The Sunday School Teacher's Guide

By John Angell James, 1816


If, in addition to what has been already advanced, anything is still lacking to stimulate your zeal, yield your hearts to the influence of the following motives—

1. Dwell upon the value of Sunday Schools to all the present interests of SOCIETY. As Britons and as Christians, you must love the country that gave you birth—and that man is unworthy to tread the soil, or breathe the air of England, who is insensible to blessings of this "bright speck upon the bosom of the ocean." Now, if we love our country, we must desire to see her great amidst the nations of the earth; safe amidst her greatness; and happy in her safety. And who needs to be informed, that wisdom and knowledge must be the stability of her times? Her greatness, her safety, and her happiness, all rest upon the moral character of her population. Whatever elevates this, exalts the nation. Next to the labors of an evangelical ministry, no plan that ever was devised, has a greater tendency to improve the religious state of society, than the institution of Sunday Schools.

Sunday Schools lessen the CRIMES which disturb its peace. It is to be recollected, that the instruction communicated by you is strictly moral and religious. How far mere general knowledge, independently of revelation, would operate in improving the moral character of a people, we can scarcely presume to determine, because the experiment has never been tried. But that the communication of Scriptural knowledge has a most beneficial tendency, it would be ridiculous to attempt to prove. It may be useful, however, here to remind you of those great national facts which are so often appealed to, in illustration of the good effects of religious education among the poor. It is generally known and allowed that Scotland, and the low counties of it in particular, are distinguished from all other parts of the British empire, by the attention which is bestowed on early education, and the provision which is made for the wide and regular diffusion of its benefits. It is provided by law in Scotland, that there shall be a school established, and a master appointed in every parish. Many additional schools are also founded by donations and legacies; so that in the southern parts of the kingdom, it is very rare to find a person who cannot both read and write; and it is deemed scandalous not to be possessed of a bible. Now what are the effects of all this upon the national character and habits of the Scotch, and on the morals and order of society? It is principally owing to this, says Mr. Howard the philanthropist, that the numerous emigrants from that country, dispersed over almost all Europe, appear with credit, and advance themselves in their several stations. From the tables of the same justly celebrated writer, it appears that in the whole of Scotland, whose population was estimated to amount to be at least one million, six hundred thousand souls, only one hundred and thirty-four people were convicted of 'capital crimes' in a period of nineteen years; being on the average, about seven in each year. In a subsequent table we are informed, that in the single circuit of Norfolk, in England, including six counties, and containing, it is supposed, not more than eight hundred thousand people, being but one half of the population of Scotland, no less than four hundred and thirty-four criminals were condemned to death in the space of twenty three years—which is an annual average of nearly nineteen capital convicts, besides eight hundred and seventy-four sentenced to exile. The double population of Scotland being taken into the account, there is thus a difference in its favor, in this important point, in the ratio of seven to thirty-eight. (Extracted from Mr. Jabez Bunting's Sermon, preached before the members of the Sunday School Union.)

Now it should be observed, that the education in Scotland to which this superiority may be attributed, embraces much that is moral and pious, although there is reason to fear that of late years some relaxation has taken place.

If we pass over to Ireland, we shall find the darkest part of the empire, with respect to education, the most prolific of crimes and miseries. The wretched state of that unhappy country is in a considerable degree to be traced up to the prevalence of a superstitious religion, which withholds education from the poor.

Consider then what benefits you are conferring upon society by promoting the religious education of the poor. But besides the crimes which are cognizable by human laws, you are the happy instruments of lessening the prevalence of that multitude of vices, which although amenable only at the bar of God, convulse society to its center, and spread suffering and misery through all its walks. Profanity and falsehood; drunkenness and debauchery; excessive rage and ungoverned malignity; and all the dispositions that in the different social relations render man a fend to man, it may be reasonably hoped, are considerably diminished by the influence of your benevolent exertions.

On the outer hand, Sunday Schools multiply the VIRTUES that establish the comfort of society. All the particular duties that arise out of the reciprocal ties of society are inculcated, while the general principles of benevolence and submission, which like two mighty columns support the whole fabric of ours social concerns—are deeply founded in the human bosom. Although the general aspect of society, in its lower classes, appears as yet unchanged, and the wintry face of its morality, at present, seems to throw to a great distance the harvest of your zeal—still let it be a stimulus to your exertions, to be assured that you are pouring the principle of moral fertility through a thousand channels, and that already you see here and there a spring flower lifting its head amidst barrenness and storms, the welcome harbinger of a happier season. Already innumerable masters bless your labors for faithful servants—wives pour out their gratitude for industrious and affectionate husbands, and children, as they gather round the knees of a kind and tender father, well-clad, well-fed, well-taught—turn to you with the thankful smiles of their bliss, as their benefactors, who made their parents what they are. Society, through all its ranks, gratefully acknowledges the obligations conferred by your labors, and earnestly solicits their continuance. The king from his throne, and the senate in full convention, have paid the tribute of admiration to the utility of your exertions. You are acknowledged to be some of the best friends of the community, and the most efficient philanthropists of the poor. Your efforts are directed to prevent crimes—instead of punishing them; and to prevent misery—instead of merely relieving it. Pursue your labors with increasing diligence, since their tendency is to strengthen the foundations, and adorn the fabric of society.

2. Dwell upon the incalculable worth of immortal souls. So far as the children are individually concerned, I again remind you, that their temporal interests are the lowest object of pursuit. Your ultimate and highest end is the salvation of the immortal soul. This is your aim, to be instrumental in converting the souls of the children from the error of their ways, and training them up in the fear of God—for everlasting glory! What an object! The immortal soul! The salvation of the human spirit! The soul was the last and noblest work of God in the formation of the world; the finish and ornament of this material fabric, on which the divine architect bestowed his most mature deliberation, and expended his richest treasures. It stood amidst creation the fair and beauteous image of the Creator. This was the object which upon his expulsion from Paradise, first caught the envious eye of Satan, and in the spoils of which his malice sought a fiend-like solace for the loss of heaven. This was the object which in its fall dragged the creation into a vortex of ruin. This was the object selected by the great God in the councils of eternity, whose salvation should be the means of exhibiting to the universe the most glorious display of his divine perfections. This was the object on which his mercy, wisdom, and power were to exhaust their united resources. This was the object for which the Son of God could justify himself to all worlds—as not demeaning his dignity, or disparaging his wisdom, when for its salvation he veiled his divinity in human flesh, was made lower than the angels for a while, tabernacled amidst the sorrows of mortality, and closed a life of humiliation and suffering upon the ignominious summit of the cross. This is the object for which all the revelations of heaven, and all the dispensations of grace; all the labors of prophets, priests, and apostles—in short, all the splendid apparatus of redemption, was arranged. This is the object whose interests render angels unquiet upon their heavenly seats, and draw them with exquisite solicitude to minister to its safety. Such is the retinue attending upon the soul of man, into whose train you have fallen.

What then must be the value of the human soul! Now you see the justice of our savior's language—"What is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul; or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Now you perceive this is no hyperbole, and that literally the globe weighed against the value of one human soul—is less than the small dust of the balance. Convert the sun into one blazing diamond, the moon into an exquisite pearl, and every star that decks the skies into a gemstone—all this bears no proportion to the value of a soul. Arithmetic, with all its powers, is here of no use; it cannot aid our conceptions. Think of the immortality of the soul, and this one property of its nature raises it above all calculation. It is in consequence of this, that it has been said with justice, that the salvation of a soul amounts to a greater sum of happiness, than the temporal deliverance of an empire for a thousand ages, for the latter will come to an end—but not the former. By the same argument the loss of one soul is a greater catastrophe than the sum total of all the temporal misery endured upon the face of the globe from the period of the fall, to the final and universal conflagration! Say now—is not such an object worthy all the means that are, or can be employed for its attainment? Do you hesitate? Ponder, intensely ponder again. The subject can never be exhausted; the more it is studied, the wider will its compass appear. Should you be the happy instrument of converting but one soul to God, what honor are you providing for yourselves, what happiness for others!

My imagination has sometimes presented me with this picture of a faithful teacher's entrance to the state of her everlasting rest. The agony of death finished, the triumph of faith completed—and the conquering spirit hastening to her crown. Upon the confines of the heavenly world, a form divinely lovely awaits her arrival. Enrapt in astonishment at the dazzling glory of this celestial inhabitant, and as yet a stranger in the world of spirits, she inquires, "Is this Gabriel, chief of all the heavenly multitudes—and am I honored with his aid to guide me to the throne of God?" With a smile of ineffable delight, such as gives fresh beauty to an angel's countenance, the mystic form replies, "Do you remember little Elizabeth, who was in yonder world, a pupil in your Sunday school class? Do you recollect the child who wept as you talked to her of sin—and directed her to the cross of the dying Redeemer? God smiled with approbation upon your effort, and by his own Spirit sealed the impression upon her heart in characters never to be effaced. Providence removed her from beneath your care, before the fruit of your labor was visible. The gospel seed, however, had taken root, and it was the business of another to water what you had sown. Nourished by the influence of heaven, the plant of piety flourished in her heart, and shed its fragrance upon her character. Piety, after guarding her from the snares of youth, cheered her amidst the accumulated trials of an afflicted life, supported her amidst the agonies of her last conflict, and elevated her to the mansions of immortality! And now behold before you, the glorified spirit of that poor child, who under God owes the eternal life on which she has lately entered, to your faithful labors in the Sunday School; and who is now sent by our Redeemer to introduce you to the world of glory, as your first and least reward for guiding the once thoughtless, ignorant, wicked Elizabeth to the world of grace! Hail, happy spirit! Hail, favored of the Lord! Hail, deliverer of my soul! Hail, to the world of eternal glory!"

I can trace the scene no further. I cannot paint the raptures produced in the honored teacher's bosom by this unexpected encounter. I cannot depict the mutual gratitude and love of two such spirits meeting on the confines of heaven, much less can I follow them to their everlasting mansion, and disclose the bliss which they shall enjoy before the throne of God!

All this, and a thousand times more, is attendant upon the salvation of one single soul! Teachers, what a motive to diligence!

3. Consider to what indefinite lengths your usefulness may extend. Where you design only the improvement of individuals, God, through those individuals, may make you the instruments of blessing multitudes! Where you intend only to produce private worth, God may employ your zeal to form public excellences. You may be the means of nourishing and developing intellectual energies, which shall one day be of the greatest benefit to the civil interests of society. And what is more important, you may be imparting the first rudiments of that knowledge and piety, which in their maturity may be employed by God in the service of the sanctuary. Ministers are already preaching that gospel to others which they themselves first learned in a Sunday School; and missionaries are arresting the savages of the desert with the sweet wonders of that cross—which was first displayed to their own view by the efforts of a faithful teacher. Such instances, in all probability, will occur again, and are fairly within the scope of your ambition. In such a case who can trace the progression of your usefulness, or tell into how wide a stream it shall expand into—as it rolls forward in a course never to be arrested, but by the sound of that trumpet which proclaims that time shall be no more!

4. Think upon the shortness of the time during which the children can enjoy your care. In a few, a very few years at most, they will all be gone beyond your instruction. Every Sunday almost, some are leaving the school and retiring, it is to be feared in many cases, beyond the sound of pious admonition, forever! Beyond the age of fifteen or sixteen, few remain to enjoy the privileges of the school; and but few, comparatively, remain so long. Could we even protract the period of childhood, and lengthen the term during which they consider themselves as beneath our care; could we in every instance be convinced that when they leave our schools, they still continue to enjoy the means of pious nurture, even in this case there would be no ground for a relaxation of your diligence—the value of the soul, and the importance of its salvation, would demand your utmost exertion. But this is not the case. In a year or two you must give them up—and to what! To the violence of their own corruptions—to the strength of their own passions—to the pollution of evil company—without a friend to watch over them, or a single guide to direct them. On leaving the school, many of them take leave of the church; and when they cease to hear the voice of the teacher, listen no more to the joyful sound from the lips of the preacher.

What a motive to diligence! Can you be insensible to its force? Can you read this simple statement and not feel every dormant energy stirring within you? Can you not resolve, by the help of God, to renew your efforts? Do you not feel the blush of shame for 'past indifference' diffusing itself this moment over your countenance? By all that is dear and invaluable in the eternal interests of the children; by the shortness of the time during which those interests will be under your care, I implore you to be diligent to the very last effort of your soul.

5. Remember how transient is the season during which you can be employed in these labors of love. Were you certain of reaching the extreme boundaries of human existence, and had the prospect of extending your exertions far into the season of old age; yes, could you be ensured to live a thousand years, and employ it all for the good of others—even under these circumstances, you could not be too diligent in the business of your office. Immortality is a theme that will support the weightiest arguments, and justify the most impassioned exhortations. I again repeat, nor fear the charge of 'repetition'—the salvation of immortal souls is the ultimate object of your office! And when professing to labor for such an object, indolence would be inexcusable amidst the range of centuries. But you have not centuries at command. "What is your life! it is even as a vapor that appears for a little while, and then vanishes away!" The uncertainty of life is a proverb, which we hear every day repeated; a fact which we see every day proved. You may be soon and suddenly called away from the scene of labor. You leave the school every Sunday without knowing that you shall return to it again. Death pays respect neither to youth, nor usefulness—but mows down together the tender herb, the fragrant flower, and noxious weed. The next stroke of his scythe may reach you! Among the names that will be inserted in the report of the present year's proceedings as blotted from the book of mortal life, yours may be read at the next anniversary amidst the sighs and the tears of your fellow teachers! The place which knows you now, may then know you no more forever. You are laboring in the garden of the Lord—but in the garden is a sepulcher. "Work while it is called today, the night comes when no man can work. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave where you go." Enter upon every Sunday's exertions with the reflection that it may be your last—and be as diligent as if you knew that it would!

But death is not the only way in which a termination can be put to your exertions. In a few years the claims and the cares of a rising family may demand your time at home. For however cordially you may be disposed to continue your benevolent attention to the duties of the school and the interests of the children, the demands of the household of your own must be admitted. The honor of doing anything in this way for the cause of God and souls, truth and holiness, may soon be removed beyond your reach. The opportunity will last but a little longer for you to enrich the crown of your rejoicing with fresh gems, or to increase that part of the bliss of heaven, which will arise from witnessing the raptures of those whom we were the instruments of introducing to the mansions of glory. It is a golden season that you now enjoy—it is rapidly passing away—it will never return; diligently improve it therefore, while it lasts!

6. Dwell upon the honor of being instrumental in imparting moral, spiritual, and eternal benefits. I have already pointed out, which indeed requires no proof—the adaptation of Sunday School instruction to promote the moral excellence of the lower classes—and whoever does this, must be acknowledged to be the most useful, and therefore the most honorable member of the community. The men who have improved and adorned their country by the splendid creations of their genius, have had their names emblazoned in the temple of fame, and received all the honors which admiring generations could confer upon their memory. But what is the honor of adorning a city with the classic productions of the chisel or the pencil, and filling it with temples, statues, and paintings—compared with the more useful labor of causing righteousness to flow down its streets like a river, erecting the temples of the Holy Spirit, and multiplying even in the abodes of poverty, the living images of the great God? In imparting moral and spiritual good, you are conferring benefits which shall be perpetuated through infinite ages after the fashion of this world has passed away forever! This is emphatically to do good!

What can equal the honor of being instrumental in reforming, renewing, sanctifying, and adorning the human character; clothing it with the virtues of morality, and investing it with the graces of true godliness! Among the ancient Pagans, it was a title of the highest honor to be termed a 'Benefactor'—to have done good was accounted honorable; hence the apostle argues that for a good man, that is a man who does good, some would even dare to die. "To love the public," says a wicked writer, who yet found himself compelled by the force of reason to publish this confession, "to study the universal good, and to promote the interest of the world as far as it is in our power, is surely the highest goodness, and constitutes that temper which we call divine." In this consists the true honor of your employment, that it is doing good, and to do good is Godlike. God is by no means dependant upon the use of 'means' for the communication of moral and spiritual benefits—he could have accomplished the purposes of his benevolence without the intervention of human instrumentality; this arrangement was designed in the way of favor to humanity, and was expressly intended as a distinguished, though unmerited, honor upon the human race.

Dwell upon your character and circumstances, and say if it is not singular goodness in Jehovah to employ you in imparting the knowledge of his nature and of his will, to your fellow creatures. The good you do is not merely of a temporal nature; although even in this sense it is a high honor to do good. It is noble to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to heal the sick, and shelter the aged. The name of the philanthropist shines with a purer, brighter glory on the page of history than any other. If then, it is so honorable to do good to the body, how much greater the distinction to relieve the miseries and establish the interests of the immortal spirit; to render our fellow creatures happy in themselves, and a blessing to others; to fit them for the communion of heaven, after having taught them to be the humble ornaments of society on earth!

To communicate eternal spiritual good—is the very noblest employment of an intelligent being. It is that very operation in which the great God takes more delight than in all the rest of his works. This was the object on which the heart of the Redeemer was set when he was made flesh and dwelt among us. For this the Holy Spirit was poured out from above. For this prophets labored and apostles preached. In the perfect enjoyment of spiritual benefits will consist the consummation of heaven itself. What a distinguished honor then to be engaged, although in the humblest manner, in such a work! This is to be raised into a likeness of that glorious being who is good and does good. A time is fast arriving when it will be seen and felt, that to have been instrumental in conferring spiritual good upon one soul of man, is a brighter and more lasting glory than the most solid achievements of philosophy, or the most splendid discoveries of science!

Let, it be manifest then by your diligence, that you are sensible of your privilege. Put not the glory away from you. Stir up every energy of your soul, to do all the good you can. It is an object worthy of your hallowed ambition. The warrior who is pressing through human misery to pluck his blood-stained laurels, thinks little of the hazard of his life. The author, by intense study, is wasting away his strength to gain the prize of literary fame. The the artist is laboring for the applause of futurity. Be it your object to do good to the present and eternal interests of your fellow creatures, and in such a career, your ambition is pursuing a loftier flight than all the rest, and ascending into regions far elevated above the highest pinnacle of the temple of fame.

7. Consider what results might be expected—if every teacher were possessed of all suitable qualifications, and were to devote himself to the duties of his office with all possible diligence. It may be safely affirmed that we have never yet seen, that we have scarcely yet conjectured the hundredth part of the benefit which the Sunday School system might be made to produce—when applied under all the advantages of which it is susceptible. Its adaptation and capacities for improving the condition of the poor are admirable and incalculable. Take the aggregate number of Sunday school teachers, and suppose that these teachers, to whom the pious education of millions of poor children are entrusted—were all fully qualified for their office, and most diligently employed in discharging its duties; suppose they were all people of exemplary piety; possessed of an enlarged acquaintance with the whole range of revealed truth; well instructed in all the general proprieties of human understanding; endowed with peculiar aptitude to impart instruction to the youthful mind, and patient in their temper. With such qualifications suppose they all recognized, as the ultimate end of their labors, the formation of those truly pious habits in the children, which should be connected with the salvation of their immortal souls, and subordinate to this the improvement of their general character, so as to render them kind, gentle, submissive, and orderly. Then conceive of these thousands of teachers, thus fitted for their work, devoting themselves to their weekly business of instruction with intense ardor of mind; entering upon the duties of their office Sunday after Sunday with a deeply interested heart; laboring with the most affectionate and unwearied solicitude for their present and eternal welfare; conducting the whole business of instruction with a judicious discrimination of the different tempers they have to deal with; wisely applying all suitable rewards and punishments; punctual and unwearied in their attention; dignified yet affable in their manner—and mingling with all their efforts importunate prayer to him who alone can render them effectual. In addition to this, suppose them in their behavior one to another to be universally affectionate and respectful, acting in perfect harmony for the general good, and animated by one mind. Suppose, I say, that this were universally the case with the vast body of Sunday School teachers—what results might we not expect!

When we consider the adaptation of the system itself to impart religious instruction, and produce pious impression; when we consider that godly education is among God's own instituted means of conversion; when we consider how willing he is to pour out the influence of his Spirit upon the ordinances which he has appointed—especially when we add to this the good effects which have already resulted from the imperfect application of the system—it is scarcely possible to conjecture what a glorious revolution would be visible in the habits of the lower orders of society, if our teachers were universally such as I have described. Instead of hearing occasionally that here and there a child was under pious concern—we would in all probability have the pleasing scene before us of great numbers inquiring the way to Zion with their faces thitherward. Instead of occasionally witnessing external reformation of conduct in those who were crude, intractable, and violent—we would often receive the gratitude of parents rendered happy by the moral alteration in their once disobedient and rebellious offspring. The church and the world would both together look to the Sunday School institution as one of the greatest blessings ever bestowed upon man!

But, ah! some will say, this is a -pleasing vision'—a Utopian picture! Why then is it only a vision? Why is it only Utopian? Only let each teacher resolve by God's grace, to be all that is here described—and all the results may become a glorious reality. Instead of looking at the whole body with a desponding wish that it were indeed entirely what it should be, let each individual look in upon himself, determined that nothing shall be lacking on his part to realize this blissful vision. If we would obtain the result which the exertions of all would produce—we must seek it by the contribution of individual diligence.

Amidst the complaints which I have often heard of a lack of success, it has long been my conviction that this lack is to be attributed to the defects of the teachers. Proper views, proper qualifications, and proper diligence in those who have set their hands to the work, would be followed with much greater practical effect than it has ever yet been our felicity to witness. The defect is not in the system—but in those who apply it!

Let me then most earnestly enjoin you to seek a larger measure of suitable qualification, and to display still more diligence in this very important institution, and by a consideration of what would be the result if all teachers discharged their duties with wisdom and assiduity—let your mind be excited to the greatest exertions.

8. Anticipate the approving testimony which at the last day the Lord Jesus shall bear to all those who have in any measure promoted his cause. That day of righteous retribution; for which all other days were made, is hastening on. Time is drawing to a close; the world is sinking to dissolution; and all mankind converging to "the judgment seat of Christ, where everyone shall receive the things done in the body according to that he has done—whether it be good or bad."

Before that tribunal you must render an account of your conduct. To that Judge you are accountable both for your personal obedience, and the manner in which you discharge your official duties. Then we shall know the real state of your heart and the true character of your motives. However diligent you may now be in the subordinate duties of your office, yet if not a partaker of real religion, in vain will be the effort to supply personal defects with 'official activity'—or to turn away the wrath of him who sits upon the throne with the useless plea, "Lord! Lord! did we not prophesy in your name?" To be rewarded in that day, as a faithful teacher—we must first be accepted as a real Christian! Without this you must take your place at the left hand of the Judge, with those whom heaven rejects from her bosom, while hell moves to swallow them up!

But should you most happily work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, and then labor to glorify God in the salvation of your lost pupils, not a single effort of your zeal; not a prayer nor a word shall be forgotten in that day of holy retribution! Publicly accepted first in your person, you shall then be as publicly applauded for those services, which your humility may now think almost unworthy of his notice—but which his mercy will not allow him then to overlook. Then when the deeds of heroes shall be passed over in silence, or mentioned with reprobation; when poets, except those who have sung to the harp of piety; and philosophers, except such as have employed their researches to manifest the glory of God—shall sink down without distinction in the general mass into eternal destruction—then shall the holy useful teacher, attended by the children he had been the means of reclaiming, be presented before the face of an assembled universe, arrayed with infinite honor and glory—not the mighty multitude of patriarchs and prophets—apostles and evangelists—reformers and martyrs—ministers and missionaries, pressing to receive their crowns, shall throw him into obscurity, or deprive him of his reward. But amidst surrounding millions the faithful teacher shall stand single and apart to receive the public plaudits of his Judge—"In as much as you have done it unto the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me! Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord!"