The Sunday School Teacher's Guide

By John Angell James, 1816

The QUALIFICATIONS which every
teacher should seek to possess.

This is a part of the subject to which the attention of my readers should be directed with the deepest interest, and most lively solicitude. The following enumeration will furnish rather an elevated standard; but instead of condemning it as too high, it should be your endeavor to see how near you can approach it.

1. It is exceedingly important that you should be a partaker of real religion.

By personal religion, I mean more than a general profession of attachment to Christianity; more than a correct theory of religious sentiments; more than a stated attendance upon devotional forms; I mean an experimental acquaintance with the truths of the gospel, in their consoling and sanctifying influence. 'Tis certainly very true, that without such a state of heart, you may be useful in promoting the subordinate ends of the institution, but can scarcely be expected to reach that end which is ultimate, and supreme. You may perform the humbler duties in this spiritual husbandry, of gathering out the stone, and preparing the soil, but to cast the seed of the kingdom must be left to other hands. You may, it is true, impart a knowledge of letters, and teach the children to read even the book of God; but to be the instrument of writing his laws upon their minds, and inscribing them upon their hearts, is an honor to which without true piety you cannot aspire.

The teacher who is earnestly seeking the eternal salvation of his children, occupies a station as far above the level of another teacher, who seeks nothing more than their temporal advantage—as the angel flying through the midst of heaven is above the traveler who is toiling across the low and sandy desert. If I were to delineate, in picture, the emblem of a Sunday School teacher's duty and employment, I would represent Faith and Love, like the two angels that conducted Lot from Sodom, leading between them a poor child to the cross, and while one is directing his eye to the means of salvation, the other should be pointing him to the realms of eternal glory. But will this apply to you without decided personal religion? Oh no! If you are unconcerned about your own soul; if you gaze with a tearless eye upon the immortal ruins that lie within your own bosom; how can it be expected you will mourn over the spiritual desolation you see in others? How can you teach an unknown God? How can you represent that Savior as a pearl of great price, which to you is a stone of stumbling? Can you illustrate in what manner the principles of divine truth should constrain the conscience, and engage the affections; how they should become the elements of a new existence, and be breathed into the nostrils of the soul as the breath of spiritual life? what, this without experimental religion? No! Of all things it is most applicable to vital piety to be taught—it must be felt. And as you will be without ability, so in the absence of this qualification, you will be equally destitute of inclination, to seek the highest object of the institution. Can you feel disposed to alarm, to stimulate, to admonish others, in reference to the salvation of their souls, when every word brings back upon yourself the keen reproach, "Physician, heal yourself?" A tender conscience would not endure the insult; and to keep peace in your own bosom, you must soon abandon those favors abroad, which you refuse to bestow at home. If then you would start in the career of wisdom, and become candidates for a prize, which excites the ambition of two contending worlds, first become wise unto salvation for yourselves, and then, as from this mighty impulse, seek the eternal welfare of the children; "for he that wins souls is wise!"

2. A teacher should possess an accurate, and tolerably extensive acquaintance with divine truth.

It is not possible, neither is it desirable, to ascertain the lowest measure of knowledge, with which true godliness is compatible. In many cases, in reference to the piety of the heart, and the ideas of the mind, it may be said, the light shines in darkness. Far, very far removed from this dawn of divine truth in the soul, should be the degree of knowledge which every teacher should seek to possess. Your views should be clear and extensive. To much love in the heart—you should seek to add much light in the mind. You should have such an acquaintance with your bible, as to know to what parts of it more particularly to direct the attention of your scholars. You should have a competent knowledge of all its leading doctrines, and be able to cite with readiness particular passages to support them. Without this, how can you conduct the business of religious instruction with much effect? Remember your class forms a kind of little planetary system, of which, so far as instrumentality is concerned, you are the central luminary. If conscious of any considerable defect in religious knowledge, let your official responsibilities stimulate you to a more diligent perusal of the word of God. With you it should be an object of great desire not only to grow in grace, but also in the knowledge of God and our Savior Jesus Christ. You should devote much time to reading the scriptures and theological books. It would be found exceedingly beneficial, if you were to study with great attention the Assembly's Catechism, especially, if you can obtain it, the larger catechism, with proofs. Here you would find a clear and concise view of the doctrines and duties of divine truth, which, if stored in your mind, would greatly advance your usefulness as a teacher.

3. Solemnity of deportment is indispensably necessary. Here I would not be understood as wishing to envelope the schools of religion in the gloomy shades of a melancholy moroseness. You should be as remote from this disposition, as its opposite extreme, a trifling levity. A teacher of glad tidings should not array himself in sackcloth; nor should the messenger of mercy appear as sullen and repulsive as the specter of the cloister.

Religion, when wrapped in gloom, will present but little that is attractive to children; nor will they be able to conjecture, how a countenance that is professedly lifted up amidst the light of heaven, can present an aspect so gloomy, and so dark. Be it recollected, however, that the cheerfulness which true piety inspires, is holy and dignified like itself, and resembles, not the dissipating glare which is thrown over a city by the gaudy lights of an illumination—but that soft and soothing radiance which beautifies the face of nature on a summer's eve. Religion has its smiles; they are not borrowed, however, from the scenes of a ball room, but from the splendid visions of eternity, and therefore, with the happiness of heaven, partake something of its seriousness. The topics of immortality look ill-placed in the hands of frivolity; and in such circumstances are sure to lose much of their effect.

The authority of a teacher, of whatever description may be his pupils, can be maintained only by a dignified sedateness of manners. If we may judge from the frequency with which it is enjoined in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit appears to attach great importance to this disposition, since not only are the office-bearers of the Christian church commanded to be serious and sober-minded, but even its ordinary members, and especially young men are charged to show seriousness and sincerity, as if it were hardly possible to be sincere in religion, without being serious in deportment.

If you see the importance of such a disposition, you will be impressed with the necessity of avoiding a showy, and expensive mode of dress. These remarks apply, of course, more closely to female teachers. A fondness for dress is one of the prevailing evils of the present day, and unhappily it has crept down into the lower classes of society, and imposes its tax upon those who are but not able to support it. It is greatly to be feared, that of the multitudes of unhappy females from among the poor, who have left the paths of virtue, great numbers have been first led astray by this vain and expensive propensity. Between wearing mirthful clothes, and a delight in exhibiting them, the connection is almost inseparable in the disposition of ignorant and little minds—while this 'love of display' has often been the first thing to attract the eye of the seducer, just as the peacock, by expanding his feathers in the sun, has sometimes caught the attention of the vulture perched upon an eminence, and looking round for his prey. If one may judge from the conduct of the lower classes at the present time, they seem to be endeavoring to hide beneath gaudy colors, the most distant approach to poverty. Ten thousand evils will flow in upon society, and they have already begun to flow, when people shall conclude that they are respectable, in proportion as they are finely dressed.

How much is this disposition likely to be encouraged in the pupils, if it be enforced by the example of the teacher! Your children must have far more dignity of mind; far more solid reflection; and far more just discrimination, than can be expected in their circumstances, not to be fascinated with an exhibition, on your part, of "broidered hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly apparel." To regard these things with indifference, when constantly displayed before their eyes, is too much to look for in them, when it is not found in you. With such an object before them, a whole train of the very worst feelings are likely to arise; admiration, envy, discontent, all are rapidly engendered. The touch of velvet, and the gloss of satins; together with feathers, flowers, and ribbons, have but little virtue to reconcile them to the coarser textures, and the plainer lines of poverty.

Permit me then to recommend the utmost simplicity and neatness of apparel as of great importance in your office. Especially and earnestly do I enjoin the most scrupulous MODESTY. Even a distant approach to the indecency which has characterized some modern fashions, would be offering poison to the morals of every child before whom it is displayed. I am not enjoining baseness, much less slovenliness or filthiness. These are a species of semi-vices wherever they exist, and are to be counteracted in your children, by the instruction of your lips, and the force of your example. What I recommend may be all summed up in two words, modesty and neatness; or to express it in the language of an apostle, "Your beauty should not consist of outward things like elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold ornaments or fine clothes; instead, it should consist of the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very valuable in God's eyes." (1 Peter 3:3-4)

4. A teacher should be intimately acquainted with all the general proprieties of human conduct, which arise out of the distinctions of society, and be deeply impressed with their importance.

You should not only clearly understand what is religiously and morally right, but also have a keen perception of those minor distinctions between right and wrong, which have been established by the authorized laws of human fellowship. You should be acquainted with the obligations of inferiors to superiors; and of people in dependent stations in life, to those who are their supporters or employers. You should be alive to all the little niceties of behavior demanded by courtesy, and be able to declare to the children the impropriety of any instance of rudeness, incivility, or ingratitude. Christianity, instead of sinking the distinctions of society, has elevated and guarded them; and indeed has employed its most sublime and interesting motives, to enforce the minutest offices of social life. The children of the poor, especially in large manufacturing towns, are often exceedingly destitute of that respectful deportment towards their superiors, which the order of society necessarily requires. This defect, it is your duty, as much as possible, to supply. A civil, submissive, respectful habit, is not to be considered as merely constituting the polish of general character, but in some measure preparing for religious impression. A crude, uncivil, intractable youth, is the last in the school in whose heart holy emotions are likely to be produced. He who feels little respect for human authority, is yet far distant from bowing with humility before that which is divine.

5. It is very necessary that "an instructor of babes" should be able to communicate knowledge in a simple and familiar manner.

This is a talent peculiarly requisite in those who are entrusted with the education of children. The mere possession of knowledge does not qualify for the business of instruction, except it be attended with an aptitude in communicating it. Every judicious teacher will consider the character of his audience, and adapt his communications to their capacity. If his sentiments be not understood, he may as well talk in a foreign language. Children require a very different mode of instruction, to what may be adopted in the case of well-educated adults. They are ignorant of the first principles of divine truth. Nothing, with respect to them, must be taken for granted. You must assume nothing; everything is to be communicated. Perhaps it is the fault of all teachers, not excepting those who deliver their instructions from the pulpit, that they proceed on the supposition that their audience have more knowledge than they really possess. They take far too much for granted. This must be particularly avoided in the case of Sunday scholars. Of by far the greater number of them, it may be affirmed that they have not a single idea on the subject of religion, but what they learn from you; and you are to be very careful in presuming upon what they have learned.

The same remarks will apply to language as to sentiments. Their knowledge of words is as contracted as their range of ideas—and in order really to instruct them, you must always remember the extent of their vocabulary.

Your discourse cannot be too simple, and familiar, provided it be not vulgar. "Nothing (says Mr. Cecil) is easier than to talk to children; but to talk to them as they ought to be talked to, is the greatest effort of ability. A man must have a vigorous imagination, and be able to call in illustrations from the four corners of the earth; for he will make little progress but by illustration. It requires great genius to throw the mind into the habit of children's minds. I am surprised at nothing which Dr. Watts did, but his hymns for children. Other men could have written as well as he, in his other works; but how he wrote those hymns I know not."

An aptitude to teach children then in their own way, while it is necessary as a qualification, should be sought as an acquirement. I know of no better method by which this talent may be acquired than to read with attention, the most approved works which have been written for children, in order to mark, and imitate the style there adopted. Such, for instance, as Dr. Watts' Divine Songs for Children, and Miss Taylor's Hymns for Infant Minds, together with any other books, which manifest simplicity without baseness. If those who wish to cultivate an elegant style, read standard works of elegance, surely they whose office requires simplicity of address, should take the same pains to excel in their appropriate attainment.

6. A heart most deeply interested in the work, is a very necessary qualification.

This is a cause which leaves no room for the operation of those principles, to which, in the general concerns of mankind, so large a portion of human activity may be traced. Here neither avarice, nor ambition, nor vanity—can have any place, or contribute in the least degree towards success. Without a heart deeply interested in the work, there can be no energy and no success. That teacher who feels no conviction of the importance of the cause, and no solicitude about its outcome, who has been led into the school by no motive at all, or at best, no other motive than to follow the example, or gratify the desire of others—has entered upon a station for which he is ill qualified, and from which the sooner he retires the better. Without a most benevolent attachment to the duties of your office, you cannot perform them with much effect. This alone will carry you through the difficulties, discouragements, and sacrifices, which it calls you to sustain. Without such an anxious desire to be successful, as shall constrain you to that activity which is requisite to ensure success, you will do but little. 'Tis painful to observe with what a sauntering indifference some people perform the duties of the school. They begin with weariness and end with disgust. 'Tis very evident that whatever they devote to the cause—they have never given their hearts.

7. A patient temper is exceedingly requisite.

The business of instruction, especially the instruction of poor children, who have everything to learn—will often require the very utmost length of forbearance. You will meet with so much constitutional dullness, so much heedless attention, so much willful neglect, and so much insolent disobedience, that unless your feelings are under considerable control, you will often be hurried into excesses of impatience, disgraceful to yourself, and injurious to your pupils. The little vexations and irritations which arise to try a Sunday School Teacher's temper, are innumerable and unceasing. Yet to be successful you must be patient. You must discipline your temper until it is quite under restraint. A peevish or passionate manner, excited by every little irritating circumstance, renders you exceedingly unfit to deal with the untutored minds and habits of the children of the poor. In many cases impatience in the teacher must be exceedingly injurious to the improvement of the scholar.

Some minds are very slow in their advances, very timid in their steps, and require the most affectionate forbearance, to be kept from utter despair, and to be encouraged to go on at all. Harsh impetuosity here would at once overwhelm them with confusion and dismay. Very, very often is a pupil thrown into such inextricable disorder by a hasty and terrifying sally of the master's impatience, that memory and judgment both forsake him in his fright, and leave him the motionless victim of injudicious anger. A person that has not patience to communicate knowledge 'drop by drop', should never think of undertaking the instruction of ignorant children, since it is utterly impossible to pour it into their minds by 'copious streams'. We have all forgotten how slow and unwilling we were to receive the elementals of education, but as all children are very much alike in this respect, we may calculate upon our own experience with respect to others, as tolerably correct data of the pains that were taken with ourselves, and find in this no weak motive to seek the qualification which I now enjoin.