How Unitarian and Universalist religious education evolved over two centuries.
In 1790, following a resolution by the Philadelphia Convention of Universalists to establish schools in every church, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Universalist, helped found the ecumenical First Day School in Philadelphia. Its mission was to teach literacy, using the Bible as a text, to children who worked the other six days of the week.
As separation of church and state became more intensely debated, churches began to establish schools specifically for religious instruction. In 1810 the liberal parish in Beverly, Massachusetts—today the First Parish Church in Beverly, Unitarian Universalist—started the country’s first known Sunday school. A movement to establish Sunday schools quickly took hold in all denominations.
Not everyone welcomed the new Sunday schools. Some argued that they encroached on parental territory or, worse, encouraged parents to neglect their duties of religious instruction. Others felt the new schools broke the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath.
The techniques of the early Sunday schools mirrored the catechism used in secular schools of the time, relying on memorization and recitation. Writing suitable curricula became an urgent task for Unitarians and Universalists, both anxious to distinguish their own beliefs from Calvinists.
In 1827 ten Unitarian churches formed the Boston Sunday School Society and began to publish guidebooks. (The organization later changed its name to the Unitarian Sunday School Society.) The society pioneered a series of graded manuals in 1852, an acknowledgment that lessons should be geared to children’s development, a novel concept.
Although Universalists had less central structure, ministers and laypeople also published a steady stream of materials to teach their hopeful message of a loving, forgiving God.
Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing condemned catechism as a teaching tool in an address to the Sunday School Society in 1837, declaring, “The great end in religious instruction . . . is not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own.” But not for many decades did curricula begin to move from being “material centered” to “child centered,” as the American Unitarian Association (AUA) pledged to do when it published the sixth Unitarian curriculum in 1912, taking over from the Sunday School Society.
In 1937 the AUA appointed as curriculum editor Sophia Lyon Fahs, who effected the revolution that Channing had announced, as historian David B. Parke put it. Her first book, Beginnings of Earth and Sky, looked at ancient creation stories alongside scientific accounts, taking the radical view that both were stages in the human search for truth. It was the first of the New Beacon Series, a wide-ranging curricula based on the philosophy that religious education should be grounded in the firsthand experiences of children.
Fahs also brought together early-childhood experts to develop the Martin and Judy series, stories that addressed very young children’s religious questions. Frank Robertson relates a story about a teacher who overheard a neighboring Catholic girl ask a boy at his church in Barneveld, New York, “What do you learn in your Sunday school? We learn about Mary and Joseph.” The Unitarian boy answered sincerely, “Oh, we learn about the same thing, only we call them Martin and Judy.”
UU religious educators have continued to pioneer ways for liberal congregations to teach young people, with curricula such as Hugo Hollerorth’s “discovery method” classroom kits, deryck calderwood’s About Your Sexuality for adolescents, and more recently the Our Whole Lives sexuality education program.
Child-centered religious growth and learning—Channing’s notion translated to modern idiom—is still the goal as well as the challenge for liberal religious educators.
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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