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The Number One Very First Earliest Original LDS British Sunday School

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 11, 2010

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?

No.

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.



18 Comments »

  1. Ah, how slow the wheels of history-making turned before the advent of blogs.

    Now, I’d like to report on the first young man in the Church who was caught smoking behind the church when he should have been in Sunday School . . .

    Comment by Mark B. — March 11, 2010 @ 9:07 am

  2. Horray for the British Saints!

    Is there anything in the mission histories that would settle when the first Sunday School was established in Britain?

    Comment by Steve C. — March 11, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  3. Will wait eagerly for further developments in your investigation, Mark.

    Steve, I haven’t looked, but I think the chances of finding anything definitive would be slim. The histories were compiled by Andrew Jenson so very long after the fact, drawing on whatever printed material he could find. It’s possible that he found a missionary letter or something in the Millennial Star contemporary to one of these reported “firsts” but even then we couldn’t be sure that there wasn’t an earlier one that merely didn’t make it into print.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  4. So true, Mark B. (“Ah, how slow the wheels of history-making turned before the advent of blogs”).

    On a totally side note, I really love hearing anecdotes of those early British Saints who were faithfully rolling the Church forward on their fair isle. Yes, the faith of those who left everything and came to Zion is remarkable. I honor them. But, so, too, is the faith of those who stayed behind/were left behind but who were actively pushing their duty along in their own homeland.

    Thanks for this.

    Comment by Hunter — March 11, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  5. I’ll echo Steve C. and the others: Three cheers for the British Saints!

    It was fun to open your post this morning in RSS feed. The bit that shows up there was just enough to include the name of one of my DH’s great-great grandpas. I’ll have to forward this post to his dad who recently got to see (and got a copy of) Aveson’s lengthy scrapbook.

    It looks like there’s quite a bit available about him on the internet. I don’t know much about him myself (I should probably read what’s up on the internet!) but it looks like he was from Yorkshire (minor detail!) and had quite a complicated time getting to America (he was arrested in the process). He was an amateur historian and published a number of articles on various historical topics including his conversion and trip to America.

    (Yes, that was a tangent!)

    Comment by Researcher — March 11, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  6. They didn’t wait for instructions from headquarters, either, did they, Hunter?

    Sounds like a guest post, Researcher {bleg}, or else a tip for me to pull some events from his life for posts. Apologies for misplacing his residence. Now I realize that he didn’t say that he had even been a member of the London Sunday School — he could have been reporting entirely on behalf of Sister Webb.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  7. Poor George Q. Cannon!

    Trust me, no-one does ‘let’s outdo each other historically’ better than British Saints!! Nobody, and judging from this post, it’s long since inbred ;-)

    Anyhow, on that note…..in late 1841, the Paisley Branch met on Sundays in a local schoolroom, for which they paid a shilling a week. Meetings were held at 11am, 2pm and 5pm; my source does not list which meetings were held, but who’s to say at least one of these meetings wasn’t Sunday School?!

    Attendance at a local Sunday School was part of the culture, irrespective of whether one was a member of that denomination or not. The big perk of attending traditional local Church Sunday School was the annual Sunday School outing, often the only time children in deprived areas would get to the country or the seaside.I’d be very surprised if Sunday School, however ‘unoffical’, wasn’t established in different Branches as soon as the Branch was organised. The members back then wouldn’t think to NOT have a Sunday School.

    Great post Ardis, thank you!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 11, 2010 @ 10:24 am

  8. Okay couldn’t resist….a cursory search of the Manuscript History shows the following,although I have local classes from journals from 1842 (Sunday School was normal practice among the Methodists and some converts immediately set them up following conversion in local branches)

    29 Mar 1846 Sun. A conference of the Warwickshire Conference was held at Leamington, with Elder Thomas Smith as president. Seven branches were represented with 168 members, including 7 elders, 9 priests, 4 teachers and 4 deacons. Thirty-three persons had been baptized since the last conference. Sunday Schools have been opened at Stratford-on-Avon and Barford.
    Warwickshire Conference
    LR 9922-2, Manuscript History

    Birmingham Branch was discontinued and made into four branches, namely: Hockley, Cambridge Street, Bristol Road, and Ashted. The Livery Street Chapel was known as the great Mormon chapel. John Roberts was the superintendent of the Sunday School in 1849.
    Birmingham Branch
    LR 1140-2, Manuscript History of the British Mission

    10 Aug 1853 Council meeting at which the propriety of establishing a Sunday school was considered and approved by all the officers present, which numbered 1 s4eventy, 3 elders, 1 priest, and 1 deacon.
    Hockley Branch, Birmingham Conference.
    LR 1140-2, Manuscript History of the British Mission

    Willenhall Branch
    The Willenhall Branch was organized at a conference of the Birmingham Conference 29 Dec 1850. Elder Richard Ramsele was sustained as president of the new branch and Thomas Corbett was appointed clerk. A Sunday school was also established, and at a coucnil meeting of the branch held a few days later on 2 Feb 1851, Charles Prince wa appointed president of the SS with Joseph King as superintendent and John Clark as secretary.

    2 Feb 1851 A committee for the SS was appointed and collections were taken up for the school on 16 Feb.
    LR 1140-2, Manuscript History of the British Mission

    Comment by David M. Morris — March 11, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  9. Besides many local Mormon children still attending Weslyan or Methodist Sunday Schools, Sheffield like Hanley (Staffordshire), had set up their own Sabbath School

    The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star,
    Volume VI. 1845
    ‘I attended a quarterly Conference held at Sheffield, on Sunday the 24th of August [1845], and found the Sheffield Branch and Conference in general to be in a very prosperous state. The conference met at the commodious Assembly Rooms at 10 o’clock, a.m. The room was well filled, and to add to the interest of the assembly, about sixty children belonging to the Saints, who had been formed into a Sabbath school, took their seats together with their teachers.’

    The earliest I have seen an LDS Sunday school in the British Isles and Ireland is 1842. We must remember these were not consolidate worldwide till 1860s onwards —British always a law unto themselves leading the way….

    Comment by David M. Morris — March 11, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  10. LOL David!

    I started working my way forward from edition 1 of the Millennial Star, but have got sidetracked in 1841, where I found a record of branches and their numbers for what roughly equates to the stake in which I live now. In 14 months they had opened 6 branches (3 of which cover the area now covered by the one ward in which I live) and the total membership was 368, with 13 already having travelled to America. That’s approx the attendance at our stake conference these days!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 11, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  11. This does raise another question: when were the first Sunday Schools organized in any Christian denominations? I’m relatively (no, strike that–completely) ignorant on the subject. I have a hunch that they were largely a Protestant invention. And, as Anne suggests, it would be natural for the newly converted to establish Sunday Schools for their children in their new church.

    On a nearly unrelated note, there is a school holiday here in New York City, but just for the schools in Brooklyn and Queens, which had its origins in the commemoration of the establishment of the first Sunday school in Brooklyn. My girls, who all went to high school in Manhattan, were always annoyed when their brothers got that day off and they didn’t. Here’s a blog post about the holiday, with references to a whole host of news reports about it, which says that the rest of the boroughs get the holiday off since the latest teacher contract went into effect.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 11, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  12. Great stuff. Thanks again + all the comments.

    Comment by Peter Fagg — March 11, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  13. Further evidence of Brooklyn’s civilizing effect on the world, Mark. Rather than the sometimes outraged calls here in Utah to abolish Pioneer Day because it has ecclesiastical roots, Brooklyn’s holiday is coveted and adopted elsewhere.

    Anne and David, thank you both for so clearly proving Anne’s assertion about the British tendency to “let’s outdo each other historically.” How funny! (I mean, that you’ve picked up the 111-year-old question and are pursuing it through research.) Thanks for recording your findings here.

    Isn’t it great, though, that these four writers from 1899 did press their claims to being first? In at least a couple of the cases, we have preserved for us a sketchy picture of those early Sunday Schools that isn’t visible in the Millennial Star notes.

    Thanks, Peter.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 11, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  14. Looks to me like a simple case of “The first shall be last”.

    Comment by kevinf — March 11, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  15. Mark: Sunday Schools:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_school

    Robert Raikes is generally considered the founder of organised Sunday Schools. Also, Sunday School is/was usually regarded as an activity for children: I’ll never forget how thrown I was when investigating, to see that adults were expected to attend Sunday School, too. That took a looooong time to get used to.

    Will keep plugging on through the Millennial Star to find the first mention of Sunday schools, though it may take a while as completely unrelated articles are sidetracking my efforts :-)

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 11, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  16. So, it seems that while Bro. Ballantyne gets the credit (and the Arnold Friberg painting!), some forever unknown British convert beat him to the idea by at least 5 years. Seems like another case of the Utah-centric view of history keepers,as noted in some of the missionary related posts on the blog.

    Comment by Clark — March 11, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  17. I remember reading that there were Sunday Schools in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters. Does anyone know anything about that?

    Comment by Maurine — March 11, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

  18. Early Sunday school classes were held in both Kirtland and Nauvoo (none in Winter Quarters that I have found). Among Helen Mar Kimball Whitney’s “pleasing recollections” of life in Kirtland were “our Sunday Schools, where I used to love to go and recite verses and whole chapters from the New Testament, and we received rewards in primers, etc., which I think were more highly appreciated in those days than they are at the present time. At ten o’clock we would form in line and march with our teachers up to the temple.” Although I can’t find a source at the moment, I believe that one of Benjamin Johnson’s sisters, probably Nancy, taught the classes in the family home on the Flats.

    Glen Leonard’s book on Nauvoo states that reminiscenes recalled a Sunday school started in June 1844 at the suggestion of Joseph Smith, but which was abandoned a few weeks later after the martyrdom. He notes that the classes may have been reinstituted the following year (See p. 227).

    These early classes, like the ones in Great Britain, seem to be either individual or branch/ward efforts to instruct children and were heavily influenced by the Protestant Sunday School movement which began in Great Britain and eventually took hold in America. They have often been ignored in the celebrations of Sunday School history. Instead, people have looked to Richard Ballentyne’s class as the original–the first in the Salt Lake Valley and the apparently the first to have some staying power and to spread to other wards. People began discussing a need for a uniform teaching program and George Q. Cannon launched the Juvenile Instructor to help fill the void. Eventually, after several attempts, the Sunday school classes were united in the Deseret Sunday School Union in 1872 with George Q. Cannon as general superintendant.

    Comment by blueagleranch — March 12, 2010 @ 11:29 am

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