The Beverly Sunday School 1810-2010

(From a sermon Delivered by Charles E Wainwright 28 November, 2010)

For years, the children of First Parish Church have engaged in a weekend ritual that represents the very essence of a childhood family rite:  They attend our Sunday school.    Our Religious Education Director, Deb Sweet is the latest in a long line of education leaders engaged in a pioneering America institution.  Our children perpetuate, through their participation, a tradition that is 200 years old this year and that began within this Church.   The bronze plaque on my left testifies that our Sunday school, established in 1810 is the oldest continuously operating Sunday school in New England.  At the back of the sanctuary is a banner that attests ours to be the oldest Sunday school in America.  To honor its 200th birthday, I would like to take a few minutes to tell you the story of the First Parish Church Sunday School.[1]

The person generally acknowledged as the inventor of the Sunday school and, indeed the public school system as we now know it was Robert Raikes  of Gloucester England.  In 1781, Raikes sought to provide basic education to children who worked in local mills, and for whom school was not available. He employed volunteer teachers to deliver to the children basic literacy instruction on their day off (Sunday) using the Bible as the primary text. In 1786 the first of this type of school in America was formed in Virginia. In 1791 a Raikes-inspired Sunday school was established for the benefit of children employed at a cloth manufactory in Roxbury Massachusetts. These schools were only focused on teaching reading skills to their young charges. The first school sanctioned by a Church for religious education was established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 22, 1809 “for the suppression of vice, reformation of manners and propagation of useful knowledge”.  So while our Sunday school cannot claim to be the first in America it is definitely the first such institution in New England.

We have three persons to thank for Beverly’s Sunday schools:

Hannah Hill was born in 1784 aboard the ship Rambler, Hugh Hill, Captain, in Delaware Bay[2].  Hugh Hill commanded several ships from Salem and Beverly during the Revolution and is regarded as one of the most successful Privateers of his time.  His vessels were owned by a consortium of Salem and Beverly merchants who became rich from the spoils of his odd trade.  As a reward for his services at the end of the war, he was permitted by the owners to travel to Ireland to bring his family to America.  Hugh’s brother James and James’ pregnant wife Elizabeth joined other family members on board.  The birth of Hannah occurred just as the Rambler made the US coast.  She became an adult member of the First Parish Church on August 4, 1804[3].  Characterized by those who knew her as a passionate Christian and an outstanding teacher with an outgoing personality, she could boast a noble heritage:  She was a cousin of our seventh President, Andrew Jackson.[4]

Joanna Batchelder Prince was born in Castine Maine in 1789[5].  Miss Prince was characterized as shy and quiet, but no less pious and engaged in the well being of children in her charge. She lived with her mother across the street from the Hill family at the corner of Front and Davis streets.

Robert Rantoul was born in Salem in 1778, the son of a sea captain.  Having lost his father to the sea at an early age, the young Rantoul was entirely self-taught.  He apprenticed at an apothecary on Washington Street that he later purchased.  He taught himself law and accounting.    He was the first Superintendent of Schools in Beverly, a Justice of the Peace and chaired of the Town’s Overseers of the Poor.  As Parish Clerk, Rantoul became one of the most influential persons in our Church, leading its efforts towards social responsibility and a liberal theology.  His son Robert S. Rantoul occupied a US Senate seat and was famous for his Abolitionist legislation.

Hannah Hill was troubled, we are told, by the sight of children of Beverly fishermen playing around the wharves on Sunday mornings and was determined to engage them more productively.  On 30 December 1809, according to Rantoul, she rented a room in a house on Davis and Front Street to accommodate a Sunday school for 3 months. Miss Prince joined her endeavor and by spring of 1810, the two teachers had about 30 male scholars in their charge each Sunday[6] .  By 1822, that number had increased to 214 boys and girls[7].

Now, you might think that this idea of a school for the religious enlightenment of the Town’s youth would be an immediate winner- but you would be wrong.  The Sunday school was not widely accepted by the families of Beverly in 1810.  It was thought by parents and clergy that such education should be the responsibility of the parents and that the school overstepped permissible boundaries. Enrolling children was, therefore, a very delicate affair. Hill and Prince would visit the homes of children and obtain permission of the parents to instruct them on Sunday. Often, they even made suitable clothing for the children so they could attend the school.

Initially, the work of the two women was carried out without funding.  Their requests for aid to the Town were refused, and they relied on the generosity of individuals. Their application for aid in 1811 to the Salem Bible Society caught the attention of Robert Rantoul, who was its business manager, and on the 18th of July he facilitated a gift of 6 Bibles and 6 Testaments to the Sunday school.  He also wrote a warm letter of encouragement to the teachers. Rantoul later wrote that he felt the gift was the encouragement the women needed to persevere in their work despite substantial opposition.  Rantoul, Hill and Prince became close friends and Rantoul eventually took over management of the school.

Very quickly, the Sunday school idea caught on in Beverly, and the roster of students grew rapidly.  Soon enough the destitute children of the wharves were accompanied in their studies by middle and upper class children from all over Beverly.

The Sunday school phenomenon spread quickly across America, too.  In 1814 Sunday schools were founded at Churches in Salem, Boston and New York City.   In 1817 the Pennsylvania legislature provided for funding of Sunday schools in that state, and a report published by the Essex Register on April 5, 1817 indicated some 3000 scholars were regularly attending sessions.

The Beverly Sunday school was held at several private homes between 1811 and 1814.  In 1814, it moved to the Dane Street Church, though it retained its independence under the direct control of the two teachers.

In 1818 the Beverly Sunday school met at the Briscoe Hall with teachers drawn from the three Churches operating in Beverly. It was then referred to as the Beverly Union School, having become part of the American Sunday School Union.

In 1819, Dane Street Church withdrew its children and organized its own Sunday school, followed immediately by the Baptist Church.   The school of Miss Hill and Miss Prince began that year to meet at the First Parish Church.  It remained an independent Sunday school for multiple denominations until at least 1822.  During its first years at First Parish, the school was overseen by our minister, Rev. Abiel Abbot. He developed a Sunday school catechism that was used for many years[8].

In 1819 Joanna Prince married Ebenezer Everett of Brunswick Maine. She became a Sunday school teacher there and maintained her duties right up until her death in 1859.

Hannah Hill remained affiliated with the First Parish Sunday school until her death in 1838[9].  In her later years, she was often seen watching over the students at the Vestry.

Robert Rantoul remained closely aligned with the Sunday school for the remainder of his life, and devoted a whole section of his autobiography to its founding.

The first mention of the Sunday school in the records of our Church is its inclusion in 1821 as a permissible use of the newly constructed Vestry[10].  The first record book of enrollments is dated 1822[11], the year that Robert Rantoul was chosen as Superintendent.  Attendance in 1822 was 214 students and 44 teachers. Rantoul left his position in 1830.

The system used for instruction at the Sunday school was one taken directly from the Raikes system, consisting of memorization and recitation of Bible passages.  Scholars were graded on their ability to recite assigned verses, and prizes were given to those with the best memory.  In 1822 one young lad, Matthew Leslie, received a prize for committing to memory 3948 verses of scripture and 29 hymns, a feat that was never equaled (and will likely never be equaled) in our Sunday school.

Robert Rantoul was justly proud of the Beverly Sunday schools, and sought every opportunity to publicize it.  His first attempt to organize a celebration, in 1838, was vetoed by the Minister of the Baptist church, who refused to allow his students to participate.   On 4 July 1842 Rantoul was finally successful in organizing the first town-wide celebration.  1123 scholars participated, representing all Beverly churches.

In 1860 the 50th anniversary of the Beverly Sunday School was celebrated in Beverly. All major Churches participated in a parade that stretched for a mile and ended at the Common.  Some 1500 students participated in the ceremony, held on the Town Common.  A former student of Hannah Hill, Rev. Dr. Andrew Preston Peabody, Chaplain of Harvard College in Cambridge was a featured speaker.  A young scholar, James A. Marsters carried the First Parish banner in the parade. Mr. Marsters later became Parish Clerk, Historian of the Church and organizer of its 100th anniversary.

In 1870 Charles Davis, Sunday School Superintendent from 1854-1869, left a legacy of $5000 to the First Parish Sunday school.  The primary purpose of the money was to celebrate Church anniversaries. For many years, the money funded a New Year’s Festival and an annual picnic, as well as a succession of anniversary celebrations.

Other legacies, received over the years contributed to a substantial endowment fund for the Sunday school. The legacies cemented (as money often does) a schism within the Church:   The Sunday school (operated as the “Parish”) and the Church (operated as the “Church”) that required two boards and two annual meetings until well into the 1950s.

Charles Davis was a remarkable character because his maternal grandfather, Dr. Israel Woodbury sponsored Privateering expeditions from Beverly during the Revolutionary War.  Near the end of her life in 1854, Davis’ mother revealed to him a secret room in the family home in which Dr. Woodbury had hidden bean pots full of Spanish dollars, and which he, Charles Davis, would eventually inherit.   Hence, at least a part of our Sunday school endowment can be traced to Beverly’s swashbuckling reputation.

On 2 October 1910, in what became the social event of the year, the one hundredth anniversary of the Sunday school was commemorated almost totally by adults. It was a 3 day event beginning Sunday morning with special commemoration service, a dinner at City Hall on Monday, and a show by members of the Sunday school on Tuesday. During the Sunday service the plaque was dedicated, a gift of James A. Marsters.

Annual celebrations continued to be held for many years, conducted as local Church affairs.  In 1960 the Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Sunday school that did not involve other churches in the City.

Today, the plaque is the only visible reminder of the historic institution operating in our Church. However, our Church archive has a remarkable collection of artifacts and records that document its long and distinguished history.  I have put a few of these out on the table at the back of the Sanctuary.  I would be pleased to show these to you after the service.

Even if its history has been largely forgotten, the importance of the institution of the Sunday school cannot be denied.  It offers spiritual education to millions of children and is a big part of the reason many families choose to attend worship services.    Being one of the first such schools in America provides me, and I hope you, a great feeling of pride in our Church.

Happy Birthday, Beverly Sunday School!


[1] Much of this material comes from the scrapbook of the centennial of the Sunday school in 1910, compiled by James A. Marsters.  Prominent in the references is an article from the September 15, 1860 Sunday School Times on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Beverly Sunday Schools.  The article includes transcriptions of  several speeches made at the ceremony held at Beverly Common. The first speaker, Rev. A.B Rich of the Washington Street Church in Beverly, acknowledged, in his address,  the importance of Robert Rantoul as a primary Sunday school reference source.


[2] R.R. Endicott, “First Parish Sunday School Superintendent’s Report” October 1885 (hereafter SSSR 1885), p.1.  First Parish Archives (hereafter FPA) Item 5062

[3] FPCR V2 p209.1

[4] “Some Notes on Chipman Hill”; Essex Institute Historical Collections, vol. viii, (1868), pp120-123

[5] SSSR 1885,, p.4.   FPA Item 5062

[6] SSSR 1885, p2

[7] SSSR 1885 p6

[8] “Notes on how to Conduct Sunday School”, FPA, item 143

[9] FPCR, Vol 4 p126

[10] “Papers relating to the building of the Vestry”, FPA, item 1718

[11] “Records of the Sunday School”, FPA, Item 5103

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply