Sunday School: Oil for Our Lamps


Harold G. Hillam
For 150 years, Sunday School has offered the opportunity to strengthen testimonies through the sharing of scriptural knowledge and understanding by dedicated teachers and willing learners.

The beautiful, handmade wooden box had been prepared as a time capsule in 1899, the jubilee year of the Latter-day Saint Sunday Schools. When Church leaders opened the box during a special conference 50 years later, they found among the items a letter from the general Sunday School presidency and board of 1899, which included President Joseph F. Smith and Elder Heber J. Grant of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Addressed to the “general Sunday School Authorities of A.D. 1949,” the letter said, in part:

“This Sunday School work has been to us a labor of love and our interest does not merely exist for today, but extends into the future.

“… We beseech you … that you never forget for an instant the object of the great Sunday School work, [namely]: To teach the children the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to make Latter-day Saints of them.” 1

That plea captures the spirit of the Sunday School. As an organization, its aim always has been to help build and strengthen testimonies of Jesus Christ in every member of the Church. Sunday School has always existed as an auxiliary to help reinforce what individuals learn through personal study and instruction in the home.

The Beginning

While Sunday School as a concept did not originate with the restored Church of Jesus Christ, it was readily adaptable to the teaching of revealed truths to children and adults.

An English publisher and editor named Robert Raikes is credited with developing the idea for the modern Sunday School, in England in 1780, as a way to help slum children who had no education or religious instruction. His idea spread—receiving strong support from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church—and soon there were Sunday Schools in churches throughout England, Scotland, and America. While there had been a few Sunday Schools in America as much as a century before Raikes established his school, they had been somewhat isolated.

Historical records indicate that Latter-day Saint Sunday Schools of some type had been held in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and England. 2 But a lasting foundation for them was not laid. In 1842, however, a young man named Richard Ballantyne joined the Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. The following year, he immigrated to Nauvoo and later journeyed westward with the Saints. He had been a Sunday School teacher in his previous church and appreciated the importance of gospel instruction on a regular basis for young people. Late in 1849, with permission from his bishop, he organized the first Sunday School in Utah. 3

Brother Ballantyne’s first class included members of the families of Elders John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Parley P. Pratt, and Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Lessons were from the scriptures, and the students furnished their own books. 4

That first Sunday School was established for children. Of its purpose, Brother Ballantyne wrote: “There is growth in the young. … I wanted to gather them into the school where they could learn not to read and write, but the goodness of God, and the true Gospel of salvation given by Jesus Christ.” 5

Sunday Schools were soon organized in other wards as well. But when U.S. Army troops were sent to Utah in 1857, responding to false reports in Washington about insurrection, local Church activities were disrupted for a time, and all Sunday Schools were disbanded in 1858.

In 1864, however, when Elder George Q. Cannon of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles returned from serving in the presidency of the European Mission, he saw the continuing need for regular gospel instruction for young people and reorganized a Sunday School in Salt Lake City’s 14th Ward, where Brother Ballantyne’s Sunday School had met. Soon independent Sunday Schools were again organized in other wards. Quickly their membership grew to thousands, then tens of thousands.

Elder Cannon would be instrumental in the growth of the Church’s Sunday School program in several ways. He was called as the first superintendent of the Parent Sunday School Union, an organization that grew out of meetings President Brigham Young had with several Church leaders in mid-November 1867. The organization, which became the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1872, brought LDS Sunday Schools under unified Church direction.

An Enduring Tool

In 1866, Elder Cannon had begun the Juvenile Instructor, the first children’s magazine between the Mississippi River and the U.S. west coast. Intended to help teach children correct principles, it became a magazine for adults as well—the unofficial publication of the Sunday School. The relationship became official when the Deseret Sunday School Union acquired the magazine from the Cannon family on 1 January 1901. President Cannon, then a member of the First Presidency, continued as editor until his death in April of that year.

In 1930, the Juvenile Instructor became simply the Instructor. Its content was geared to the Sunday School curriculum for all ages and to the improvement of teaching so vital to Sunday School and other auxiliaries. The magazine was an integral part of instruction in the Church. As early as 1891, Deseret Sunday School Union lesson materials had begun appearing in it. 6 Between 1917 and 1944, it carried lessons by departments, either as outlines or as whole lessons. Later, after lesson manuals and teachers’ supplements began to be published separately, the Instructor became a Sunday School teachers’ supplement as well as a source for instruction about teaching methods.

The Instructor was published for more than 100 years until it was discontinued (along with several other Church publications) when the three unified Church magazines, the Friend, New Era, and Ensign, began in 1971.

Improving Teaching

Since teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ has always been the focus of Sunday School, efforts to prepare better teachers began early in its history.

In 1892, a Sunday School Normal Class to help train teachers was established at the Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah. The following year, some 100 Sunday School workers were called to attend. Also in 1892, the Deseret Sunday School Union published a Guide for Officers and Teachers of Sunday Schools. In 1906, the Juvenile Instructor added a department called “Helps and Hints for Sunday School Teachers.”

Teacher training probably became a formal part of the Sunday School program with the 1915 appointment of Adam S. Bennion (later a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) to write teacher training lessons for the following year. That year, 1916, was also the first that Sunday School lesson textbooks were used in the Church. In the years to come, there would be a series of teacher training textbooks, two of them written by Brother Bennion, as well as teacher training lessons and supplemental publications.

In 1916, Elder David O. McKay of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was serving as first assistant to the general superintendent of the Sunday School (President Joseph F. Smith), announced that Sunday School would provide teacher training for the other auxiliaries. That has been a continuing pattern. It was emphasized in the 1970s, when responsibility for the basic course in teacher development was given to Sunday School. Today, bishoprics are responsible for the basic Teaching the Gospel course, where instruction on teaching is given to help every member share the gospel more effectively, whether we teach in the home or in one of the Church auxiliaries.

Longtime Church members will recall that Sunday School has offered gospel learning through a number of means in addition to formal classroom instruction. The most important of these was partaking of the sacrament in Sunday School, before today’s Sunday meeting schedule was implemented. At that time Sunday School was a separate morning meeting and sacrament meetings, also offering the ordinance of the sacrament, were held in the afternoon or evening. In addition to the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of the Atonement during the administration of the sacrament, those earlier Sunday School meetings also offered inspirational “two-and-a-half-minute talks” by children and adults, as well as the “sacrament gem,” which was a scripture or thought voiced before the ordinance of the sacrament. The first sacrament gem, offered in 1910, was:

While of these emblems we partake,
In Jesus’ name and for his sake,
Let us remember, and be sure
Our hearts and hands are clean and pure. 7

At one time, there was also a song practice during which hymns were learned.

A Continuing Mission

When the name of the organization was changed in 1971 from Deseret Sunday School Union to Sunday School of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nothing of its purposes or objectives changed. Sunday School is “the basic teaching arm of the Church,” said its president, Elder Robert L. Simpson of the Seventy, in 1987. “[Its] only function is to teach the scriptures and to improve testimonies throughout the Church. [It has] no other purpose in being, and we take that charge and responsibility very seriously.” 8

The basic mission of Sunday School—its responsibility to teach and strengthen individuals and families—is still in place.

When the time capsule box from Sunday School’s 1899 jubilee year was opened half a century ago, Sunday School leaders of 1949 accepted the charge from their predecessors to “never forget for an instant the object of the great Sunday School work … : To teach … the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In turn, those 1949 leaders created their own time capsule, a beautiful box made of woods sent from distant lands of the earth where the gospel was being preached. That 1949 box was opened on 1 April 1999 by President Gordon B. Hinckley in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Sunday School. Among the items in it was a letter to today’s Sunday School leaders charging them to carry on this great teaching work.

“May the Lord continue to bless this great institution which has brought knowledge and increased faith into the hearts and lives of millions of members of this Church across the world,” said President Hinckley on that occasion. “God bless the great cause of Sunday School.”

With him, we who are assigned to direct the efforts of teachers and Sunday School workers throughout the world are grateful that they so faithfully prepare, teach, and testify of gospel principles. It is our hope that they will earnestly rededicate themselves to helping strengthen individuals and families by encouraging them to study the scriptures and obey the commandments.

The charge given to us by those leaders in 1949, to move forward the work of the Sunday School, has been joyfully accepted. And a new time capsule has been created—a titanium world globe on a base of granite—to be opened in 2049, Sunday School’s 200th anniversary. Among the items in it is a renewed plea to the leaders of that future era to continue the timeless teaching work of Sunday School with whatever new technology, resources, and vision may be available to them in their day.

We are a Church of teachers—at home, at work, at church, at play—and the responsibility to testify of gospel truth falls on all of us. Therefore, we must ever be a Church of learners, studying the gospel, savoring its eternal insights, and anchoring them in our souls through the influence of the Holy Ghost.

To all of us belongs the responsibility to “never forget for an instant [our] object … : To teach … the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

A Roster of Sunday School Leaders

Leaders directing the Sunday School from 1867 onward have always been General Authorities or experienced priesthood leaders with ready access to General Authority counsel.

President George Q. Cannon was succeeded as general superintendent of Sunday School by President Lorenzo Snow, President Joseph F. Smith, then Elder David O. McKay. There followed a series of able leaders who were not General Authorities at the time of their service: George D. Pyper, Milton Bennion, George R. Hill, David Lawrence McKay, and Russell M. Nelson, several years before his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

During Brother Nelson’s eight years of service, the leadership of the organization was changed from a superintendency to a presidency. In 1979, the pattern of General Authority leadership for Sunday School was reestablished, with members of the Seventy as president and counselors. Serving as president since that time have been Elder Hugh W. Pinnock (twice), Elder Robert L. Simpson, Elder Merlin R. Lybbert, Elder Charles Didier, and now Elder Harold G. Hillam.

[photo] “Of all the auxiliaries of the Church, the Sunday School is unique. … Its curriculum covers the entire spectrum of the gospel. … If the Church is to be strengthened, and it must be; if knowledge of the gospel is to be increased among the membership of the Church, and it must be; if the spirituality of our people is to be refined, and it must be—then the Sunday School must become even more effective.”—President Gordon B. Hinckley (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

[photo] Officers of the Deseret Sunday School Union

[photo] In a 1949 photograph, President David O. McKay, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, shows the 1899 Sunday School Jubilee time capsule box to two of his grandchildren, Alan Ashton and Joyce McKay. (Photo courtesy of LDS Church Archives.)

[photo] “Attend your Sunday School classes every Sunday. Listen carefully to the lesson and participate in class discussions. Gospel scholarship and an increase in testimony will result.”—President Ezra Taft Benson (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

[photo] Several different hymnbooks have been used over the years as those attending Sunday School have worshiped through music.

[photo] Sunday School is a place where “adults seeking to know more about the Church can meet together. Side-by-side they can read the scriptures and discuss, under the direction of the Spirit, the application of gospel principles in their own lives and in the lives of their families.”—Elder Hugh W. Pinnock (Photo by Steve Bunderson.)

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Letter from officers of the Sunday School, in Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The time capsule box also contained visual aids for lessons, curriculum and other Sunday School materials, photographs, and publications including Church magazines and Salt Lake City newspapers.

  2.   2.

    William G. Hartley, “Mormon Sundays,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 23.

  3.   3.

    Church History in the Fulness of Times (Church Educational System manual, 1993), 408.

  4.   4.

    Letter from Sunday School officers.

  5.   5.

    Conway B. Sonne, Knight of the Kingdom: The Story of Richard Ballantyne (1989), 46.

  6.   6.

    David Lawrence McKay, “Goodbye, The Instructor,” Instructor, Dec. 1970, 447–48.

  7.   7.

    “Sacramental Hymn,” Deseret Sunday School Song Book [1908], 88; see also Juvenile Instructor, 1 June 1880, 132.

  8.   8.

    “Use the Scriptures, Teach with Power,” Church News, 21 Nov. 1987, 4.