illustrates this. Thousands of delegates were assembled, representing every State in the Union and every Province of Canada. The question of the right lessons for millions of Sunday-school pupils was under discussion. The multitude was earnestly, fervently, even passionately pledged to the International Lessons, and at first buried any suggestion of change under an avalanche of negative votes. A half-dozen real educators, however, plead for a better scheme, and in the end won the convention to their side.

Uniform or Graded Lessons

In the scene just recalled a distinctly forward step was taken. The International Sunday School Association is one of the best organized movements in the world. Its nearly twenty million of Sunday-school members have been welded into a marvelous unity, chiefly through the uniform lesson. By that means, the most elaborate lesson helps are placed in the hands of every one of the million and a half teachers in their schools. Teachers’ meetings, town, county, State, sectional, and international conventions are held, with a common interest, developing tremendous enthusiasm. Best of all, schools and pupils of all denominations and of all sections are engaged in the study of the same lesson at the same time, promoting a sense of comradeship that is of incalculable value.

Why, then, have the leading educators among these evangelical churches attempted to break up this splendid system? Because they see that the goal is not a great organization, or even a vast number of enthusiastic schools, but developed lives. The output of all this organized effort has not been wholly satisfactory. Education is education, teaching is teaching, on Sunday as well as on Monday, in a church school as well as in a public school. That “No scheme of education is pedagogically correct that is not graded,” is the watchword of the progressives. In an increasing number of schools heretofore using the same lesson for all grades, the graded system is being introduced. Doubtless some features of the method that has hitherto brought such splendid results will be retained, but graded Sunday school teaching has come to stay.

[p. 19] What Have We Done?

Unitarians have never adopted the international lessons. For many years we did what was in some ways less wise, we published books for class use, for the most part of a high order, but wholly unrelated to each other. In our schools this “hit or miss” plan prevailed, good work being done, indeed, since the books were excellent and the teaching devoted, but less satisfactory results being reached than might have been realized through a better system. Then came the “One-Topic, Three-Grade Series,” a short but most significant step forward. A school adopting this series is provided with lessons for a period of seven years, each year being given to the study of a portion of the Bible or of Christian history. The entire school studies the same lesson, thus securing unity of interest, while the classes are grouped into three sections, Primary, Junior and Senior, with specially prepared textbooks for each section, thus securing for all [students] lesson-treatment adapted to their varying capacity. In this system, also, promotions, from the Primary Department to the Junior, and from that to the Senior, mark the pupils’ progress, and so add a distinct interest. This series of manuals has had a large sale and is still in very general use.

Our latest enterprise is the Beacon Series, which carries out the idea of graded lessons in its fullness, restricted, however, to twelve years, from about the age of 6 to the age of 18. Books for older classes are easily chosen from the many we publish for advanced grades, while lessons for pupils under six years of age may be selected from our Kindergarten Manuals, though more helps for these pupils are sadly needed. Within the ages covered, the Beacon Series attempts to supply a new topic for each year of the pupil’s life, the topics being chosen to fit the needs of developing minds as those needs have been discovered by psychologists, the treatment being at the same time progressively full and difficult. This series provides, therefore, for annual promotions, and for psychologically correct topics for each year,— two advantages not possessed by the “One-Topic, Three-Grade” series. It loses, however, the unity of interest in studies and the easily planned and evidently useful teachers’ meetings which the older series provided.

The Beacon Series is now in use in a large percentage of Unitarian Sunday schools. It has won the approval of leaders in religious education among evangelical denominations as well as among ourselves. On the other hand, it has been criticised as lacking in pedagogic material, providing too little in the way of suggestions to inexperienced teachers, and too little to call out the activity of the pupils. Doubtless other series of books will in time follow, for our Society and our schools expect to learn through experience and to progress with advancing knowledge.

The Material Used

Not only has our Society thus adopted the graded method, it has chosen its material from the widest range. We feel that the goal of religious education is preparation for life. Whatever, therefore, is for the good of developing character is appropriate for study in the Sunday school. The Bible is, naturally, the chief source of lessons. Its material is so rich, its associations with the good life so intimate, its history and literature so essential a part of even an average intelligence, that it must remain of central interest and importance. But since “God is all that [p. 20] liberates and lifts,” all history and all science are sacred studies, and if the purpose of our effort is to develop efficient workers in the Kingdom of God, all ethical and social studies are worthy of a place in our scheme of education.

At an early date, books on non-Biblical subjects began to appear among our publications, and as the years passed, more and more have been published. Thus Everett’s “Religions Before Christianity,” Lyon’s “A Study of the Sects,” Gould’s “Beginnings,” Walkley’s and Horton’s “Beacon Lights,” Dole’s “The Citizen and the Neighbor,” Mrs. Lane’s “First Book of Religion,” and others of like nature have long been and are in extended use among our schools. In this respect, as well as in the graded method, our work has been far in advance of the other denominations. They, however, are moving, slowly but certainly, in the same direction.

The Next Step Forward

At the recent session of the Pacific Coast Unitarian Conference, a resolution was passed calling for the appointment of a denominational Commission on Religious Education, to take up the whole problem of the right education of the children and young people in our Unitarian Sunday schools. The work contemplated is not a mere revising of present text-books, nor the preparation of another series, though each of these might be a possible outcome of such an enterprise, but a study of the problem as a whole, trying to determine what, under all circumstances, our people ought to do.

The proposition is fairly bewildering in its suggestiveness. Twenty thousand young people are found today in our schools, a large proportion of whom will take places of influence in the world. Methods and materials that might be employed in developing these lives have increased in a marvelous degree and are being developed or improved upon every day. In the meantime, in that world for life which we are hoping to prepare these young people, changes are going forward that strain evolutionary methods almost to the breaking-point of revolution. Here is a task, then, which calls for ability of a high order, clear thought, technical knowledge, wide experience, sympathetic understanding of youth, and, with all, a profound consecration.

Who is sufficient for these things? We might despair of finding a competent committee did we not have the assurance of history that whenever a great task has had to be done the right ones to do it have appeared. What is most needed is a clear perception of the need, a mighty resolution that it shall be done, and a wise choice of the members of such a commission. Thus undertaken, the materials and the methods will surely be found.

Teaching About Religion

Most Sunday-school instruction so far has been teaching about religion,— its history, its literature, and its theology. Doubtless this will continue. Intelligence demands such knowledge. A right life is the more easily reached and the more efficient for good when understood in its relation to the experiences and the thoughts of men. Such study produces that atmosphere in which the profounder results may be gained. Such study about religion, moreover, will tend everywhere to take a more catholic view of divine things, seeing God’s revelation in more than one national history, in more than one great literature. The attempt to know religion divorced from the effort to know about it leads to emotionalism, superstition. We cannot be too well versed in theology or in religious [p. 21] history. Sunday schools in the future, as in the past, must teach about religion.

Teaching How to Apply Religion

One new direction in which our instruction should move is toward teaching how to make religion operative in life. Since New Testament times, but never so insistently as now, men have asked “What doth it profit a man if he have faith, if he have not works.” The call to service must be heard by the churches if they are to live or deserve to live. But mere willingness to be of use is not enough. The world wants help, but it wants wise help. Moreover, it wants helpers in whom service has become habitual, so that spasmodic efforts shall be replaced by those which operate steadily and on long lines.

All this means that our young people ought to be taught not merely about religion, but about how to apply religion. So far our Society [i.e., the Unitarian Sunday School Society] has not developed any graded course in “Applied Christianity,” but a few of our schools have done so. The Disciples’ school, in Boston, [i.e., the Sunday school of the Church of the Disciples in Boston] has probably done this most thoroughly. Every pupil in that school is set to work making the world happier and better. With advancing years, the pupils pass from philanthropy to philanthropy, the effort being made to have each pupil enter the world’s service at precisely that point where he can best understand it and best help. This means that as a rule children should be led to help other children of their own age. A full statement of what the Disciples’ School is doing is given in “Bulletin 21” of the Social Service Department of the American Unitarian Association, which should be read by all our Sunday-school workers and which the American Unitarian Association will send free to anyone asking for it.

Teaching Religion

Thus our children should know about religion,— its history, literature, theology. They should also know that as a tree bears fruit, so religion should produce good works. It remains true that back of religious knowledge is that which is known, and back of religious service is that which prompts to high effort. Can religion itself be taught? Yes; it has been done and is being done in countless cases. Granted that it is transmitted chiefly by contagion, not by instruction; all our best knowledge comes in that way. “Not instruction but inspiration” is supremely valuable here as elsewhere. To reach and quicken the child’s religious nature is the highest task of religious education.

To accomplish this, two things are necessary,— genuinely religious teachers, and a devotional atmosphere in the school itself. We cannot be too careful in selecting teachers and officers in our schools. Their spirits affect the spirits of their pupils more than formal instruction affects their minds. For the right “atmosphere” of the school, minister and teachers and parents should strive with all diligence, all prayerful devotion. We do not need to create the attitude of reverence; it is native to every soul. We do need to reach it and guide it. The teacher’s earnest attitude, the carefully-prepared lesson, the well-conducted program, the orderly room, the attention that is secured by simply being expected, the singing of well-chosen hymns whose meaning is explained and felt, and, as a climax to all, the few words of simple, reverent prayer by superintendent or minister,— prayer with and for the children,— thus spiritual quickening may be secured. To secure that is supremely to succeed.

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