Friday, 1 August 2008

Socialist Sunday Schools

When my brother and me were young and growing up in Scunthorpe living in our condemned council house complete with its outside toilet, our parents one day decided to send us to Sunday school for some religious instruction . At first we attended the one organised by the C of E church at the bottom of our ten-foot, that's the native name given to the alleyway that runs in between the back to back houses not that different I suppose a bit like Coronation Street, anyway we attended St John's Church Sunday School every week until it stopped because of the dwindling flock due in some part to the council demolishing the condemned housing and redeveloping that part of the Town. It's not as if our parents were religious, can't remember them ever attending church - then just as we thought it was safe mum packed us off to the citadel of the Salvation Army, citadel that's another word for fortress or strongly fortified building that belongs to an organisation that strongly defends a particular way of life, and did they have a particular way of life. I will remember all my days, the bizarre military uniforms, ranks and brass bands, but above all else this large portrait of Jesus that was hung or positioned high above us at the front of the citadel hall, his blue eyes, long flowing brown hair, but what I vividly remember the most is that no mater wherever you sat in the citadel, the eyes of Jesus were upon you, his eyes seemed to fixate on you as if he was following your every move.

William Booth the founder of the salvation Army writing about the working class, echoed the title of the Henry Stanley book about exploring Africa, calling it "In Darkest England" In this book the working class are depicted as degenerated savages, so then is it any wonder that workers and drinkers from the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, use to resort to throwing rotten fruit and vegetables at the salvationists.
" As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilization, which can breed to its own Barbarians, dose it not also breed its own pygmies? May we not find a parallel at our own doors, and discover within a stone's throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?"

I'm grateful to my parents for a great deal in my life, but have to say that Sunday School mostly use to bore me rigid, for the only use I've ever found for biblical knowledge has been in the odd pub quiz.

'Jesus Wants Me As A Sunbeam'

The English Sunday school movement was founded by Robert Raikes of Gloucester (1735 -1811) and the founder of the Sunday School Union. Raikes was a newspaper publisher a business inherited from his father, he became involved with boys that had been jailed and believed that vice would be better prevented than cured. He saw schooling as the best intervention but the only available time was Sunday's as the boys some as young as six were often working in factories a full six day's a week. This was a time of transformation in Britain, the very beginning of the industrial revolution, the first factories required cheap labour and children provided the owners with that supreme human element in the process of production. In certain branches of factory industry the labour of young people was felt a necessity, but there existed an unwillingness on the part of some parents to allow their children to enter the factory gates, so to overcame this the owners went to the workhouse and by obtaining a large number of pauper children as required furnished the shop floor triggering off what came to be known as the workshop of the world, and the opening of that in which mere human labour becomes secondary and subordinate.

The labour obstacle overcome, children where bandaged under indenture to the foreman or manager under whose superintendence they worked. They were bargained for and sent to their destination in droves; the workhouse glad enough to get rid of them. When these children entered on employment at which they were to spend their lives, they were housed and bedded in sheds; their food was the poorest kind, and frequently insufficient; the beds in which they slept were no sooner vacated by the day shift than the night shift took possession. These children unable to look after themselves, and as there was no one near connected with them by ties of blood, were entirely at the mercy of those who regarded them solely as implements of labour.

The treatment and suffering of these children was heartrending in the extreme; it remained unnoticed until diseases spared among the children and gradually, the public became aware of the abominations of the factory system. It's not too hard to imagine that some children having been brutally flogged to keep them from falling asleep at work may have decided to escape this life of ceaseless drudgery that hurled them in crowds to an early grave, absconded and went on the run turning to a life of petty crime, begging, vagrancy eventually ending up in prison and then to the penal colony of New South Wales, Australia. So in steps Robert Raikes, concerned with prison reform, social status and the lack of education, develops the idea of Sunday School with the Rev. Thomas Stock. The original schedule for the schools, as written by Raikes was "The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson they were to be conducted to church. After Church, They were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injection to go home without making a noise."
"Give Me The Child Until He Is Seven And I Will Show You The Man."

Within 20 years of Robert Raikes death, 1.25 million children were regular attendees of Sunday School across the country. The Sunday School appeared in American cities in the 1790s following the example of the British, growing rapidly as Protestant clergy and lay people molded them into key elements in an institutional network designed to make the new nation Protestant.

In the twentieth century Sunday Schools were primarily church institutions, recruiting the next generation of members - President George W. Bush and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. By the twenty-first century, Sunday School attendance in Britain had declined, Nevertheless, Sunday Schools remain a significant institutional tool for religious training used by the state to deliver generations of obedient citizens as many a child could testify.
The Socialist Sunday Schools were set up as an alternative to the Christian Sunday Schools in Britain, and it is said that they arose in response to a feeling as to the inadequacy of the orthodox Sunday Schools. The first was set up by Mary Gray in in 1892 a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), she ran a soup kitchen for the children of the Great Dock Strike of 1889.
She stood as an SDF candidate, and was elected, as a member of the Battersea Board of the Poor Law Guardians, a speaker and SDF lecturer spoke indoors and outdoors, at one such meeting she addressed the people of Ilkeston in the market square in July 1897 on "Society As It Is" a friend of Eleanor Marx, she was on the the Executive Committee of the SDF for a time. Her aim, was on realising that the children had little or no education was to make them aware of socialist responsibilities to one another and provide what was lacking in their school education. By 1912 there were over 200 socialist Sunday schools throughout Britain. In the early days they encountered opposition from the local authorities and politicians, who argued that the schools were subverting the minds of young people with political anti-religious doctrines and teachings, and tried in vain to discredit the schools by accusations of blasphemy and revolutionary teaching.

The schools were impeded by a lack of their own premises and met with objections to hiring of suitable halls to the extent that in 1907 London County Council evicted five branches out of hired school buildings. A mass demonstration was held in Trafalgar Square, and in 1926 Fulham Council refused permission on Sundays because it was of a "non-theological character. It was apparent that the reason that Socialist Sunday Schools were encountering so much opposition was because they where seen as subversive by the Establishment.

Whilst it is true that different organisations ran schools like the Independent Labour Party, Communist Party and in Scotland the Socialist Labour Party, all more or less had the same format, schools would attract about 20 to 30 children each week, activity's would include games, songs, and discussions with a speaker like a miner or docker in attendance explaining to the children the role and nature of there employment, in addition the children were given instruction on how to run a meeting from minute taking to chairmaning, always being encouraged to think for themselves and never be afraid to ask that probing question. It was the view of the Socialist Sunday Schools that public education should be secular and purely educational without theological tendencies or the dogma which was preached in religious churches of the day. The Socialist Sunday Schools had it's own special services for naming children, marriage and funerals. Although the movement was secular regulations had to be adhered to, as in the marriage service a register was obligatory to make the union legally binding.
The Socialist Sunday School set out in the beginning to teach children of the working class the virtue of independence, the power to think for themselves and the meaning of Socialist Revolution.
The last Socialist Sunday School closed down in the 1970s and I can't envisage that it will ever resurrect and rise up again in our modern age, when so many other different distractions are thrust and sometimes forcefully, onto our children and from a very early age. The rise of modern industry, the factory system, transformed the balance of political power, within nations, between nations, and between civilisations; revolutionised the social order; and as much changed man's way of thinking as his way of doing. As a result of the way society is organised, the way power is organised, a set of beliefs - an ideology - is produced, regarding the conditions of that society. This 'ideology' includes theories about human nature itself, theories which in themselves serve the interests of the dominant class, they help it preserve its power but are for the most part false. Marx said that organised religion was a good example of what he meant by ideology in action because it taught that people must accept God's will - the status quo - rather than take any action to change things.

No comments:

The Socialist Way

Blog Archive