The Sunday School Teacher's Guide

By John Angell James, 1816



As this life is a state of probation, it might be reasonably expected that every situation will have its trials. Temptations vary with our circumstances—but there is no scene from which they are entirely excluded. The heavenly, and the earthly paradise, alternately witnessed their attack, their victory, and their havoc. Angelic, as well as human perfection, yielded to their shock, and left a warning to every subsequent age, "not to be high minded—but to fear." In a world which God for a while has permitted to sink under the dominion of the prince of the power of the air, it is not to be wondered at that there is no situation, however obscured by solitude, or elevated by piety, from which all temptations can be effectually shut out. The fact is, that as our chief danger arises from our own evil heart, until we can be separated from our guilty selves we shall look in vain for a spot sequestered from the attack of our spiritual enemies. Well did our merciful Redeemer know our weakness and our dangers, when he put into our lips that appropriate petition, "lead us not into temptation."

What duty is more frequently enjoined in the New Testament, than WATCHFULNESS, and what is more necessary? How incumbent this is, on those who are engaged in the active duties of a Sunday School, will be very apparent, by even a partial enumeration of their temptations.

1. They are in great danger of receiving injury to their own personal religion.

The Sunday, if the expression should not be thought too low, is the 'market day of the soul'—when she lays in the provisions which are to refresh her, and the materials which are to employ her, during the ensuing week. If this day be misimproved, six days suffer for the neglect of one. It is very true, that real godliness will not confine itself to peculiar times and places. But still there are both peculiar times and places which are eminently adapted to promote its life and power. The Sunday and the sanctuary sustain the highest rank among the instituted means of religious benefit.

It is then that the Christian, engaged in warfare with this world, like a conflicting vessel at sea, lies aside for a season, to repair the damages he has received, and prepare again for action, by renewing the faith which gives him the victory. It is then that piety, wearied and weakened by the toils of her warfare, sits down to rest beneath the shadow of Christ's ordinances, and refreshing herself with the river of life, which flows at her feet, rises with renovated strength to pursue her journey to the city of habitation. Hence all those who are concerned for the prosperity of their spiritual interests, and are wise in the selection of means to promote them, set a high value upon the Sunday, as a chief means of grace of true religion.

Now without great care a Sunday School teacher is in imminent danger of losing much of the benefit of the Christian Sunday. As your attendance is required pretty early at the school, you are often exposed to the temptation of neglecting secret prayer on the Sunday morning. Without a most resolute and self-denying habit of early rising, you will be very frequently hurried away to the school before you have had time, except in a very hasty manner, to supplicate a blessing from God upon the services of the day. A Sunday that commences without prayer, is likely to be spent without pleasure, and closed without profit. It is in the closet that the soul is prepared for the blessings of the sanctuary. It is there the understanding is cleared for instruction, and the heart softened for impression. It is there that God excites the spiritual hunger and thirst, which he afterwards intends to satisfy with the provision of his holy temple. Everyone that wishes to find the Sunday a delight, should introduce it by a season of earnest, and secret prayer, which you, without most determined habits of early rising, are in consequence of your engagements, to neglect.

Without great vigilance you are in danger of losing the spirituality of the Sunday altogether, and making it rather a day of business—rather than of devotion. In many large schools much of the Laucasterian system of education is introduced into the method of instruction; and which certainly facilitates the communication of theoretical knowledge. But at the same time it must be confessed, that from its very nature, it has rather a tendency, without pre-eminent care on the part of the teacher; to increase the 'secularizing influence' of the whole concern of instruction. The audible repetition of orders, the evolutions of the classes, the exhibition of signals, and indeed the whole mechanism of the plan—has a great tendency to destroy that tranquility and spirituality of mind which are essential to the exercises of devotion.

In addition to this, the little vexations and irritations which the conduct of the scholars so frequently produces, are very apt to disturb and upset the most amiable temper—and thus disqualify the soul for that enjoyment, which requires the most serene and unruffled atmosphere. The body too, often grows weary, and the animal spirits flag; under such circumstances you sometimes enter upon the means of grace—but ill prepared to improve them. The service passes on, while, alas! neither the solemnity of prayer, nor the animating notes of holy praise; neither the fervor of the preacher, nor the seriousness of the surrounding congregation—seems to interest or impress you. And then mourning the coldness and barrenness of your heart, you retire to mark upon the gloomy chronicle of misimprovement another Sunday lost.

Many a heart will subscribe to the truth of this representation by a deep and heavy sigh, and many a tongue be ready to exclaim, "my wasting piety yields sad proof, that without watchfulness, genuine godliness may receive lamentable injury even in a Sunday School! But tell me how I may GUARD against the danger, its existence I know without being told?"

Begin the day as I have already directed, with earnest prayer, that you may carry a devotional spirit to your labors. Seriously remember your danger, and diligently watch against it. Keep in view the ultimate object of your exertions, and elevate your pursuits from the mere communication of knowledge, to the salvation of the immortal soul—as long as you can fix your mind on the spiritual interests of the children, and labor affectionately for them, you guard against the secularizing influence of the ordinary school business, and are cherishing a spirit every way friendly to your own piety. Make it the subject of earnest supplication, that God would preserve you from the danger to which you are exposed. Endeavor to acquire settled habits of stillness and order, that all unnecessary bustle may be avoided, and everything conducted with calmness and serenity. Employ the time you have to spare during the intervals of public worship, in devotional retirement. By these means, assiduously applied, the spirit of true piety may be preserved, and personal religion remain uninjured amidst the routine of Sunday School instruction.

There is another source from whence some degree of danger may be apprehended, and that is a habit of speaking on religious subjects, with too much indifference and levity. This applies to everyone who is called to teach religion officially. The solemn topics of heavenly truth, can never be treated lightly, with impunity. A mind accustomed to dwell upon them in a mere official and unfeeling manner, must gradually lose its susceptibility to their living influence; and become hardened against their power to sanctify and comfort. That which at one time we treat as the ordinary routine of business, it will be difficult at another to enjoy as the element of devotion. Let us then take care never to handle the truths of revelation with a light and careless touch; for by such means they are likely to become "the savor of death unto death." "The solemn awe, which warns us how we touch a holy thing," should ever imbue our minds while the topics of eternity are trembling on our tongues. Never forget, that 'everlasting interests' hang upon the truths which you teach to the children, and that their manner of learning them, in a considerable measure, will be an imitation of your manner of teaching them.

There is the greater need of watching against the danger to which your own personal piety is exposed from your office as a teacher—as of all causes of spiritual declension—this is the most likely to be excused by a deceived conscience. Is the following mode of reasoning new to you? "It is true I have not been of late so attentive to personal religion as I formerly was, and it must be confessed that divine truths affect me less powerfully than they once did. But as the neglect was produced by an attention to the interests of others, it is quite pardonable, for if I have not kept my own vineyard I have kept the vineyards of others; and therefore I consider that my falling off a little should be considered rather in the light of a sacrifice, than a sin."

It behooves us however, to recollect that our first care is with our own soul, and that as no duties can be incompatible with each other, nothing is required of us that necessarily interferes with personal piety. Nothing can possibly be a substitute for this; nothing excuse the decline of it. The most diffusive benevolence, nor the most ardent zeal—will not be accepted by God as an apology for sinking into the crime of lukewarmness. There is however no necessary connection between a decay of piety, and the duties of a Sunday School—the danger arises only in those cases where there is a lack of caution; properly conducted, your employment would be found rather an auxiliary than a foe to the most spiritual mind.

2. Another temptation to which Sunday School teachers are exposed, is a spirit of PRIDE.

To be a teacher of others; to be invested with authority; to be regarded as an oracle; to be listened to with deference; to say to one 'come,' and he comes, to another 'go,' and he goes, even among children—is a situation which has its temptations, and which some weak minds have found quite too powerful for the growth of humility. You mistake, if you suppose the distinction and elevation of your office, are too inconsiderable to induce pride. Pride is a vice that does not dwell exclusively in king's houses, wear only elegant clothing, and feed sumptuously every day upon lofty titles, fame or affluence. Pride is generated in the depravity of our nature, it accommodates itself to our circumstances, and adapts itself to our taste—it is found as often in the poor cottage, as in the mansion; and never having tasted the richer provisions of loftier elevations—feeds with avidity upon the lowest distinctions, which raise one man above another. Consciousness of superiority, whatever be the object of comparison, is the element of this most hateful disposition of pride; and this may be supplied even from the office of a Sunday School teacher.

The danger is greatly increased, where the talents of a young person have procured for him a prominent station, and assigned to him the discharge of extraordinary duties. It would indeed be an unhappy abuse of the system, if it should be perverted into a means of destroying that modest, and retiring disposition, which is the most attractive ornament of the young, and rendering them bold, forward and conceited; a danger, which it requires no penetration to discern, must ever attend a season like that in which we live, of extraordinary activity.

The mode of doing good in the present age, with all its incalculable advantages to the interests of mankind at large, needs the greatest watchfulness, both on the part of its principal agents, and its subordinate instruments, lest it generate the prideful disposition, against which this particular warning is directed. Vast multitudes are now brought from silence and obscurity, to sustain in public a share of that distinguished honor, which the cause of Christ imparts to the lowest of its advocates. Let them therefore be watchful of their own spirit, for the loss of humility is a destruction in the Christian character, not to be repaired by the most splendid talents, or the most active zeal. While at the same time it would be an evil which our congregations would have cause to deplore with tears of blood, if their younger members should ever be inflated by any cause with the spirit of pride.

3. Nearly allied to this is the danger of acquiring a dogmatic, authoritative and overbearing manner.

The previous particular temptation referred to spirit; this more directly relates to manner—for it is quite conceivable that through the force of habit a person may acquire dogmatic manner, without being considerably infected by a prideful spirit. Accustomed to speak with authority to the children, and to expect prompt obedience to your commands, you are in danger, without great watchfulness, of carrying the tone and air of office into your general deportment. A habit of dogmatic and overbearing manner—may be formed by imperceptible degrees, displayed without consciousness, and not broken without difficulty. Wherever it exists it never fails to create disgust—but is never so disgusting as in young people.