Sabbath-School (1888) [1/4]

1818     1888

commemorative of the
Organization of the First Sabbath School
In Bedford, Mass.

Written for the Seventieth Anniversary

“Turn back the tide of ages to its head,
And hoard the wisdom of the honour’d dead.” [*1][*2]

Charles Sprague.

Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 141 Franklin Street

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In accepting the invitation of the Sabbath-school Committee to prepare an historical sketch, it was my intention to put such facts as were at hand into form suitable to present as a part of the exercises of the seventieth anniversary. But, through the help of many friends of our school, facts have so multiplied that it has been deemed advisable to present them in a more permanent form; and this is done in the belief that they will thus serve a more general use.


July, 1888.

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Our Sabbath-school, the most promising offspring of this venerable mother church, has reached the age of “threescore years and ten.” [*3][*4] In glad response to her invitation, this company of her children, grandchildren, and friends are welcomed here at this time to participate in her birthday celebration, and present to her their salutations and congratulations.

Our first impulse at this time is to look back to the beginning of the period which closes with the exercises of this hour.

To-day, our thoughts turn involuntarily to the origin of our Sabbath-school as well as to the rise and progress of the system of Sabbath-schools. Seventy years have passed since this school began its work, and the record made cannot be changed. “History makes itself.” [*5] I was never so forcibly reminded of the truth of this statement as I have been in the preparation of this paper. An individual who has attained the allotted age, as recorded by the Psalmist, should have exerted an influence worthy of record; [*6] but when a life so complex, composed of as many individual parts as a Sabbath-school has, is to be considered in review on its seventieth birthday, it is impossible to do it justice in this brief paper. A noble ancestry is not to be lightly esteemed. This daughter of our venerable church, our Sabbath-school, may well glory in her ancestry. We cannot claim for her a greater age than other similar

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institutions in New England, but this school claims the honor of being among the first that were organized by a church. With devout gratitude, she traces her origin to a truly noble parentage. These windows and the other memorials that meet our eyes whenever we come within these hallowed walls bear witness to the gratitude of those who appreciate their inheritance and are laboring to maintain these institutions. The measured tramp of soldiery, as they marched homeward in broken columns from the war of 1812, had scarcely ceased in this nation when the sound of another battle-cry rang out, and the tramp of other soldiery was heard in this land. [^1] “To arms! To arms! ye children of the land,” was the cry. [^2] “To arms, and spread the glad tidings of great joy!” [^3][*7] Despite the prejudice that influenced the minds of many against the mother country, it was from over the sea that this battle cry came.

Robert Raikes, moved with pity for the multitude of wretches who, having no employment on the Sabbath, spent their time in noise and riot, playing at “chuck,” and cursing in the streets of Gloucester, England, about the year 1781 engaged four women, who kept “dame school,” to take in these children and instruct them in reading and church catechism, giving them a small compensation. [*8] This plan made a reformation among the class of people to which it was at first confined. The order and decorum upon the Sabbath and improvement in the personal appearance of the children, together with their acquirements, soon recommended the plan of Mr. Raikes. Thoughtful people organized schools in the better parts of the city, and the work spread very rapidly. This good man died in 1811, but his grand work went on. Schools were already planted in England, Scotland, and Ireland; and the work had been started in America. The

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tramp of God’s army on Britain’s shores had set in motion a wave that ever widened and widened until these western shores had felt the ripple of its ever restless flow. The first teachers were paid for their services; but enough good women were soon found who deemed it a privilege to work for the children without pay. That there were Sabbath-schools in this country long before the general opening of such instruction is apparent. In 1797, a school after the plan of Mr. Raikes was established in Philadelphia; Paterson, N.J., had a school in 1794; Pawtucket, R.I., in 1797; but these were private enterprises. [^4]

New England’s first school for the sole purpose of religious instruction of children, so far as I can learn, was gathered at Bath, N.H., in 1805, by the pastor of the town, who had come from Scotland, where he had conducted a school according to Mr. Raikes’ plan. [^5] Massachusetts took up the work in 1810. In Beverly and also in our parent town Concord, schools were gathered; but they had no connection with the churches, and were not recognized by them, even as auxiliaries, and the movement was not generally indorsed by the people. It was not until June, 1818, or one month earlier than the acknowledged date of our own school, that the Sabbath-school of Concord, connected with the first parish, was really organized. The school at Beverly was started by two sisters, in their own home. [*9] The house in which it was held is still to be seen, and is marked as a place of historic interest. Boston’s first Sabbath-school was gathered in 1812, through the efforts of a lady who had learned of the good work being done by her sex in Beverly; but it did not become a parish school until 1822. Many others were formed, as private enterprises, in different towns and cities of Massachusetts; but the era of Sabbath-schools, as in-

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stitutions of the church, began in 1816. [^6] The previous efforts, although attended with good results, were individual and preliminary steps to the great awakening to the higher interests of the young. The pioneers of Sabbath-school work had as great prejudices and as strong oppositions to overcome as have been encountered in many other lines of progress; and our rejoicing of to-day adds its ray of lustre to the memory of the founders of our school.

In the spring of 1817, the Boston society of which Rev. William Jenks was secretary prepared and sent a circular address to all the large towns and cities in the State, setting forth the desirableness of Sabbath-schools, with plans for organizing and conducting them. Among the opponents of this organized movement were not a few who regarded this form of instruction as a violation of the fourth commandment, and watched it with a jealous eye. The scores of circulars that come to our homes each week, showing the merits or various enterprises, make it impossible for one of to-day to realize what an impression such a communication would make as that which was sent through the country in 1817. [*10] Previous to January, 1816, no weekly religious newspaper was printed in this country; and the interest was so small in such a publication that but thirteen hundred subscribers were found on the list of the Boston Recorder at the close of the first year. At this time there was no telegraph or telephone. Periodicals and magazines were scarcely heard of, and never seen in many households. Imagine, if possible, a home in these days where the Bible and almanac comprise the entire stock of literature. Many homes, in the early part of this century, were supplied with nothing more. At the time of the general opening of Sabbath-schools, that part of the city of Boston now

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Summer Street was a cow pasture; and, says Samuel Adams Drake, “the tinkling of cow-bells was by no means an unusual sound there.” [^7][*11] “The Summer Street region, now covered with warehouses and marts of trade, was the boys’ paradise; for there they played ‘coram’ and ‘hy-spy’ at will.” [^8][*12] It would not have been strange if the circular from the Boston society had not been heeded in a country village until years after its adoption in the cities and border towns. As an inland town heeded this call soon after receiving it, one must be convinced that the spiritual and literary leader of the community was fully abreast with the times. Such, I find, to have been the good fortune of Bedford. [^4]

Rev. Samuel Stearns, the minister of Bedford, was ever on the lookout for progressive plans for furthering all good work in this town and elsewhere. He was among the first pastors of the State who adopted the plan of gathering a Sabbath-school. A course of instruction had been pursued in this town for six years previous to the Sabbath-school movement, and had doubtless prepared the way for it. This was known as the catechetical society. But few are now lingering on the shores of time who enjoyed the privilege of this form of instruction by the pastor of the town. Occasionally, a venerable grandsire or a smiling grandmother may be met who recalls the days of “the catechisings”; but to the greater part of our people these modes of early instruction have come to us as traditions from those who have long since fallen by the way. The following letter briefly explains the nature of the society:—

Reverend Sir, — At your request, I present you with a short and imperfect sketch concerning the catechetical society which was first established in Bedford, in the month of November, 1812, composed of about seventy members of both sexes, instituted

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for the purpose of useful instruction, and calculated to enlighten the members into a knowledge of the Scriptures. But I fear they do not sufficiently prize the blessing they enjoy in having such a worthy catechist, one who is ever ready to afford them every necessary instruction.

It is to be regretted that so large a number of the society have fallen away. I think they do not realize the importance for which the object was designed, or certainly they would not deprive themselves of so great a privilege as they really do. I conceive it to be a very useful society, and highly worthy the attention of young people; and that it may have a happy influence upon the mind of every individual is the sincere desire of

Your friend and humble servant,

Rachel Fitch.

Bedford, May 9, 1814.

The above letter was prepared by a young lady, and given to the pastor with the manuscripts of many of the young people at a catechetical exercise. These were taken home by the pastor, carefully examined and corrected, and generally returned with suggestions for improvement. This, for some reason, was retained and passed to the writer of this sketch, (grandson of Rachel Fitch), seventy-four years after its date, by Miss A. C. Stearns, only surviving daughter of Rev. Samuel Stearns.

The Sabbath-school offered instruction in a more simple form, and met the wants of those who were too young to enter upon the more profound study.

But few schools were organized in 1817. July 19, 1818, is, by common consent, the date of our organization; yet the early records of the school are fragmentary. The project here was not probably regarded as an institution of permanence at first, which accounts for the absence of systematic records. It is claimed by one who made some memoranda about 1820 that the date of organization was May, 1818; but I find it im-

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possible to establish this date beyond a reasonable doubt. I am satisfied that the difference in opinion as to months arose from the fact that for some years the school did not hold sessions during the winter. Many of the pupils came from a distance, and were obliged to walk, as the family conveyance was needed to bring the other members of the family to the church service. [*13] The spring reorganization was regulated by the weather and condition of highways, and was necessarily irregular. The first year’s work of the school closed October 18, with a public examination, conducted by the pastor. The catechising continued to flourish as well as the school. From 1819 to 1830, forty-eight repeated the whole catechism to the pastor, and were then allowed to occupy a spectator’s seat and were not called upon to recite as before.

We are justly proud of this Sabbath-school, this noble daughter of the church; and we greet her to-day in the full beauty of maturity which she has attained through her grand work of threescore years and ten.


  • An historical [Sabbath-school] address (1888) pp 1-11


  1. rang out, ∨ rung out,
  2. “To arms! . . . the land,” ∨ To arms! . . . the land,
  3. “To arms, . . . great joy!” ∨ To arms, . . . great joy!
  4. [[ paragraph break ]]
  5. Raikes’ ∨ Raikes’s
  6. church, ∨ Church,
  7. there.” “The ∨ there. The
  8. ‘coram’ and ‘hy-spy’
    ∨ ‘corum’ and ‘hi spy’


  1. “head”: source
  2. cf. “Curiosity” (1829) in Writings of Charles Sprague (pp 9-35)
  3. “this . . . mother church”: the First Parish Church
  4. “threescore years and ten”: seventy years
  5. “History makes itself”: [ perhaps ] proverbial
  6. “the allotted age of man”: 70 (or 80) years
    cf. KJV’s Psalm 90:10
  7. cf. KJV’s Luke 2:10
  8. “chuck”: [ evidently ] chuck-farthing
  9. “the school at Beverly”: now 23 Front Street (Beverly, MA)
  10. “scores of”: many
  11. cf. Cabot’s A memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1887) p 3, which cites
    Drake’s Old landmarks and historic personages of Boston (1873) p 381
  12. cf. Cabot’s A memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1887) p 4
  13. “conveyance”: vehicle
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