The year 1899 was a Jubilee Year for the Sunday School. It had been 50 years since Richard Ballantyne had conducted the first Sunday School among the Mormons in the Rocky Mountains, and all things Sunday School-related were discussed in print and over the pulpit.
In the spring of that year, Robert Aveson, then of Salt Lake City and formerly of London, England, shared his knowledge of the first LDS Sunday School he had attended in London, providing good detail about the people and practices of that early school:
The first Latter-day Saint Sunday School in the British Mission was organized about the year 1854, in Great Camden street, Camden Town, London, England. One of the chief promoters was Sister Helen R. Webb, who is a resident of the northwest part of the Twenty-first Ward, Salt Lake City. A brother in the Church named Cornell readily acquiesced in Sister Webb’s proposition, and the matter was referred to the President of the branch, George Ferguson, who gave consent that a Sunday School should be organized.
Brother Cornell and sister Webb acted as teachers. Children from different parts of the branch were notified, and in a few days a school emerged into existence. It consisted of about two dozen members, and two classes were formed. the books used were the Testament and Jaques’ Catechism. Sister Webb composed verses of poetry which the children committed to memory and recited.
For many years Sister Webb has been an indefatigable worker in the Sabbath school cause. since immigrating to this country she has been an active worker in the Twenty-first Ward Sunday School for fourteen years, her age preventing her from acting longer in the laudable cause.
She is now in her eighty-fourth year and in a feeble state of health; but she has still an ardent desire for the progress of this worthy enterprise.
Brother Aveson’s reminiscence appeared in the 1 May 1899 issue of the Juvenile Instructor, where it was read by Peter Greenhalgh, then of Bloomington, Idaho and formerly of Radcliff, near Manchester. “Ah!” he must have thought, “I know of a school held even earlier than the one in London!” His announcement of that earlier school appeared in the 1 June 1899 issue:
In the Juvenile Instructor of May 1st, 1899, I find an article entitled “The First Sunday School in the British Mission,” the said Sunday School being commenced “about the year 1854.”
At a meeting of the local Priesthood of the Radcliff branch of the Manchester conference, I suggested to the brethren the propriety of commencing a Sunday School where the children of the Saints could be brought together on the Sabbath morning. The brethren approved the suggestion and the organizing of the Sunday School was placed on me. The school was organized in the early spring of 1853, was continued up to the time I emigrated in the spring of 1854, and was continued by Brother Joseph Crosley (who was my assistant I the school) for one or two years or until he left England for Utah.
Okay, so that was settled.
Or was it?
Evan S. Morgan, of Liberty, Idaho and formerly of Alltwen, Wales, put down his copy of the Instructor and picked up his pen. Published on 15 July 1899, his account of the earliest British Sunday School noted:
that in the year 1851 he attended a Latter-day Saints’ Sunday School in the Alltwen branch of the western Glamorganshire conference, Wales, the school being conducted by a Brother Richard Gibbs. This would accordingly appear to be a still earlier school than the one referred to in a recent issue of this paper by Brother Peter Greenhalgh, to which he gives the date 1853; while both these schools came ahead of the one referred to by Brother Robert Aveson in the Juvenile for May 1st as “The First Latter-day Saints’ Sunday School in the British Mission,” yet which did not come into existence until 1854.
At last! Here was a Sunday School held so soon after a school was organized in Utah that surely, surely this must be the earliest! Hurray!
But … no … Here comes John Crook of Heber, Utah, formerly of Bolton, England. Why he waited until mid-August to dispute the claims of the others we do not know. He wrote –
I want to give my recollections of Sunday School work of the Latter-day Saints. I was born in 1831. My father was baptized in September, 1840, in Bolton, Lancashire, England, eleven miles north of Manchester. In 1844 Joseph and Hyrum were martyred in Carthage jail. It took a little time those days to get the news to Europe, say until about the first of August. There was at least one Sunday School in England about that time. The school was held in Bury Street Chapel, Bolton, in the lower room at one o’clock p.m. Meeting being in the upper room at two p.m. I was a scholar in that Sunday school and remember that on a particular day the scholars went to meeting upstairs and found the stand decorated with crape. I asked some one elder than myself, “What does this mean?” Someone said, “In memory of the martyrs Joseph and Hyrum.” This was a dreadful shock to me. I remember as well as if it were yesterday. I was then not quite thirteen years old.
This will show a school in Bolton some seven years before Brother Morgan’s. I have no dates when this school was organized, but I think school had been running one year anyway at the time of the incident I mention. I can safely say I had attended a long time before that. I have said that my father was baptized in September, 1840, and my sister Alice and myself attended meetings with father. I well remember us two holding each to his hand and walking by his side about two and one half miles on Sunday to school and meeting.
If any of the Bolton Saints who attended meeting in those early days are alive, I call their attention to the first meeting place in Bolton – Back King Street; narrow entry, upstairs. A Brother John Haslam was one of the superintendency of the school when the above occurrence took place. I believe he emigrated about 1846; and then a Brother James Haslam took charge of the school. My father, myself and two sisters emigrated to America in January, 1851, on the ship Eblen, leaving Liverpool the 8th day of January, 1851. Christmas day, 1850, we had a tea party in the Bury Street Chapel. A charade was performed, called ‘Adam and Eve,’ and other pieces, by school children. Thomas and Martha Heelis took the parts of Adam and Eve. I think Brother Heelis is still living in Santaquin, Utah co. I taught one of the intermediate classes in school towards the close of my stay in England. Thomas Heelis and Eli and Levi Openshaw of Santaquin were members of my class at that time. There is a Brother living in Fillmore, Alexander Forti, who will remember those days no doubt.
This is a bit of early history. If any of the Bolton Saints of those days should read it and find any mistakes in dates or otherwise, I would be pleased to be corrected.
In prefacing John Crook’s letter, George Q. Cannon wearily explained:
The Juvenile Instructor is not at all disposed to open its columns to controversy, the editor preferring himself to weigh and consider the matter that may be in dispute – if he chooses to present it at all – and then lay before his readers the view, the date, or the incident as to the point at issue, which is correct; in other words, he desires that any general proposition or statement published in these columns shall be true beyond the possibility of further dispute or argument. Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that the actual facts about an interesting event can only be secured by publicly inviting, and giving place to various and apparently conflicting statements, each being made by a reliable and trustworthy author. It has therefore seemed justifiable to continue for some time past the publication of letters upon the subject of the organization of the first Sunday School of the Latter-day Saints in the British Mission.
But he hoped his readers had enjoyed the “controversy,” for
what can be more interesting, while we are reading about the first Sunday School in Utah fifty years ago, than to learn something about the same good work going on at that early date and even earlier, on the other side of the great ocean!
Three cheers for all these (and any unknown) British Saints who found a way to teach the gospel to their children almost as soon as they had heard the good news themselves.