A free Sunday afternoon in London prior to a speaking engagement gave me opportunity to wander along the Thames Embankment opposite the London Eye Millennium Wheel. It was not just a casual walk. I was looking for something specific.
Two things, actually. One, somewhere along the Thames Embankment was the bust of Samuel Plimsoll, the 'sailor's friend' I wrote about in a Weekly Word recently.
Sure enough, diagonally opposite the London Eye, I came across the monument erected by grateful sailors for the man who introduced into British law the Plimsoll Line, which marks the level to which any registered ship can legally be loaded.
I was also aware that in the same area there was another statue to a hero I wanted to find. The Thames Embankment was a 19th century engineering reclamation project along the shores of the Thames River providing a retaining wall and easy road access along the river, as well as an inbuilt sewage system and tracks for the new London underground railway.
The reclaimed space, starting near Big Ben and the Parliament Buildings, made room for more gardens. Here the nation could honour a collection of her leading sons and daughters. Under the shelter of grand spreading trees, philosophers, composers and generals rub bronze shoulders with the likes of Samuel Plimsoll and the English Reformer, William Tyndale. The latter's inscription tells passersby that he was the first translator of the New Testament from Greek into English.
Rewarded for his efforts with martyrdom in Belgium in 1536, his dying words were: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes!" The inscription continues: 'Within a year, a Bible was placed in every parish church by the King's command.'
However, Tyndale was not the hero I was seeking. For that I had to go further towards Waterloo Bridge, about opposite Cleopatra's Needle. There, dwarfed by towering trees, was a statue of a man in 18th century wig, breeches and longcoat, with the inscription: ROBERT RAIKES, FOUNDER OF SUNDAY SCHOOLS, 1780.
Sunday schools?! Why would the city fathers bother to honour the founder of Sunday Schools? The term perhaps conjured up in our minds Bible study groups before or after church on Sunday which we may have enjoyed or endured in our childhood. So why should Raikes be ranked with generals, philosophers and martyrs?
The short answer is that Sunday Schools were the first step towards free education for all in Britain, a concept we are privileged to take for granted in most of the western world today.
But in 1780, things were very different. Conditions in Britain resembled those nations today where forced labour reigns in sweat shops, plantations and domestic slavery. Children had to work at least six days a week -in factories, in fields, in mines and as chimney sweeps, as described even decades later by Charles Dickens.
Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal and a devout believer, was concerned about crime and corruption among slum children. Concerned about ineffective prison reforms, he believed crime could be better prevented than cured. He realised that to help children break out of the viscious cycle of ignorance and abuse, they needed to learn life skills: spiritual, social and academic. They needed schooling of some sort.
Some schools already existed, of course, mostly associated with church institutions. While Puritans and evangelicals encouraged Bible reading and basic skill-learning on Sundays, such schooling was not generally open for unchurched street urchins.
Raikes, described as 'cheery, talkative, flamboyant and warm-hearted', realised that Sunday was the only time these children were not at work, and devised a plan for Sunday schools. He began writing textbooks with the Bible as the key reference, and recruited lay people to join his cause.
In July 1780, a Mrs Meredith opened her home in Gloucester to boys for lessons, the moment recognised as the beginning of the Sunday School movement that was to sweep the nation. Older boys were instructed to coach younger boys. Later girls too were allowed to attend.
Raikes covered expenses out of his own pocket in this initial phase. Over the next two years, several other schools were started in the region around Gloucester. When Raikes wrote an editorial about the schools in his Journal late in 1783, the idea of Sunday Schools began to spread rapidly around the country. Within two years a voluntary national organization, the Sunday School Society, was set up to co- ordinate and develop the work. By that time thousands of pupils were enrolled in the schools, and some adults even sat in the classes along with children.
Two decades after Raikes died in 1811, one in four British children- some 1,250,000-were enrolled in a vast network of Sunday Schools, staffed by Christian lay people. For the first time, school was open for all, albeit only one day per week.
A short distance from Raike's statue I came across another bronze figure, that of William Forster. His inscription told me that he was the politician responsible for introducing a national system of elementary education in England in 1870, building on the work of Raikes and others.
Why was I not surprised to learn, via Google, of Forster's Quaker roots? It is simply impossible to imagine the development of education in Britain, which then led the world, without Christian inspiration.
© YWAM Europe - Weekly Words are the personal reflections of Jeff Fountain and do not necessarily express the official position of YWAM—used with permission