The Sunday School Teacher's Guide

By John Angell James, 1816


Every cause which is worth supporting, will have to encounter difficulties—and these are generally proportionate to the value of the object to be accomplished. The career of benevolence is not a path of flowers, leading down a gentle slope; where the philanthropist treads softly and swiftly without a difficulty to check his progress--or a discouragement to chill his ardor. 'Mercy' has far more to obstruct her course than even 'justice', since the latter is attended by the strong arm of power, to resent the injuries which are offered to her dignity, and remove the obstacles which oppose her progress. Whereas MERCY, accompanied only by that wisdom which is peaceable, must attempt to do by gentleness, what she cannot effect by force; toil through difficulties which she cannot remove; and under the most aggravated injuries, console herself with the thought that she did not deserve them; and amidst present discouragement, cheer herself with the hope of future success; and after waiting long and patiently for the fruit of the labors, sometimes find her only reward--in the purity of her intentions and the consciousness of having done all she could.

The faithful teacher will meet with many discouragements, which I will now enumerate, and endeavor to alleviate.


1. His discouragement will arise frequently from the CHILDREN.

—From their DULLNESS. Instead of finding them quick in their conceptions, and steady in their application--you will often find them volatile in their habits, and slow of apprehension. After toiling several weeks in teaching them the alphabet, you will in some cases have the discouragement to find that little progress has been made--and months elapse before much visible improvement takes place. In looking round upon your class, you will sometimes exclaim with the sigh of despondency, "So long have I been laboring to instruct that boy, and yet to the present hour he can scarcely add syllable to syllable. It is like ploughing upon a rock, and sowing precious seed upon sand. I feel almost inclined to abandon the work altogether." Never yield to such feelings. Innumerable instances have occurred, in which the dullest children in the school have ultimately become the teacher's richest reward. Plants of great excellence are often of slow growth, and pay with ample interests the gardener's heavy toil, and delayed expectations. And even should no such result crown your ends, still bear with their dullness, recollecting that this very circumstance renders them more needful of your benevolent regard.

—Their INGRATITUDE is oftentimes exceedingly discouraging. Aware of the costly sacrifices you make, and the incessant labor you endure for their benefit, you expect in them a just sense of their advantages and a grateful their obligations. Instead of this, you see them utterly destitute of both—trifling over their privileges as if they were worth nothing to them--and as thankless towards you, as if it cost nothing to impart them! Perceiving that your kindness is wasted upon objects which it fails to impress--you feel sometimes disposed to withdraw your exertions, which are so little valued and improved.

But consider that this very state of the children's minds, instead of inducing you to relax your exertions, should stimulate you to greater activity, since it is a part of that depravity of heart and that deformity of character, for the removal of which they are entrusted to your care. To abandon them on this account, would be like the physician's giving up his patient because he is diseased. The more insensible and ungrateful you find them, the more should you labor for their improvement, since these vices, if not reformed in childhood, are likely to attain a dreadful maturity in future life.

—Their MISIMPROVEMENT operates very unfavorably upon the mind of their instructors. Who has not sometimes experienced a chilling depression, when he has looked round upon the school at large, and compared the actual state of the children--with the advantages they have enjoyed! How common are such reflections as these—"Alas! how few of these children appear at present to be the better, as to any moral improvement, for the instructions they have received. How few have received any serious impressions, or imbibed any pious principles. How many appear just as depraved--as when they entered the school, and are leaving it without a single proof on which a teacher can rest his hope that they are really the better for his instructions. And even of those who at one time seemed to promise well, how few are there whose budding excellences have escaped the corrupting influence of bad example. Disappointed so often, we are afraid to indulge another expectation. Where are the boasted advantages of Sunday School instruction? Where the general improvement of mind, of manners, and of heart, for which we have been waiting? The mass of the present generation of the poor seem to be growing up as wicked and immoral as any that are past. We have labored almost in vain, and spent our strength for nothing! It amounts well near to a question with us, whether we may not relinquish our efforts without any serious injury to the interests of morality or true religion."

This is the dark side of the picture. But it has a bright one, which should check these discouraging apprehensions, and resist the paralyzing influence they are calculated to nourish. That in a great majority of cases no present visible effect, of a pious kind, is produced, I admit. But equally obvious it is, that in not a few instances this happy result has been witnessed. Could you look at the aggregate of success, which has already followed these exertions, you would behold a scene which would fix your attention in silent wonder--or elevate your heart into transports of delight.

It is a fact which abundant evidence confirms, that multitudes of children have already been converted to God, blessed for both worlds, and made happy for eternity--by means of Sunday School instruction. At the very moment when you are giving vent to the sighs of disappointment, and yielding to the influence of despondency, a thousand harps are struck in heaven by a band of glorified spirits, who received their first devout impressions in a Sunday School. Could you listen to their harmony, and gaze upon their beauty—could you witness the seraphic glow which is diffused over their frame, and hear the rapturous praises which they pour forth to him that sits upon the throne, as often as they repeat the honored name of their beloved teacher--discouragement before such a scene would instantly vanish, and animated hope would fill its place. When you feel despondency creeping through your soul, send your imagination for one of these heavenly harpers, and by the song of her conversion, let her charm away the gloomy thoughts of your troubled bosom!

On the way to heaven, as well as within its gates--are a goodly company, redeemed from their vain and evil lives--within the confines of a Sunday School. Scarcely a Christian church will be found in the kingdom, that has had such an institution under its care—but records some members who by these means were converted from the error of their ways. The number of living witnesses, who, from heartfelt experience, can bear their testimony to the spiritual benefit of this system, would perhaps more than fill one of our largest places of public worship.

In addition to this, numberless instances of external reformation have occurred, and many who would otherwise have been running to excess of riot, have been trained to habits of morality, industry, and cleanliness.

In many cases, the seed of the kingdom has begun to germinate long before your eye discerns the hidden process. A secret work is going on, perhaps, which shall one day surprise and delight you. The first dawn of day commences amidst the thickest shadows of night; the tide begins to turn long before it is observed by a person walking upon the shore; thus the incipient stage of conversion is often lost, to every eye but His which sees in secret, amidst the remains of unregeneracy. When you are most discouraged--there may be the least cause for it.

Even those unhappy youths whose conduct excludes all joy for the present, and almost all hope for the future--even they, at some distant time, may yield a rich harvest from the seed which is now, with respect to them, sown in tears. The instructions you communicate can never be totally forgotten. They give light and power to conscience; keep the mind in a state of susceptibility to devout impression, and render the heart more tangible to those incidents of a providential nature which are continually occurring to arrest the sinner in his career. In the gloomy season of distress, when reflection can be resisted no longer--then what they were taught in your class, may be brought most vividly to remembrance. Then, when no preacher, and no friend is near, conscience may denounce the terrors of the law, and memory the glad tidings of the gospel, until the poor trembling sinner, amidst the long neglected stores that were deposited in her mind at the Sunday School, finds the means of her conviction, conversion, and consolation.

It may be also observed, that those people are far more likely than others, to receive benefit from the public preaching of the gospel--whose minds have been previously trained in the knowledge of its principles. They have a clearer understanding of the sermons which they hear. It is through the mind that God converts the heart--so they are in a fairer way to derive spiritual impression than people who have lived in the most brutish ignorance. This is a species of advantage arising from Sunday School instruction not sufficiently thought of. The teacher is unquestionably a powerful auxiliary to the preacher, and the success of the latter in many cases must in justice be shared by the former. You may therefore check the despondency of your hearts, with this consideration, that where no present visible effect is produced by your instructions--you may be preparing its subject for this great change of conversion, which is afterwards to be effected under the instrumentality of the minister.

Children, in whose hearts devout impression may have been produced, are often removed from beneath your care--before you have an opportunity to witness the fruit of your toil! But the eye of God is upon his own work, and he will in eternity, make known to you all that he does by you.

As to the discouragement which arises from the general appearance of the lower orders of society it should be recollected, that a mighty change indeed must be wrought before it becomes visible in the aggregate; which ought not to be expected until the system has had the range of another generation or two, to work upon the mass of the poor with the weight of accumulated benefit. Thousands and thousands of instances of individual conversion and reformation may be effected, without at present altering the visible condition of the poor in general. Wickedness is noisy and obtrusive, and may be seen and heard in every place of concourse. Piety is silent, modest, and retiring; not lifting up her voice in the street, nor praying at the corners of the streets. One murder makes more noise, and gathers more attention--than a hundred conversions. To see the abounding of wickedness, the overflowing of ungodliness, we need not give ourselves the trouble of research—but to witness the good effects of Sunday Schools, we must follow the subjects of them to the closet of devotion, and to the retired scenes of domestic life and social order, where, like the violet, they are to be traced rather by their fragrance than their aromas, and are valued in private more, than they are known in public.

2. A second source of discouragement is often found in the conduct of the children's PARENTS.

It is extremely disheartening to meet with so little cooperation as is generally afforded by them; this however should produce double exertions on your part, by convincing you that the children are cast entirely on your mercy, for pious and moral improvement.

The same insensibility and ingratitude as are displayed by the children, are also in many cases manifested by their parents. It is not uncommon to meet with people so stupidly thankless, as to talk of conferring obligations upon us--by sending their children to our schools. Such monstrous ingratitude is exceedingly trying to your benevolence, and sometimes nearly extinguishes it. Let not the children, however, suffer for the sins of their parents. Continue to nourish their interests, and promote their welfare in opposition to every discouragement. Remember you profess that your efforts are perfectly gratuitous, and therefore to be consistent you should make them dependent upon no wages--not even the effusions of a grateful heart. Do good for its own sake, and let your reward arise from the consciousness of doing it. A good man shall be satisfied from himself. Imitate the conduct of your adorable Redeemer, who ever went about doing good--amidst a degree of horrid insensibility and vile ingratitude, sufficient one should have thought, to make 'infinite mercy' herself weary in well doing.

3. Sometimes you are cast down by the unconcern which is manifested by the SENIOR, and more respectable members of the church.
It can never be sufficiently deplored that so large a fund of knowledge, wisdom, and experience as is to be found in the senior branches of many of our congregations, should be entirely withheld from the interests of the children. And the regret is considerably increased by observing the total indifference with which such people frequently regard the whole concerns of the school. This arises from a mistaken idea that these things belong exclusively to the young. Is there anything, I would ask, in this business, which would render it a disgrace for the most affluent, aged, or pious members of our churches--to display a solicitude in its prosperity? Did even the Savior of the world interest himself in the care of young children--and can any one of his followers think such a concern beneath him?

I am not now asking the aged to sit down upon the floor with the young--or to sustain the toils of labor amidst the infirmities of old age. I am not urging the father to neglect the souls of his own offspring, in order to instruct the children of the stranger. All I ask, all I wish, is that they would discover a lively and constant solicitude in the welfare of the school--and give it as much of their time and their attention as their bodily strength would allow, and prior claims admit. The hoary crown of a righteous older person, occasionally seen within the precincts of the school, sheds a luster upon the institution, and encourages the ardor of youthful bosoms. The children are awed, the teachers are animated by the occasional assistance of men whose standing in the church, and ripened piety, command respect. Where this, however, is unhappily denied, and the young are left without the counsel of old age to guide them, or its smile to reward them--instead of yielding to the discouragement, endeavor by your own renewed exertions to remedy the evil, and supply the defect. The less others care for the children--the more concern to be diligent should operate in your heart.

4. The mind of a teacher is very often discouraged by the lack of efficient cooperation in his FELLOW-LABORERS.

Perhaps you are lamenting that your co-workers are either too few in number, or lamentably defective in suitable qualifications. Plans of usefulness which you know are adapted to promote the great end are opposed, or counteracted by the ignorance and stubbornness of your fellow-teachers. You are left almost to struggle alone. You cannot do the things you would. Thwarted and impeded, you are often ready to quit the field where your operations are cramped, and your usefulness diminished. The reason for your resignation is however--the strongest for your continuance. The fewer there are to carry on the cause, or the more slender their qualifications are, the more criminal would it be in you to retire. This would be to forsake the cause in its emergency, and take your place among the mere friends of its prosperity. Nothing can be more noble than to see a man struggling the more, for a benevolent object, the more he is opposed by some, and neglected by others. It is the glory and triumph of great minds—a sort of heroism in the cause of mercy. Perseverance may bring its reward with it by collecting round you, in process of time--a band of laborers like minded, who will rejoice to put themselves under the direction of such a leader!