The Christ Church (Old North) Scholars: Meet the Children Who Attended the United States’ First Sunday School
By Lauren Middleton, Old North Illuminated Research Intern (Spring 2023)
Boston’s Old North Church is perhaps best known for its pivotal role in the American Revolution. On the eve of April 18, 1775, church sexton Robert Newman and vestryman Capt. John Pulling Jr. ascended into the church’s steeple and hung signal lanterns to warn the colonists of the arrival of British troops “by sea” across the Charles River. However, that is not the only defining moment in Old North’s history. Members of the Old North Church, formally known as Christ Church, are said to have established the first Sunday School in the United States. Efforts to create a Sunday School were led by the then-rector, Rev. Dr. Asa Eaton, and a vestry member named Shubael Bell. In June 1815, the church opened the Christ Church Sunday School.
The following is an interactive map that shows where in Boston the Christ Church Sunday School scholars lived in 1814. The first location that is highlighted on the map is the location of the Old North Church. As you click through the map, you will visit various streets throughout Boston’s North End neighborhood. When you click on each label, you will meet the students who lived there. You will also learn how old they were in 1814, their parent’s name(s), and their parent’s profession.
The following is an interactive map that shows where in Boston the Christ Church Sunday School scholars lived in 1835. This map reflects my efforts to track the scholars’ lives two decades after they attended the Sunday School. I did so to understand the progression of their lives: did they stay in the North End? What was their job? As you click through this map, you will notice that only a handful of scholars from the 1814 map are included on the 1835 map. I could not trace most of the scholars. I imagine this was due to several reasons. It was likely difficult to track the female scholars because many of them might have married and changed their surnames. It is also likely that some of the scholars moved out of Boston. Use both maps to go on a journey with the Christ Church scholars over two decades.
Why Did I Map My Findings?
When deciding how to present my research findings about the children who attended the Christ Church Sunday School, I was intrigued by the idea of creating an interactive map. Why? Because a map allows one to contextualize the lives and experiences of the individuals being researched. I knew that I wanted to complete a project that would bring the stories of the Christ Church Sunday School scholars to life. Maps allow history to come alive. One of the most important aspects of history is remembering that the people we study were humans. They shopped for food, went to school, fell in love, had fears, and made plans for their futures.
When you use this map to see where the Sunday School scholars lived and read about their experiences, I hope you will visualize their everyday lives. As you look at the map, you might think about how far the scholars walked to attend Sunday School. Perhaps you will notice how far away they lived from each other. Maybe their parents’ profession(s) will provide insight into why they lived in the North End. While we have limited information about these children, we know they shared a neighborhood. Therefore, we can imagine that they were each other’s support system.
The map reveals that all the students lived in Boston’s North End neighborhood, the same neighborhood as the Old North Church. In early nineteenth-century Boston, there were several options available to parents to educate their children. Public schools had recently become co-educational. Parents could also enroll their children in private schools.1 Notably, the Christ Church Sunday School did not operate in the way that many contemporary Sunday schools do. Contemporary Sunday Schools primarily provide religious education. However, the Christ Church Sunday School taught students literacy and reading comprehension.2
Students met for Sunday School in the Salem Street Academy, a schoolhouse on the north side of the church’s property. The Sunday School’s records reflect that the school encouraged students from all over the city to enroll, regardless of their family’s religious affiliations. The education students received at the Christ Church Sunday School often took the form of catechisms, short workbooks designed to teach children lessons about Christianity using a question-and-answer format.3 The Sunday School also offered different classes for students depending on their level of proficiency. A student’s class assignment depended on their knowledge of Christian theology and their ability to read and write. The Christ Church Sunday School offered students religious training and laid the groundwork for the education they would need to succeed professionally.
Why Did Parents Send Their Children To Christ Church Sunday School?
The reasons parents sent their children to the Christ Church Sunday School can be boiled down to two factors: convenience and community. The church was an imposing and established presence in the North End neighborhood as it underwent many changes. Throughout the nineteenth century, the neighborhood became the new home to European immigrants who sought to establish themselves in the United States. At this time, the church was the backbone of the North End; it was where people would socialize, seek support, and come together. In the increasingly immigrant and working-class neighborhood, the Christ Church Sunday School offered tangible support to community members.
The work of a previous ONI research intern, Janika Dillon, demonstrates one way that the church cared for the community. Janika studied the efforts of Old North’s Fragment Society. Founded in 1818, Old North’s Fragment Society was a group of women who provided clothing to children who attended the Sunday School but could not afford to purchase the clothing they needed to come to church. Fragment Society members were each assigned to visit one low-income family in the North End to assess the level of aid they needed. Single parents were the primary beneficiaries of the Fragment Society’s services. In nineteenth-century Boston, single-parent households, especially those led by women, could not afford to care for multiple children. If they could not support their children, parents risked their children becoming indentured servants or being sent to orphanages.4 Old North was not the only Boston church with a Fragment Society. Most notably, King’s Chapel in Boston had a Fragment Society that allowed them to help clothe working-class Bostonians.
Did Black Children Attend the Christ Church Sunday School?
Another question that I found intriguing was whether or not Black children were educated at the Christ Church Sunday School. By the early nineteenth century, people of color still attended Old North for worship, but seating in the sanctuary was segregated by race and social class. Tax records and census data reveal that most Black families lived in Boston’s West End and Beacon Hill neighborhoods by the early nineteenth century. Therefore, most Black children who attended school went to racially segregated schools in Beacon Hill. In 1798, abolitionist Primus Hall, who was married at Old North Church, started a school for Black children in his home. The school was later moved to the African Meeting House. The school offered Black children a place to learn that was free from the prejudice and discrimination that pervaded all aspects of their social lives. During my examination of the Sunday School roll, Boston Directories, and Federal Censuses, I did not come across any data suggesting that Black children attended the Sunday School. If they were ever in attendance, they remained undocumented or attended in small numbers.
My study of the Christ Church Sunday School records reveals the complex lives of working-class families in the North End in the early nineteenth century. Like us, the children who attended the United States’ first Sunday School had families, made friends, wanted to learn, and became adults who contributed to their communities. In addition to teaching us about young people’s lives in Boston during this time, the Sunday School records allow us to see that Old North was a pioneer of public education. As we continue to think about the history and future of public education in the United States, we will do well to remember Old North’s central role in that history.
1. Kermes, Stephanie. “‘To Make Them Fit Wives for Well Educated Men’? – WordPress.com.” New England Women’s Club Fellowship (2004/5). Accessed May 1, 2023. https://docmadson.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/bps-girls-education.pdf.
2. “Where Sunday School Comes from – Jstor Daily.” Accessed May 1, 2023. https://daily.jstor.org/where-sunday-school-comes-from/.
3. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “catechism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 23, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/catechism.
4. Porter, Susan L. “Victorian Values in the Marketplace: Single Women and Work in Boston, 1800-1850.” Social Science History 17, no. 1 (1993): 109–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/1171246.