The earliest American Sunday School organizations were interdenominational and paraecclesiastical. Concern for evangelism, doctrinal purity, and a clear stand on moral issues led to the “denominationalization” of Sunday School. As children were converted through the Sunday School, there arose a greater concern to develop material to teach the unique doctrines of the various denominational groups that employed the Sunday School system through the church.
Southern Baptists have played a leading role in the recent history of the denominational Sunday School movement. It is thus instructive to look at the purpose statement for Sunday School in the writings of early Baptist leaders. In 1902, E. Y. Mullins said, “The Sunday school must more and more prove a factor of power in the pastor’s work. Already in many churches the Sunday school is the chief and almost only hope for church growth [my emphasis]. But whether in the family church, or the church among the masses of the great city, or the country church, the Sunday school will remain the most hopeful field of evangelistic endeavor.”
M. Frost, first head of the Baptist Sunday School Board, said, “The school becomes as an agency what the church makes it; is capable of almost indefinite expansion in church efficiency as a channel for the output of its energy and life.… As a force for study and teaching the Word of God; as a force for evangelizing and bringing lost sinners to the Saviour; as a force for instruction and education in the mightiest things claiming the attention of men; as a force for mission operation in the worldwide sense; as a force for making Christian character in men and women; and for opening the door of usefulness in a large scale.”
Arthur Flake, a layman who was instrumental in shaping Southern Baptist Sunday School, wrote, “The supreme business of Christianity is to win the lost to Christ. This is what churches are for … surely then the Sunday school must relate itself to the winning of the lost to Christ as an ultimate objective.”
The early architects of the Sunday School movement in America believed that the Sunday School must have a Great Commission focus. They did not believe that Sunday School could function properly without a clear and intentional strategy of evangelism. After persons were won to Christ, the Sunday School would nurture and train these new believers even as it helped mature all believers. Yet clearly the enthusiasm and energy for an effective Sunday School came from its clear evangelistic focus.
Ken Hemphill, Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 3–4.