125 Years of the Sunday Classroom


A variety of personalities and programs have left their imprint on the Latter-day Saint Sunday School since that December 125 years ago when Richard Ballantyne summoned neighborhood children to a Bible class in his home in the Salt Lake Valley.

The Sunday Schools—those in the Great Basin as well as those in the British Mission and Nauvoo—were mostly independent endeavors in the 1840s and ’50s. All, however, sought to accomplish what has since become a major Sunday School objective: “Teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all who may be reached by our efforts.”

In answering the call to disseminate gospel instruction to members, the Sunday School has passed through four successive stages: (1) the pioneering years mentioned above; (2) unification, as the organization matured from 1865 until about 1890; (3) broadening of existing programs and paying fresh attention to improving gospel teaching during the next 40 years; and (4) coordination and correlation refinements since about 1930.

In the second phase, George Q. Cannon’s influence induced the Sunday School to unify under central priesthood direction. Envisioning a cooperative network of local schools, the young apostle organized the Parent Sunday School Union in 1867. Soon renamed the Deseret Sunday School Union, this agency helped establish new Sunday Schools churchwide, issued circulars on procedures, and appointed recruitment missionaries to build enrollment. By 1872 membership topped 14,000.

Elder Cannon established the semi-monthly Juvenile Instructor to provide appropriate reading material for Latter-day Saint children; later, with others on the central Sunday School board, he issued maps, pictures, leaflets, and children’s books. Brief lesson outlines gradually helped shift the focus from memorization to biography and history in the scriptures. By the late 1880s, “reading ’round” from the scriptures had given way to discussions and application of gospel topics.

In 1877 President Brigham Young approved music education (the ten-minute practice time) and sacrament for the children. Beginning in 1891, Ogden residents conducted classes at the territorial school for deaf-mutes and the blind.

In phase three, under the influence of such educators as Karl G. Maeser, Joseph M. Tanner, and David O. McKay, the Sunday School established formal teacher training courses. Beginning in 1892 as an experiment at Brigham Young Academy at Provo, Utah, these classes were soon part of every ward’s Sabbath schedule. Innovative leaders in the 1890s also published comprehensive officers handbooks and conducted stake and general Sunday School conferences and model Sunday Schools. Stake boards were established soon after 1900 to help train local workers. By 1915 the Sunday School offered its own specially written teacher trainer manuals and was educating teachers for other auxiliaries and priesthood quorums.

The early twentieth century revealed other indications of the Sunday School’s determination to make its teaching effective. Having previously moved from the one-room school to the graded class, the Sunday School now refined its grades, added kindergartens, instigated annual promotions, and embraced adult education. The Parents Class, designed to help parents fulfill teaching responsibilities in the home, first succeeded in the Ogden Utah Weber Stake (formerly Weber Stake) and was later authorized for Sunday Schools in 1906. Another important landmark was the development, a decade later, of a 16-year-long curriculum in Church scripture and history, with lesson textbooks replacing outlines.

The fourth period of Sunday School history, one of coordination and refinement, began early in the twentieth century with attempts to define overlapping jurisdictions of Church agencies. These curriculum reviews uniformly confirmed the Sunday School in its specialization: while other auxiliaries appropriately emphasized recreation, moral training, or cultural activity, the Sunday School served as the major vehicle for teaching Church history and doctrine.

In 1928, while President David O. McKay was Sunday School superintendent, a ten-year experiment in correlation began. Priesthood quorums and the Sunday School joined in a single two-hour meeting, the adults in a new Gospel Doctrine class and younger members in Aaronic Priesthood age groups. In 1934, the Church formally recognized Junior Sunday School as part of the program. The quarterly lesson manual also appeared in this experimental decade.

Even though the “Church Sunday School” experiment ended in 1937, the principle of priesthood correlation lingered, reasserting itself in the studies of the 1960s. Meanwhile, Sunday Schools in the 1940s and ’50s coordinated enlistment work with priesthood quorums, created teachers’ supplements by removing lesson departments from the Instructor, and diversified the adult curriculum by adopting genealogical training, reviving the Family Relations class, and introducing an Investigators course.

In 1971 Russell M. Nelson was called as Sunday School president with counselors Joseph B. Wirthlin and Richard L. Warner, the “Deseret Sunday School Union” was renamed Sunday School, the presiding officer’s title was changed from superintendent to president, and an eight-year correlated curriculum study of the scriptures for adults was started.

[photo] Turn of the century Sunday School class in Salt Lake City.

[photo] Sunday School lessons for parents published in 1908.

Glen M. Leonard is senior historical associate in the Church Historical Department.