If America has its socialist movement to thank for its Pledge of Allegiance and its flag cult, so too do Protestant churches in both America and Great Britain have their respective socialist movements to thank for the existence of Sunday School.
The Socialist Sunday School movement began in the same place as the original Sunday schools, on the island of Great Britain. The latter began in early 19th century as places of educational instruction for children of working class parents, many of whom themselves worked six days a week alongside their fathers and mothers. It then spread to the U.S. After the increase in availability of public education, the Sunday schools, here and in the United Kingdom, became more strictly religious.
In 1892, Mary Gray of the London chapter of the Social Democratic Federation began the first Socialist Sunday School after serving on the line of a soup kitchen during a dock workers strike that year. She started it to give the children a basic education and to teach them important socialist values. From there, it spread to the rest of the United Kingdom and eventually crossed the pond to America.
In order to counter the chauvinistic political indoctrination in public schools increasingly conservative churches during the Progressive Era, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) organized Socialist Sunday Schools wherever it had chapters of its Young People’s Socialist League. The party’s literary and collegiate arm, the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), provided most of the oversight.
The brainchild of Upton Sinclair, the ISS was co-founded by him, Jack London, Clarence Darrow, Walter Lippman, Helen Keller, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Norman Thomas, Harry Laidler, Florence Kelley, Jack Reed, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, B.O. Flower, abolitionist hero Thomas Wentworth Higginson, J. Graham Phelps Stokes, and Owen R. Lovejoy. London was elected president and Sinclair first vice president.
In 1921, the society changed its name to the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), and established a youth wing in 1930, the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID). The SLID changed its name in 1958 to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which was to become one of the key organizations of the New Left movement in the 1960’s.
The purpose of the SPA’s Socialist Sunday Schools was “to contest more directly the overly individualistic, competitive, nationalistic, militaristic themes prevalent in contemporary public schools and other social institutions, and help in supplanting capitalist social and economic relations with a more equitable and cooperative form.”*
The schools had strong support from the highest ranks of the party, including Eugene Debs. They had their own textbooks, their own songbooks, even their own Socialist Ten Commandments for the children to memorize:
1. Love your school companions, who will be your co-workers in life.
2. Love learning, which is the food of the mind; be as grateful to your teachers as to your parents.
3. Make every day holy by good and useful deeds and kindly actions.
4. Honour good men and women; be courteous to all; bow down to none.
5. Do not hate or speak evil of any one; do not be revengeful, but stand up for your rights and resist oppression.
6. Do not be cowardly. Be a good friend to the weak, and love justice.
7. Remember that all good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.
8. Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason, and never deceive yourself or others.
9. Do not think that they who love their own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.
10. Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one community, and live together as equals in peace and righteousness.
These were composed in England, perhaps by Comrade Gray herself, and they spread west to America along with the Socialist Sunday School movement.
From 1900 to 1920, the heyday of the American socialist movement, there were some one hundred Socialist Sunday Schools in sixty-four cities and towns across the nation.
In their homeland on the island of Great Britain, there were some 200 Socialist Sunday Schools in England and Scotland, and the movement lasted to the latter half of the 1920’s.
*quote from Kenneth Teitelbaum's Schooling for “Good Rebels”: Socialist Education for Children in the United States, 1900-1920, published 1993.