OUR SUNDAY SCHOOLS IT is believed that since the year 1851 the number of Sunday schools, of teachers, and of scholars, has more than doubled in this country. In America, however, the Sabbath-schools are not only more numerous and more largely attended, but are regarded as of greater importance than in England. All who pay flying visits to that country — and it will soon be a sign of heterodoxy among Nonconformist ministers not to have made a Transatlantic tour — are struck with the large measure of attention given to this important branch of Christian effort. We believe our American brethren are right in holding the Sabbath-school in the highest repute, and regarding it as the pet scheme of their Churches. Our English churches have been too neglectful of the children, and as a consequence, we lose many adults who might be worshippers at our half-deserted chapels. The unceasing devotion of ministers and Christians generally to the Sabbathschools of the United States is manifested in a variety of ways. It falls to our lot to scan many American religious papers, and there is scarcely any that do not devote one of the pages of their large broad-sheets to lessons, illustrations, and counsels for teachers. The existence of this feature of their religious journalism is essential to an extensive family circulation.
Moreover, the handsome, well-lighted and ventilated and furnished schoolrooms are a marked contrast to the delightful dungeons in which so many thousands of English children are immured every Lord’s-day. In this respect, it is to be hoped that we are improving, if we may judge from the published accounts of new school-rooms opened, or old ones enlarged and rendered more comfortable. An American minister writes in one of the papers, “London has what it calls Sunday-schools, but they are generally only a milder form of inquisition. The school of Doctor Cumming’s church was without picture or pleasant sight, and had thirty-seven scholars .
Spurgeon’s school-room is a sepulcher. The seats are narrow and without backs, and remind one of the Irishman’s remark on a fine cemetery, that he thought; it ‘a very healthy place to be buried in.’ The people in England do not much like to have an American come into their Sabbath-schools. They always apologize, and say, ‘You are ahead of us in these things.’” Now, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of this statement, so far as it concerns the apocalyptic doctor, but we must admit that so far as it concerns the Tabernacle “this witness is true.” London grows more foggy and dark every year at its center, as the range of smoke-producing houses extends; and hence huge rooms like ours, built underground, become less and less suitable for school purposes. Would to God the funds were forthcoming for suitable buildings both for the School and the College.
In the matter of literature suited for Sunday-school teachers we are very hopefully progressing. The three hundred thousand teachers in Great Britain have opportunities in the present day of acquiring an amount of Biblical knowledge which was denied to most ministers of the past generation. The Sunday-school Union has in this respect been a source of the greatest blessing to the rising race. Its six periodicals are stated to have a united monthly circulation of two hundred and fifty thousand; and of late, a number of most useful commentaries, magazines of practical Sundayschool information, and bound works have been issued by independent publishers at a cheap price, and have found a large and remunerative sale.
One of the most laborious workers in this field is the Rev. J. Comper Gray, whose compilations have shown marvelous industry and literary skill. His most recent work, entitled “The Sunday-school World” an encyclopedia of facts and principles if not useful in the class, will be valuable to all who need suggestions upon the way in which to improve the Sabbath-school. It is a volume of extracts from writers who have had practical acquaintance with the various departments of Sunday-school labor, and the facts and opinions given will be of considerable service to all who are engaged in this noble work.
It may be a somewhat delicate task, where all the laborers are voluntary and their labor largely self-denying, to offer criticism upon their qualifications. Yet as we believe that every Christian has some sphere of usefulness for which he is qualified, and that he is not qualified for every undertaking, so we think it is possible for him to get into a niche which others are better fitted to occupy, and thus may commit the double mischief of wasting his own energies in a position for which he is unsuited, and keeping another out of the place, who might have been abundantly successful. Every school, small or great, should be well organized, but a mistake at the outset is sometimes disastrous. How many Sabbath-schools have suffered beyond hope of recovery through incompetent rulers! All the qualifications requisite for a successful superintendent are not often found in one person. A man who rules his own household with discretion and pleasantness may not always be able to guide the affairs of a school with wisdom. The mind must have been somewhat trained to the task; there should be a knowledge of human nature, an aptness to lead, and then familiarity with details, a skill to grasp all the questions that affect the daily working of the school. It needs a special call to make a superintendent, almost as much as to make a minister. A man may be eloquent at the desk, able to present the church with well-prepared reports, and yet be deficient in those qualifications which command confidence in teachers and obedience in scholars. He may be pious, and yet weak; amiable, and yet over-diffident; or he may be vigorous, but offensive; stern, and therefore repelling. The last form of fault is usually one which brings the whole business to a dead lock in a short time, for voluntary workers will not long submit to be addressed in a domineering manner. We have known some cry out for “discipline,” who would not be for a week under certain martinet superintendents without rising in open rebellion. Teachers are often a touchy race, and need great discretion in those who are at their head. A superintendent by either ruling too much or too little may damage the school; and there are always a number of mutinous spirits ready to assist in the operation. Much, however, must always depend upon him; for he is the man at the wheel, and to a great degree steers the vessel or lets her drive.
His influence will be very great, or distressingly small; and in spite of the willinghood of the teachers the school may never flourish when the superintendent is ill-fitted for his office. Our own experience and observation lead us to the conclusion that “it is difficult to raise a Sabbathschool higher that its superintendent.” It is not enough that he be a good teacher; he must be a wise administrator; for his gifts to teach will be brought into requisition at odd times and unexpected moments, and his position as constitutional ruler compels him to occupy a post in which enthusiasm must be excited and sometimes curbed. Who will deny there is much truth in the following sketch: — The superintendent “does not forget that the whole body of teachers, old and young, will come late if he is late; and that if he is punctual they will all, excepting two or three incorrigible heedless ones, be punctual too. When he arrives at school, it is understood that he has come with a definite purpose and not to let things straggle along, the best way they can. With courteous firmness he goes about the business of the school. He, as pleasantly as possible, corrects what is wrong, according to the best of his ability. By some apparent magic he smooths down the crusty teacher, and quiets the turbulent one. He has succeeded in bringing to nought the plans of Mr. Books, the librarian, who in two years had invented fifteen new ways of keeping the library, each worse than its predecessor. He has quieted Mr. Whimsick, the singing man, who bought all the new flash tune books as soon as published, and insisted that the school should sing them all through. And yet he keeps all these people in a good humor.” We remember one such superintendent in our days of schoolhood; he is now a minister. Of great enthusiasm himself, he could inspire others with a like zeal; the teachers were his hearty friends, the cooperation was mutual and their kind spirit seemed the shadow of his own. His executive ability won respect, and his unfailing skill confidence; his goodness claimed admiration, and his gentleness excited love. Did not the children like him? for his sake they would obey teachers of less selfcontrol, and greater indulgence; and whenever he had a word to say, all were assured that it would be the right word at the right moment. No aspiring orator who deigned to visit the school, ostensibly to encourage the dear friends, but actually to depress them and talk away all the lessons of the class, was privileged to mount the desk a second time; no critical, sour, church-visitor who must report something, and who felt it his duty to report on anything but that which was pleasing in everyone’s eyes, was permitted to dictate, or dishearten the band of workers; the school was the superintendent’s family — he had to provide for their profit and pleasure, and to provide against the numerous accidents which injudiciousness and self will might bring. And, as a consequence, the school flourished, the children received lessons which they now as grown-up people cherish; and there is still a corner in their memories for him who loved so well the souls of his scholars.
Dr. Todd has ruled that a superintendent should be a man of age. We doubt it. As a rule, the man of earnest piety who is in the strength of his manhood, is better qualified to sympathize with the work of the teacher and to understand his difficulties than even the Christian of hoary head and matured experience. But given the necessary gifts, the question of age may be safely left to take care or itself. Some men are wiser at thirty than others at sixty; and in a position requiring physical endurance, bodily strength is no mean requisite.
We have observed a tendency to lament the fewness of really qualified teachers in Sabbath schools. That there is ground for the complaint we are loth to believe, and that some are most distressingly incompetent is evidenced by the failure of their efforts to secure even the respect, of those whom they essay to teach. The common remark is, alas, too true, “These are the best we can get,” for the office of teacher is not always an object of ambition to those who are qualified by nature and by grace for the work.
But so far from lamenting, we would rather rejoice that so many thousands of Christian young men and women, who have to labor hard during the week, should consecrate the Day of Rest; to the still harder work of Sunday-school instruction. Perhaps, however much of the lack of teachers so commonly deplored in large cities, proceeds from an unhealthy desire to be engaged in other and more conspicuous work. Every city pastor will call to remembrance cases in which young men well qualified for the instruction of growing lads, aspire after street and mission preaching, for which their talents are not well adapted. Exhortations to Christian work need to be somewhat guarded, and it is but kindness plainly to dissuade many from attempting work requiring, not a higher, perhaps, but a more singular kind of ability. It is a mistake to suppose that the work of the evangelist is more honorable than that of a teacher. “The teacher,” says a popular writer, “occupies a position midway between the fireside and the pulpit. The teachers are the pastor’s assistants in the work of God. They aim at the same object as himself. They are pastors in miniature; they are feeding their future flocks in embryo; they are moulding the generation to come. They are the pastor’s right arm. Without them and their labors, however stupendous his abilities, and whatever his industry, he must always come immeasurably short of the results otherwise attainable.”
It has never been a question with us that all teachers ought to be converted persons , and should be members of churches. Their work is a Christian ministry, and for it piety warm and deep is essential. Archbishop Leighton observed that a minister’s life is the life of his ministry, and this is no less applicable to the ministry which the teacher espouses, which is lesser in degree only, not in kind. Decided piety there ought to be in each person, but, we question the wisdom of peremptorily rejecting in every case those of whom we may be hopeful, because they have not as yet openly professed Christ. We would hope that the desire to be of service in this good work is the fruit of an intelligent affection for the truths of God.
Pious feeling there must be in any before they can fitly impart religious truths to the young.
There are two great evils in Sunday-school work which operate sadly against its success; namely, want of constancy and punctuality in teachers.
How a teacher can expect to achieve his desire if his place be often filled by a stranger, it is not easy to say. For a minister so to act would be disastrous to any church; it is equally bad in a teacher and damaging to his labors.
Inconstancy in the teacher leads to indifference and irregularity on the part of the best disposed child; while no impression of the instructor’s earnestness can be left on the scholar’s mind, for his own sake we would counsel constancy of service. Fickleness fritters away the best motives and renders worthless the most zealous effort. The inconstant teacher not only undoes that which he has succeeded in doing, but loses all the results which perseverance would have secured. The mischief wrought by want of punctuality is equally grievous. This is an evil due mainly to want of thought, and not of heart. Time for Christian labor is at any season precious; each moment when children are waiting for instruction is golden Such opportunities are too valuable to be lightly diminished by minutes of disorderly “waiting for teacher.” Every teacher should regard these two points of constancy and punctuality as indispensable to his fulfilling his duty with decency, much more with success. Whatever may be the weather, the children who attend will hardly make excuses for a teacher’s absence, and there will be the feeling that if a child could be in class, there could scarcely be a sufficiently cogent reason for the absence of the grownup instructor. Some teachers cannot pledge themselves to this, and for want of others the superintendent is compelled to accept their assistance; there are uses to which these maimed soldiers can be put, but they are the irregulars in the army, and can be treated only as reserves.
Much has been recently said upon the increasing necessity for diligent painstaking preparation for the class. It has been urged that the growing intelligence of the present day, and the changes which the New Education Act will effect, demand a different and a higher kind of teaching. If this kind of tall talk were to be echoed by pastors and superintendents, some of the most useful teachers we know might be disposed, in sheer fright, to relinquish their efforts altogether. Everyone’s ideal of pulpit excellence should be high; and the ideal of instruction in the Sabbath-school ought to be proportionately elevated; there should be special preparation for the class, and the best training which can be given by the Teachers’ Bible Meeting; but if in this desire for more learned teachers, the great object of the Sunday-school movement be forgotten — namely, the conversion of the little ones, the pressing home upon the heart and conscience the simple truths of Christ’s gospel the change will become a snare. We feel sure that all that is needed is to make as much use as time will permit of the many helps which are within the humblest teacher’s reach. The lesson papers, the cheap commentaries, the many publications which explain the customs of Oriental nations, furnish all that a teacher, even in the higher classes, can possibly need. Let the teacher seek by these or other aids, to understand the chapters to be read in the class, and there will be no lack of interest. A St. Louis minister gives on this point some useful advice “Take the subject, early in the week. Think about it. Pray over it. Let it undergo the process of incubation, and by the time you have brooded over it a week it will be warm in your own heart, and be presented warm, fresh, and glowing to your scholars’ hearts. Gather illustrations. Jot down incidents in your note book incidents occurring in the home circle, in the street, everywhere.
Consider your children their habits, characters, circumstances that you may know what things will most impress them. Adapt your teaching concentrate. Take out the one cardinal thought of the lesson, and press it upon the mind and heart. Study the art of questioning, but never take the question-book into the class. Close the lesson with your best and strongest thought. Keep the best to the last. In brief, yet the lesson, impart the lesson, impress the lesson.” Some fail in attempting too much, others in imparting too little; but he who prayerfully keeps his end in view is not likely to miss it. Teachers should be pre-eminently men and women of prayer; without it, they will not gain renewed strength to meet discouragements, or see those fruits of their labors which constitute their best reward.
The evil most intolerable to a child is that of dullness. The teacher ought not to be dull, for the heaviest mind may surely, by due care and perseverance, conquer its prosiness. What a change may be observed in the countenances of children when a dull teacher surrenders his class for an afternoon to a more lively brother! The children are wide awake and volatile, and it goads them to desperation to see a yawning teacher fulfilling his duties in a perfunctory manner. It is a punishment for them to remain under such control the hours are dreary, the teaching a bore, and the school-room a prison, where they are kept for awhile in close confinement, because it is Sunday. Many schemes have been suggested to secure the interest of the children, but unless the interest be in the teacher all means will fail. The man must gain the heart and the willing ear, and the children, so far from complaining of weariness, will only regret the shortness of the school hours. Our female friends are more successful here than our brethren, because, as a rule, they have more tact and life, a nimbler wit, and a gentler manner. They make fewer speeches, eschew heads and sub-heads, deal more in surprises and in the home language of children. The interest which the children will feel in the teacher will be in proportion to the interest which the teacher feels in the children. Great sympathy is needed; for, says an Arab proverb, “The neck is bent by the sword, but heart is bent by heart.” Perhaps, however, much of the dullness which adheres to Sunday-school addresses might be relieved by the adoption of some expedients that have long been in use in America. The black board there is almost a mania; indeed, one enthusiast declares that “the motto for all good teachers is — to the black board with everything.’’ “We would not undertake to conduct a Sabbath-school,” says an experienced Sundayschool writer, “without a good black board.” The board is indispensable to the dayschool, and it may be greatly useful in fixing the eye upon the prominent texts or thoughts of the lessons for the day in the Sabbathschool.
Pictures and even objects should be frequently used. As in preaching, so in teaching, all legitimate means must be employed to secure success. Stereotyped plans must be discarded, and old prejudices renounced, if by any means we may save some.
No statistics will fairly represent the direct results of Sunday-school effort.
Has it not fostered a greater respect for the Sabbath-day? Has it not improved the public morals, elevated the public sentiment? Unconverted men and women may trace much of that which has helped to make them reputable members of society to the Sabbath-school. The member for Stockport has said that in his borough, where there are many and large schools (one numbers three thousand children), there is a less percentage of crime than in any borough in Britain. We do not know what has been the experience of the Editor of this magazine, but it is no small result of voluntary effort that in twenty years’ pastorate Mr. Chown, of Bradford, has received into his church eight hundred persons, one-half of whom ascribe their conversion to the Sunday-school. A writer in the Freeman Baptist paper estimates that only ninety-three in every thousand, or a little over nine per cent of scholars in the Sabbath-school, make open profession of faith in Christ; but this is admitted to be a rough estimate, and does not include the still larger numbers of grown up people who trace their first religious impressions to the Sunday-school. The same writer says that only seventy-five per cent of the teachers have been former scholars, while eighty-four per cent are church members. These figures, encouraging in some respects, may well awaken serious thought and anxious enquiry.
Have we tolerated unconverted teachers, and have we neglected to press home upon them decision for Christ? Ought not a special interest to be felt towards such? The fact that they are ready to be of service to the little ones should encourage their fellow teachers to address them on the all-important matter of personal piety.
To all teachers we have this parting word. If you have not succeeded in winning souls, agonize with God until you do. Learn from books and from examples; reform, amend, study, pray, labor, and be not content till you can say to the Lord, “Here am I and the children thou has given me.” If on the other hand you have been honored to be a soul-winner, let your watchword be “Onward.” We commend to you the following incident which may serve to excite in you a determination that with God’s help you will — “Forget the steps already trod, And onward urge your way.” At the battle of Meeanee, an officer who had been doing good service came up to General Sir Charles Napier and said, “Sir Charles, we have taken a standard!” The general looked at him, but made no reply, and turning round, began to speak to some one else; upon which the officer repeated, “Sir Charles, we have taken a standard!” The General turned sharp round upon him, and said, “Then take another .”