Although a few Sunday School groups met before the Church’s pioneer exodus began in 1847, the Sunday School program really was launched when Scottish immigrant Richard Ballantyne organized a Sunday School in his Salt Lake City home in 1849. Other independent Sunday Schools subsequently spread throughout the Church, and in 1867 a central Sunday School organization was formalized.
Early members put a tremendous amount of work into laying the foundations for Sunday School. Specially called missionaries traveled throughout the Church to teach local members how to lead successful Sunday Schools. A periodical that focused on Sunday School was published, and training meetings were frequently held, including general conference sessions devoted to Sunday School. President Brigham Young charged the Sunday Schools to study the standard works, and that tradition continues today.
The following contemporary accounts of members who have been powerfully influenced by Sunday School are presented to commemorate Sunday School’s 150th anniversary.
Elder Mark E. Petersen (1900–1984) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles summed up Sunday School’s impact: “Sunday School is everybody’s business! It is also everybody’s responsibility. Everyone needs it, and all should have it.
“It creates stronger homes and better citizens. It develops faith where previously there was no faith, and it strengthens the testimonies of those who already believe.
“It is an inspired organization, not only in its inception, but also in its present operation. It can be a mighty saving power in the lives of all who attend” (“Sunday School Is Everybody’s Business,” Ensign, Dec. 1974, 8).
A Complete Turnaround
During high school, one of my sons withdrew more and more from our family. He resented authority of any kind, and he associated with friends whose standards did not match those of our family. He dutifully attended church, but he had no light in his eyes or enthusiasm for the gospel.
The summer after he graduated from high school, he struggled with important decisions about his future. Instead of wanting to prepare for a mission, he set goals to earn money for a car and college. One Sunday in July he chose to attend Sunday School instead of ducking out after sacrament meeting as he often did. The lesson that day was about serving missions.
Our son later told us he had never felt the Holy Ghost so forcefully as during that lesson. The effect on him was a complete turnaround. Immediately after Sunday School, he found the bishop and told him of his desire to serve a mission. In his farewell talk about a year later, he shared a letter his Sunday School teacher, Shelly Parcell, had written him after she learned of his decision to serve a mission.
In her letter, Sister Parcell described how she struggled to plan a lesson for that Sunday based on Doctrine and Covenants 71–75 and 77. She decided on Saturday evening to focus on the prophecies from the book of Revelation as discussed in Doctrine and Covenants 77, but she wasn’t happy with that plan. “I didn’t sleep well at all that night,” she wrote. “Every time I woke up, the lesson for the following day was on my mind. The overpowering thought was, What will I teach? What do they need to learn? Where is the lesson?”
On Sunday morning, Sister Parcell looked over the assigned scriptures one more time, and a lesson about missionary service finally took shape in her mind. “I knew then without a doubt that the Lord had a message for somebody in our class,” she wrote. “I had almost missed it, and the Lord knew it was so important that He had to disrupt my sleep.” She continued: “During the lesson the Spirit was very strong, and I felt like the message was getting through. I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember things coming out that I hadn’t planned on, and I know the Spirit took over.”
Shelly Parcell created a ripple effect. As our son prepared for his mission, he shared his testimony with his older brother, who also came to know for himself the truthfulness of the gospel. They entered the mission field within months of each other and now share the gospel as missionaries in Peru and Mexico. I will always remember Shelly Parcell and how her faithfulness in serving as a Sunday School teacher greatly blessed our family.—, Muncie, Indiana
Building a Love of the Scriptures
Mixed in with assorted impressions from my teenage years are memories of a Sunday School teacher named Brother Rick. He was excited about life and the gospel, and his returned-missionary zeal couldn’t help but rub off on his students.
Bursting with excitement one Sunday, Brother Rick told us he had started memorizing a scripture a day. He was enthused about learning the scriptures better this way, and he encouraged us to try it also. He assured us that memorizing a scripture a day was not as hard as it sounded; it took just a few minutes, followed by an effort to think about that day’s scripture during leisure moments that were otherwise lost. He promised us that the Spirit would come into our lives as we became more involved with the scriptures.
I was so impressed with Brother Rick’s challenge that I decided I would give it a try. We were studying the Book of Mormon that year in seminary, so I determined to memorize the 40 Scripture Mastery scriptures over the next 40 days. To my surprise, I found that with a little effort, in just a few minutes I could repeat a scripture word for word. The problem, I found, was retention: I would all but forget the scripture by the next day. Consequently, when I finished the first 40 days I decided to spend the next 40 days repeating my memorization of the seminary scriptures. After several successive 40-day efforts, I found I really did have the 40 scriptures memorized, and I eventually memorized the 40 Scripture Mastery passages for the Doctrine and Covenants and Old and New Testaments as well.
Brother Rick’s enjoyable weekly lessons in Sunday School not only helped me look forward to going to church but also motivated me to carry on with my memorizing goal when the press of other matters tried to crowd out my scripture of the day. After all, if Brother Rick could keep doing it, why couldn’t I? Oddly enough, I never told him about my scripture memorizing. He doesn’t know how much those scriptures helped me on my mission and over the years since then. He may have only dim memories of the Sunday School class he taught years ago, but I will always be thankful for the spiritual boost he gave me every week and the love of the scriptures he helped build in my life.—, St. George, Utah
Uplifted at a Time of Grief
On a plane to Los Angeles to attend my mother’s funeral, I turned to the Book of Mormon to distract myself from my sorrow and grief. I decided to read the chapters I was scheduled to teach in Gospel Doctrine the next Sunday. In Alma 40:1, I read, “Now my son, here is somewhat more I would say unto thee; for I perceive that thy mind is worried concerning the resurrection of the dead.”
I closed the scriptures and dropped them into the empty seat next to me. As tears streamed down my face, I thought, How can I teach about the Resurrection when my dear mom is dead? Yes, I had a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I knew that He is our Savior and that He brought to pass the Resurrection. But my emotions were raw, and teaching about the reality of the Resurrection would be emotionally draining. I decided I wasn’t ready for that challenge; I would ask the other Gospel Doctrine teacher to teach two weeks in a row.
Struggling with my feelings, I thought to myself, What if there were no Resurrection? As I imagined the pain and loss I would feel if I believed I would never see my mom again, never hear her voice, or never again be held in her arms, a feeling of almost overwhelming despair filled my soul.
I picked up the Book of Mormon again and continued reading in Alma 40: “Behold, I say unto you, that there is no resurrection … until after the coming of Christ. Behold, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead” (Alma 40:2–3). Marvelous joy filled my soul, and the Spirit bore witness to me that the Resurrection is real. At that moment, I knew I would teach my Sunday School class about the miracle of Resurrection.
I had many opportunities that year to share with my Gospel Doctrine class the truths found in the Book of Mormon and add my witness to those of ancient prophets, but the greatest lesson I learned was on the way to my mother’s funeral. Because of my involvement in Sunday School, the peace and comfort of the Spirit bore witness to me at a time of great need.—, Salt Lake City, Utah
Making Time for a Boy
My start in the gospel came about in no small part because of my first Sunday School teacher, whose impact on my life cannot be measured.
In the summer of 1972, I was a 15-year-old boy on scholarship at a summer camp in New York state. One emphasis of the camp was learning about different cultures, so I began attending—in jeans and sneakers—the services of an unusual religion practiced by a few of the campers and staff. Before the camp, I had never met a Latter-day Saint.
I was not considered to be a particularly good prospect as an investigator: I was a New York City street kid who attended a parochial school and was pondering entering the clergy. But I liked learning, and I took the Gospel Essentials class seriously, reading every assignment and bringing up questions during class. The teacher, a convert named Larry who worked during the week as a fast-food manager, was clearly a prayerful person with a strong, spiritual testimony of the truths contained in the scriptures.
What really touched me about Larry was his willingness to go the extra mile with me. He would meet me before or after class to go over my questions. He was completely accepting and tolerant, and sometimes he would shelve questions until the following week so he could have some time to study them at home. Nothing was too trivial; if it was important to me, it was important to Larry. Through his help and the help of others, I finally understood enough about the gospel to join the Church.
Whenever I have the opportunity to teach, I try to emulate Larry’s example. I strive to gain a thorough grounding in the scriptures, seek after the Spirit, honor each person regardless of earthly station, and accept all honest questions as legitimate. His example taught me that the gospel of truth need fear no question. By giving me so much personal attention and teaching, my first Sunday School teacher emulated the love of the Savior.—, West Hartford, Connecticut
Foundation for a Career
I remember how frightened I was during my first years of teaching Gospel Doctrine. As I would stand up to teach the material I had so carefully prepared, I would have copious notes, a knot in my stomach, and a blur of people before me. But my supportive classes always listened patiently, became involved in discussions, and helped fill in the blanks in areas where I was less familiar.
In my efforts to be prepared, it seemed I always had my scriptures open. I read as I nursed my babies, kneaded bread, cut vegetables, or did anything else that didn’t take a lot of conscious thought. As I was working on a lesson, frequently I would awake in the night with new understanding. I filled notebooks with concepts and ideas for lessons. During my times of study and prayer, I received many witnesses that were so clear and direct I could not doubt their reality.
Some time ago I was thrust into a position in which I had to establish a career on rather short notice. Although I had no college degree or special skills, I felt certain the Lord would show me what to do and help me with this problem. When I answered a newspaper ad for a promising job, I listed several skills I had acquired from teaching Sunday School and other adult classes. I was hired, and over the years I have been blessed to build a strong career based on the foundation of my teaching experiences in the Church.
Some of the direct benefits I have gained from teaching Sunday School include learning to study and to be able to organize and evaluate large amounts of information, developing sufficient poise and confidence to speak to large groups of people without being fearful, listening to different opinions and perspectives and helping groups come to a mutual understanding, and being sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost in all facets of my life. I have a deep love for Sunday School because of the personal growth it has allowed me to develop.—, Las Vegas, Nevada
The Most Important Thing
After I was called to teach a single-adult Gospel Doctrine class, I found that when I diligently studied the scriptures and asked Heavenly Father to open my understanding, I was able to teach with the influence of the Holy Ghost. Around that same time, I was involved in a long-distance relationship with a man I thought could be the one I would marry. When a wonderful job opportunity arose near where he lived, I felt my prayers were answered. Soon I was living by myself in a tiny apartment over 300 miles away from my family and friends. However, to my dismay this man decided to end our relationship.
During the next few weeks, I knelt in prayer several times a day. It scared me to find myself fighting fear, despair, and depression harder than I ever had before. Part of me wanted to give up and return home to the security of my family and my old job. I pleaded with Heavenly Father to help me find some way to pull myself upward again and keep my mind off my problems and fears.
Before long, a new single-adult ward was created in that area. One Sunday, as I sat numbly in sacrament meeting while the new bishop read aloud some callings, a thought made me sit up straight: Hadn’t I been truly happy and invigorated when I was serving as a Sunday School teacher? I began praying for Heavenly Father to help the bishopric know how much I needed such a calling in my life again.
As I prayed, however, I worried that it was selfish to ask for my favorite calling. I also worried that the bishopric didn’t know me well enough to think of me for a teaching position. But I felt a strong desire to serve others with my teaching gift, and I believed that teaching would help me overcome my discouragement.
Two weeks went by, and it seemed to me that all the callings in the new ward were filled. I tried to console myself with the fact that at least I’d had something good to hope for, which had helped me somewhat to keep my fearful thoughts at bay. When I received a phone call to meet with a bishopric counselor, I felt happy to have any calling extended to me.
“We’ve prayed a lot about our teachers in this new ward,” the counselor said. “We feel strongly that we need to ask if you’d be willing to accept a calling to be one of the Sunday School teachers.”
I was surprised, thrilled, and grateful. As I immersed myself in Sunday School, my problems seemed to shrink into a more manageable size rather than loom over me like a prospective avalanche. I soon realized the most important thing about Sunday School: This is the one meeting each week in which we all gather together as brothers and sisters in the Church and both listen and share as we explore the scriptures and the gospel. I love what happens when class members add to what a teacher prepares, which helps the Spirit edify everyone. I’m grateful for Sunday School!—, St. George, Utah