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[Above: Philadelphia paper boys had been tossing pennies on a Sunday in 1910 when this picture was taken—Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer / public domain, Library of Congress]

PHILADELPHIA'S UNEDUCATED AND UNCHURCHED CHILDREN used their day off on Sunday for evil. Aware of the successful efforts of Robert Raikes and others in Britain to educate such children, a group of Philadelphia’s leaders gathered on this day, 19 December 1790, to discuss forming the First Day Society, a Sunday school organization.

The group was an early American example of ecumenical cooperation. Among its leading members were a Universalist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, an Episcopalian, Bishop William White, and a Roman Catholic, Matthew Carey. Other participants included Dr. Benjamin Say, Dr. William Currie, Joseph Sharpless, Thomas P. Cope, and Captain Falconer.

A week after their first meeting, they reviewed and adopted a constitution. Its preamble read,

Whereas, the good education of youth is of the first importance to society, and numbers of children, the offspring of indigent parents, have not proper opportunities of instruction previous to their being apprenticed to trades; and whereas, among the youth of every large city, various instances occur of the first day of the week, called Sunday—a day which ought to be devoted to religious improvements—being employed to the worst of purposes, the depravity of morals and manners: It is therefore the opinion of sundry persons, that the establishment of Sunday-schools in this city would be of essential advantage to the rising generations; and for effecting that benevolent purpose they have formed themselves into a society.

In 1791, the First Day Society petitioned the state legislature to establish “free public schools.” Meanwhile, it funded three schools and paid their teachers. The Bible was the principal textbook, but the society awarded other books as prizes for good scholarship. The few rules required students to come to class in clean clothes, to attend worship, and to avoid misconduct such as lying, swearing, and stealing in class. The Latin motto adopted for the society was Licet Sabbatis Beneficere (It is lawful to do well on Sabbath days).

Despite the good aims of the society, churches soon withdrew their support. Sects and denominations preferred to create Sunday schools that taught their specific doctrines. In 1816, the First Day Society closed its schools and turned to raising funds to assist other Sunday schools to procure books. In this role it was still active over a century later.

Dan Graves


Today's Christians often turn to home-schooling to educate their children. The video Schoolhouse Rocked gives helpful advice. Watch it at RedeemTV.

Schoolhouse Rocked can be purchased at Vision Video.

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