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Sunday School Libraries and Lessons

Sunday School Libraries and Lessons

by Laurie Block, Disability History Museum Staff

At the beginning of the 19th century, many Americans were concerned about the moral education of children. With the constitutional separation of Church and State, many asked: whose job is it to teach values?

The American Sunday School Movement was an important cultural institution specifically set up to provide citizens with opportunities for Christian moral education. Leaders of this movement lamented the fact that people who, like Horace Mann, were advocates of the “free common school” — the American Public school system — neglected the teaching of Christian moral values in favor of training the intellect.

Among the American Sunday School Union’s most successful products — in terms of numbers of books, pamphlets, and tracts produced, distributed, and used by Sunday School teachers — were volumes of children’s literature. Most of them instructed young people on how to behave. Many were about death, temperance, being useful and moral while living in urban settings — in other words, how to avoid vice, prostitution, and sloth. The tales advocated honesty and compassion, though they were often vehemently anti-Catholic.

A notable number of stories in this genre were about chronic illness and disability — how to behave towards the person with a disability and how to behave if you were the person with a disability. Children with disabilities were instructed to accept their circumstances and their suffering as the will of God. They were expected to be patient, uncomplaining, humble, and, if possible, to make themselves useful. Their non-disabled peers were instructed to be compassionate, benevolent, pitying towards persons with disabilities, and to also humbly accept what happens to their friends and relatives as the will of God. All who can learn to read, should. Then they can be comforted by God’s word, the Bible.

“Willie Wishing To Be Useful,” “Jessie Allen,” and “John Ellard: The Newsboy” are all examples of this genre. John Ellard is a story based on a real boy’s life.

To all who came into the Sunday School classroom, this literature taught the attitudes and values that an influential group of Americans — Protestant clergy and lay teachers — placed on the experience of disability.

Source:  Laurie Block, “Sunday School Libraries and Lessons,” Disability History Museum, (February 12, 2014).

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