Rocky Mountain Sunday School


This December marks the 125th birthday of the first Sunday School meeting in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, December 9, 1849. Since that happy Sabbath morning, when almost thirty boys and girls came to Richard Ballantyne’s home for Sunday School, many thousands of Latter-day Saints around the world have learned much from their Sunday School teachers about the gospel and the love that Jesus has for all of us.

A hailstorm had flattened Richard Ballantyne’s first wheat crop in the Salt Lake Valley, leaving just a few precious stalks to be gathered in the fall. He and his wife Huldah and their baby had come too late in the season the year before to plant any crops, so they were counting on this year’s wheat harvest to help them through the winter.

In the midst of his discouragement, Richard had an unusual impression. His mind drifted back to his homeland in Scotland where he was converted to the Church. He thought of the sooty ragamuffins who played on Sunday in the streets of the little village of Fawns. Richard had organized a small Sunday School there for these boys and girls and had taught them about Jesus.

Now, in this new land and in this desert country that had been so hard to tame, Richard thought of the pioneer children. He loved the gospel and he loved to teach boys and girls. In his own words Richard Ballantyne expressed his feelings this way:

“I felt that the gospel was too precious to myself to be withheld from the children; they ought to have the privileges of gospel teaching, and that was the main purpose: to teach them the gospel.”

Richard told his bishop that he would like to start a Sunday School. The bishop and the General Authorities of the Church all encouraged him in his plans. Loading everything they owned into two wagons, Richard and his family moved out of the Old Fort to a building lot one block west and three blocks south of the proposed Salt Lake Temple site. They built a single room to be used as a “summer kitchen” and lived in one covered wagon. Their other wagon was used for storage.

Any time that wasn’t needed to provide food and clothing for his family, Richard spent working on the addition to his little one-room home that was to be used for a meetinghouse. He went to Millcreek Canyon, cut down trees, and hauled the logs to a mill to be sawed into lumber. From a quarry in Red Butte Canyon, he brought sandstone for the foundation and sills. Adobe bricks for the walls were obtained from a brickyard west of the city.

The Sunday School room was twenty feet long and eighteen feet wide and had plastered walls inside and adobe walls outside, plank flooring, and a roof of logs and boards covered with several inches of dirt. The room was lighted by two windows in front and a window and half-glass door on the south side. Heat came from a large fireplace, and the benches were made of slabbed timber.

Sister Ballantyne chose the music for the Sunday School, made suggestions on the lessons, and helped give the room a cozy and welcome atmosphere.

Outside, Richard planted cottonwood trees for shade and attractive shrubs and vines. He also built a pole fence around the house. By the time winter came, the building was completed and the bearded Scotsman invited the children in the neighborhood to his new home for Sunday School.

At eight o’clock Sunday morning, December 9, 1849, about thirty children between the ages of eight and thirteen stamped the snow off their shoes and trooped into Sunday School where a warm fire and Richard Ballantyne greeted them. With shining eyes he called the class to order. After a song, he gave a sincere prayer and dedicated the room to teaching children the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[illustration] Painting by Arnold Friberg