By John Angell James, 1816
To the success of any exertions whatever, it is necessary that the object to which they are to be directed, should be distinctly understood. Any confusion on this point, will be attended with a fluctuation of design, and an imbecility of endeavor, but ill calculated to ensure success.
There is just ground of apprehension, that many who are engaged in the work of Sunday School instruction, are but imperfectly acquainted with its ultimate end.
It is to be feared concerning some, that in giving their assistance to this cause, nothing further enters into their view, than communicating to the children an ability to read and write. In the estimation of such people, these sabbath institutions seem to rank no higher than the ordinary schools, where the offspring of the poor receive the elements of the most common education. Provided therefore they can assist their pupils to read with tolerable facility, and especially if they can teach him to write, they attain the highest object of their desires, or expectations. How will such teachers be surprised, when I inform them that the top-stone of their hopes is but the foundation of their duties; and that the highest elevation of their purposes, is but the very beginning of the ascent, which leads to the summit of the institution.
I admit that where no higher aim than this is taken, though very far below the proper mark, much benefit is likely to accrue to the children themselves, to their immediate connections, and to society at large. Where no effort to form the character, and nothing more in fact is done, than simply to communicate the art of reading, a vast advantage is conferred upon the children of the poor. It is the testimony of inspiration "that for the soul to be without knowledge is not good," and the whole history of man confirms the truth of the remark. The very first rudiments of knowledge, independently of any systematic attempt to improve the character, must have certainly a moral tendency. In the very lowest elements of education, the soul experiences an elevation, and however it may be precipitated back again by the violence of its depravity, begins to ascend from the regions of sense. Ignorance debases and degrades the mind. It not only enslaves the intellect, but dims the eye by which the human conscience traces the natural distinction between right and wrong. "On the contrary," says Mr. Hall, "knowledge expands the mind, exalts the faculties, refines the taste for pleasure, and in relation to moral good, by multiplying the mental resources, it has a tendency to elevate the character, and in some measure to correct, and subdue the taste for gross sensuality." From hence it is obvious, that the very least and lowest end which, as Sunday School teachers, you can propose to yourselves in your labors, is fraught with benefits to the interests of the poor. I wish however to remind you, that simply to teach the art of reading, is the least and lowest end you can contemplate.
Others, as the ultimate object of their efforts, connect with the rudiments of knowledge, considerable attention to habits of order, industry, and morality. They are most laudably anxious to form the character of the children, so as that they may rise into life an industrious, orderly, and sober race. This is of vast importance, and subordinate only to what I shall afterwards propose as the ultimate end of all your endeavors. Much of the peace, comfort, and safety of the community depend upon the character, and the habits of the poor. If society be compared to the human frame, they are the feet and the hands, and how much do the ease and welfare of the whole body depend upon the healthy state of the extremities. To tame the ferocity of their unsubdued passions; to repress the excessive crudeness of their manners; to chasten the disgusting and demoralizing obscenity of their language; to subdue the stubborn rebellion of their wills; to render them honest, obedient, courteous, industrious, submissive, and orderly—should be an object of great desire with all who are engaged in the work of Sunday School instruction. It should be your ceaseless effort to reform the vices, to heal the disorders, and exalt the whole character of the lower classes of society, by training up their offspring in "whatever things are true; whatever things are honest; whatever things are just; whatever things are pure; whatever things are lovely; whatever things are of good report." Then, to use the beautiful imagery of the prophet, "instead of the thorn, shall come up the fir tree, and instead of the briar, shall come up the myrtle tree."
Pleasing and important as such an object really is; delightful as it is to produce in the bosom of a poor man a taste for reading, together with a habit of thinking; and thus teach him to find entertainment at home, without being tempted to repair to the ale-house; delightful as it is to bring him into communion with the world of reason, and help him, by the joys of intellect, to soften the rigors of corporeal toil; delightful as it is to teach him to respect himself, and secure the respect of others, by industrious, frugal, and peaceful habits; to assist him to become the instructor of his own domestic circle, and thus to raise him in their estimation; in short, delightful as it is, to strip poverty of its terrors, and render it at least respectable by clothing it with moral worth—this of itself, and alone, is far below the ultimate object of your exertions. Higher even than this you must look for the summit of your hopes. A man may be all that I have represented; he may be industrious, orderly, moral, and useful in his habits, and still after all be destitute of "that faith and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord."
Addressing you as believers in all that revelation teaches concerning the nature, condition, and destiny of man, I must point your attention to an object which stands on higher ground than any we have yet contemplated. It is for you to consider, that everyone of the children, which are every Sabbath beneath your care, carries in his bosom, a SOUL as valuable and as durable as that which the Creator has lodged in your own bosom. Neither poverty, ignorance, nor vice, can sever the tie which binds man to immortality. Every human body is the residence of an immortal spirit, and however diminutive by childhood, or dark by ignorance, or base by poverty, or filthy by vice the hovel might appear, a deathless inhabitant will be found within. Every child that passes the threshold of your school on a Sunday morning, carries to your care, and confides to your ability, a SOUL, compared with whose worth the sun is a bauble; and with whose existence time itself is but as the twinkling of an eye.
And as these poor children partake in common with you in the dignity of immortality, so do they also in the degradation and ruin of the fall. The common taint of human depravity has polluted their hearts, as well as yours. They, like you, in consequence of sin, are under the curse, and stand equally exposed to everlasting misery. To them however the gracious scheme of redeeming mercy extends its blessings, and indeed by the express provisions of the gospel charter they stand first among the objects to whom salvation is to be presented; "for the poor have the gospel preached to them." Denied neither the privileges of immortality, nor the opportunity of eternal happiness, so neither are they exempt from the obligations of religion. Without the duties required in your own case, in order to eternal life, they will never possess it. Faith, repentance, and holiness; or in other words, regeneration, justification, and sanctification, are as indispensable in their case, as in yours. Their danger of losing all the rich blessings of salvation, unless great exertions be made to instruct and interest their minds, is imminent, and obvious. Dwelling in those walks of life where sin, in its most naked and polluted form, spreads destruction around—corrupted by their neighbors—nursed and nurtured in vice, in many cases by the examples of their parents—in manufacturing districts, inhaling the moral contamination with which the atmosphere of almost every workshop is laden; how rapid is the growth of original corruption; how luxuriant the harvest of actual transgressions which springs from it—how little likely, without extraordinary efforts, are these unhappy youths, to enter "the narrow path that leads to eternal life."
Such are the children which flock every Sabbath to the schools where you are carrying on the business of instruction. Look round upon the crowd of little immortals, by whom you are constantly encircled every week; view them in the light, which the rays of inspired truth diffuse over their circumstances; follow them in imagination not only into the ranks of society, to act their humbler part in the great drama of human life; but follow there down into that valley, gloomy with the shadows of death, and from which they must come forth, "those who have done well, to everlasting life; but those who have done evil, to everlasting shame and contempt," and while you see them plunging into the bottomless pit, or soaring away to the celestial city, say, what should be the ultimate object of a Sunday School teacher's exertion?
You are now quite prepared to assent to my opinion on this subject, when I thus state it. The ultimate object of a Sunday School teacher should be in humble dependence upon divine grace, to impart that religious knowledge; to produce those religious impressions; and to form those religious habits, in the minds of the children, which shall be crowned with the SALVATION OF THEIR IMMORTAL SOULS. Or, in other words, to be instrumental in producing that conviction of sin; that repentance towards God; that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; that habitual subjection in heart and life to the authority of the scriptures, which constitute at once the form and power of GENUINE GODLINESS.
Here then you see your object, and you perceive that it includes every other in itself. To aim at anything lower than this, as your last, and largest purpose; to be content with only some general improvement of character, when you are encouraged to hope for an entire renovation of the heart—or merely with the formation of moral habits, when such as are truly pious may be expected, is to conduct the objects of your benevolence with decency down into the grave, without attempting to provide them with the means of a glorious resurrection out of it. To train them up in the way of sincere and undefiled religion, is an object of such immense importance, that compared with this, an ability to read and write, or even all the elegant refinements of life, have not the weight of a feather in their destiny. And the truth must be told, that wherever a religious education is neglected, the mere tendency of knowledge to the production of moral good, is, in most cases, very lamentably and successfully counteracted, by the dreadful power of human depravity.
Sunday Schools, to be contemplated in their true light, should be viewed as nurseries for the church of God; as bearing an intimate connection with the unseen world—and as ultimately intended to people the realms of glory with "the spirits of just men made perfect." To judge of their value by any lower estimate; to view them merely as adapted to the perishing interests of mortality, is to cast the institution into the balances of atheism; to weigh them upon the sepulcher; and to pronounce upon their value, without throwing eternity into the scale.
THE SALVATION OF THE IMMORTAL SOUL, a phrase than which one more sublime, or more interesting, can never drop from the lips or the pen of man, describes your utmost, and noblest purpose.
In what way this object is most likely to be obtained remains now to be considered.
1. Labor to impart to the children, as speedily as possible, a very correct method of reading.
This is the first thing to be attended to, and as it is the basis of all which is to follow, it should be done well. Considering an ability to read, as I do every other part of Sunday School tuition, as a means for the production of spiritual and moral good, I view it as of immense importance that the children should be rendered as perfect as possible in this initiatory art. Reading is a powerful auxiliary to the progress of piety and virtue, but it is attractive only when it is performed with facility; and therefore to allure the children to the pages of revelation, or the perusal of other good books, it is necessary to render their access as smooth as possible. If they have often to spell a word, and still oftener to pass by a word which they cannot spell, they will either be much impeded in their instruction, or perhaps give up the matter in utter despair. If they do not acquire a tolerable facility in reading while they are at the school, few have the courage, the confidence, or perseverance, to pursue a course of self-tuition after they leave it. It is of vast moment therefore that you should take peculiar pains in this preliminary step of a religious education of the children, in order that they may feel all that inducement to read, which arises from the consciousness of being able to do it with ease and correctness. I am apprehensive, that admonition is exceedingly necessary on this head, and that very many of the scholars leave our institution, most lamentably lacking in this very ground-work of instruction.
2. You are to seek the great object of your labors, by a course of religious instruction, judiciously adapted to the capacity of the children.
I take it for granted that the business of every school is so arranged, as to allow to the teachers a sufficient opportunity for explaining, and enforcing the principles of religion.
And here I think it right to remark that, as the very groundwork of religious instruction, it is of vast importance to produce, even from its commencement, a sort of trembling reverence for the authority of Scriptural revelation. From the time a child is capable of receiving a sentiment on religion, he should be made to feel the obligation of the word of God upon his understanding and conscience. The first idea which should be communicated to his mind, and which in every subsequent stage of education should be nursed and nurtured into a conviction inseparable from all his moral feelings, is that the bible is and must be true; and that however singular, however beyond the range of our experience, or however miraculous any of its facts might be; and however incomprehensible are some of its doctrines, still they are all to be implicitly believed, because they are declared in the word of God—so that one of the earliest, and strongest associations of their minds, shall be formed between truth, and everything contained in the holy scriptures.
From the beginning they should be instructed that all our reasonings, and views, and feelings, are to be brought into subjection to the inspired volume; and that from this authority, in matters of religion, there does, and can lie no appeal. In order to this, the evidences of revealed truth should be laid before them in a familiar manner; and even before they are capable of estimating the weight of proofs, we should endeavor to produce a powerful presupposition in behalf of the bible. The reason for my insisting so much on this, is a conviction, that among the lower classes of society, there is a great deal of that low and ignorant skepticism which is produced in minds incapable of reasoning, by ridiculing facts that are beyond their experience, and truths that are above their comprehension. There is a sort of practical and vulgar infidelity, which, like a spider amidst the gloom and filth of a hovel, weaves its toils in the dwellings of the poor, and who, in consequence of not being well grounded in the persuasion that the bible must be true, whatever corrupt minds may say against it, often fall into the snare, and become its hapless victims.
What, therefore, I enjoin, is to endeavor that the children's minds may be so rooted and grounded in the conviction of the truth of revelation, that when a profane and artful opposer of the scriptures shall attempt insidiously to shake their faith, by ridiculing any of the facts or sentiments of the sacred volume, they may shudder at the insinuation, and retire instinctively to the shelter of this immoveable prepossession, the bible must be true.
Let it be an object of solicitude with you to impart in your pupils a correct view of the leading truths of revelation. You know how to treat the insinuation, that the doctrines of the gospel are quite unnecessary in the instruction of children, and that their attention should be exclusively confined to its moral precepts. Explain to them the moral attributes of the great GOD; his holiness as opposed to all iniquity—his truth as manifested in the accomplishment of his word—his mercy which inclines him to pity the miserable. Teach them the purity of his LAW as pronouncing condemnation on a sinful thought. Endeavor to make them understand the exceeding sinfulness of SIN, as breaking through all the obligations imposed upon the conscience by the majesty and goodness of God. Strive to lead them to a knowledge of the total corruption of their nature, as the source and spring of their actual transgressions. Unfold to them their situation, as under the wrath of God on account of their sins. Show them their inability, either to atone for their guilt or renovate their nature. Lead them to CALVARY, and develope the design of the Savior's death as a sacrifice for sin, and teach them to rely upon his merits alone for salvation. Direct them to the HOLY SPIRIT as the fountain of grace and strength for the renewal of their hearts. In connection with this, lay before them all the branches of Christian DUTY; those which relate to God, such as faith, repentance, love, obedience, and prayer; and those which relate to man, as obedience to parents, honesty to their employers, kindness to all. Enforce upon them the obligations of public worship. Particularly impress upon them, that genuine religion, while it is founded on a belief of God's word, does not consist merely of abstract feelings, or occasional duties, but in a principle of submission to the revealed will of Jehovah, implanted deep in the human heart, pervading the conduct, and spreading over the whole character, so as to form a holy, moral, useful, happy man.
Such are the topics which you are to illustrate to the children; unquestionably the most important which can engage their attention. Much however depends on the METHOD you adopt for explaining them.
Of course, you should allot a portion of time to the work of catechism. The experience of all ages bears testimony to the utility of this plan. If well improved, it affords a most favorable opportunity for communicating religious knowledge. To accomplish this end, it is necessary that you should do more than simply ask the questions, and receive the answers as they are ranged in the book. To arrest and engage the minds of the children, who consider it generally as nothing more than a school exercise, you must descend to familiar explanation. Every answer should be regarded as a text, which, by a few plain short remarks, you should illustrate to their understanding, and enforce upon their conscience. It would be found an excellent method to explain one sabbath, what is to be committed to memory during the week, and repeated as a task the next. As we always learn with greater ease and pleasure what we understand, this would facilitate the business of memory, and at the same time, through the power of association, would perpetuate the ideas of the judgment, by enabling the children to recall at home, what then had been taught at school. This would prepare them for examination, which should always take place when called upon to repeat the answers which had been previously explained.
It would greatly aid the business of religious instruction, if the children were encouraged to commit to memory hymns, and portions of the word of God; especially the latter. The measure and the rhyme of poetry, have attractions which, without great care on the part of the teacher, are likely to induce a preference for hymns. The inspired volume, however, should be elevated in their estimation above every other book. The very words, as well as sentiments of revelation, have a power and energy, which the language of uninspired authors, however scriptural their opinions, does not possess. Divine truth, expressed in divinely inspired language, often strikes upon the conscience with a force which nothing else would produce. As the children are likely to be influenced by other motives than a simple regard to their improvement, the discretion of the teachers should often be employed in selecting suitable passages of scripture to be learned; especially remembering that, as whatever is committed to memory should be briefly explained to the judgment, they should be more anxious for their pupils to learn well than to learn much.
In a little work which I have lately read, there is a passage which admirably explains my meaning and views. The writer is delineating the character, and describing the conduct, of a good teacher.
"Timothy called up his class, and the children repeated, each, one verse in rotation, the following passage, which they had previously committed to memory—
"But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:11-14)
"Timothy heard his children repeat this passage distinctly, and with an audible voice. And now he was anxious to learn whether they understood its meaning; he therefore affectionately asked them the following questions; "Can you tell me, my dear boy (beginning with the first boy in the class) who is meant by the king in this passage?" "The Lord Jesus Christ." "And why is he called a king?" "Because he has all power and authority." "Is not the Lord Jesus, God as well as man?" "Yes; the bible tells me the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us." "Does Jesus Christ know all our hearts?" "Yes; he that formed my spirit must be intimately acquainted with it."—"Does the Lord Jesus take particular notice of those who profess to be his people?" "Yes; he came into see the guests." "Is he now present with us?" "Yes." "Yes, my dear children, the Lord Jesus is now beholding each of us. He sees who among you is giving heed, and who is inattentive. He marks that little boy who listens to his voice; but he is greatly offended with those who are whispering and do not regard the truths of his holy word." "What did the king see when he came in to view the guests?" "He saw there a man which had not a wedding garment." "Can you tell me what is meant by the wedding garment?" "It means the righteousness of Jesus Christ." "Are sinners naked who are not clothed with this robe"' "Yes; our own righteousness are as filthy rags." "What is meant by our own righteousness?" "Our own good works." "Will not these entitle us to the favor of God?" "No; God's law is perfect, and we can do nothing without a mixture of sin." "Will you inform me, my dear boy, what you understand by Christ's righteousness?" "His obedience unto death in our place." "What did the Lord Jesus say to the man who had no wedding garment?" "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?" "Will not God, in the great day, call sinners to a strict account?" "Yes." "Will they then be able to excuse themselves?" "No; like this man, they will be speechless." "What shall be done to those who have not believed in Jesus?" "The king will say to his servants, bind them hand and foot, and cast them into outer darkness." "Are sinners able to resist the judgment of God?" "No." "No, my dear children; they who at last come into condemnation, like this man, shall never be able to resist it; like this man, who is bound hand and foot, they can never make their escape. Gladly would they wish the rocks and the mountains to fall on them, and hide them from the face of the judge; but even this desire shall not be granted; they must endure the punishment of their iniquities." "Are those who die in sin deprived of the enjoyment of Jesus Christ, and holy angels?" "Yes; the king orders them to be taken away." "Where does he command them to be cast?" "Into outer darkness." "Children are generally afraid to be left in the dark. But, oh, what must it be to be cast forever into the thickest darkness! Think of it. You are happy when you see the morning sun; but no morning shall ever rise on those miserable creatures who die in a state of enmity to Jesus Christ." "How shall they be employed in his darkness?" "In weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth." "Do not these terms express great anguish?" "Yes; they will forever lament that they rejected the salvation of Jesus Christ." "Yes, my dear children, and if any of you follow their example you will share in their punishment." "Must not all of us soon appear before the judgment seat of Christ?" "Yes; our lives are uncertain; we may be called in a moment to give an account of ourselves to God." "What effect should this have upon us?" "It should lead us to give earnest heed to the things that belong to our peace before they are forever hidden from our eyes."
You have here a model which, in the communication of religious instruction, you would do well to imitate. Select a passage yourselves, and deliver it either to a whole class, or a part of it, to be learned by the next sabbath, when it should become the subject of examination; and in the mean time, consider what are the questions which it naturally suggests, that you may be prepared for the task. This is a most engaging and instructive method.
Another very judicious exercise for the children, is to propose a question, and to require, by a given period, passages of scripture to prove, and illustrate it; always remembering that the subjects of inquiry be plain, easy, and adapted to the capacity of the children. For the sake of example, I mention the following—
"What does the book of Genesis principally treat of?
"What were the principal acts of transgression committed by the children of Israel in the wilderness, and in what way did God punish them?
"Which of the prophets wrote most plainly of Jesus Christ; and in what parts of his writings does he allude to him?
"In what passages of scripture is the divinity of Jesus Christ spoken of?
"What did our Lord appeal to as a proof that he came from heaven, and is the son of God?
"Where is the necessity of the new birth declared?
"In what passages are filial duties enjoined?"
Such exercises as these possess the happiest tendency. They are an admirable discipline for the intellectual powers, and train the mind to habits of reflection, and diligent inquiry. They call the thinking principle into activity, and must produce considerable improvement in the mental character of the poor. But these are the smallest advantages of the plan; it leads to an engaging and enlarged acquaintance with the word of God, and establishes a sort of familiarity between the children and the bible, as the man of their counsel, and the guide of their youth.
It would be well also occasionally to examine the children as to their remembrance of the texts and sermons which they hear in the house of God. This would keep their attention alive to what is delivered from the pulpit, and lead them to recognize their own interest in the solemnities of public worship.
Such, among other means of communicating religious instruction, appear to me to be eminently adapted to promote this important end.
3. But as very many know the theory of divine truth, without feeling its influence on the heart, or exhibiting it in the conduct; as they often see the right way; without walking in it; and as it is only they who are renewed and sanctified by the truth, that will be eternally saved, to secure the ultimate object of your exertions, you must labor to produce religious impression, as well as communicate religious instruction.I know it is God only who can reach the heart, but then he does it generally by pouring out his Spirit on judicious and well adapted means. Here then direct all your efforts, to awaken the conscience, to interest the feelings, and to engage the whole soul in the pursuit of salvation, and the business of religion. Let your aim be visible in your conduct, so that the children may be convinced that until they are brought to fear God, and serve him in truth, you do not consider yourself to have attained the object of your labors.
Let all you do be characterized by an impressive solemnity. Take care of treating sacred subjects with lightness. Never allow the holy scriptures to be read but with the greatest reverence. Mingle a devotional spirit with all you do. By all that is solemn, and all that is moving in religion, admonish and exhort the children. Endeavor to awe them by the terrors of the Lord, and melt them by his mercies. Roll over them the thunders of Mount Sinai, and display to them the moving scenes of Mount Calvary. Remind them of their mortality, and encircle their imagination with the scenery of the judgment day. Seize every event that the dispensations of divine providence may furnish to aid your endeavors. Relate to them instances of early piety, and at other times, cases of sudden and alarming dissolution. Watch for the appearance of religious concern, as that which can alone reward your labors, or satisfy your desire. Over every other kind of excellence than true religion, exclaim, "Ah! 'tis well, 'tis good, so far as it goes, but I want the fruits of immortality." When these begin to show themselves, hail the first buds of genuine religion with delight, shield them with a fostering care, and with a skillful hand direct their growth.