Sunday School is an organization within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, that provides instruction to youth in each age-group starting at 12 years old, as well as to adults. Each Sunday, classes are held which last for approximately one hour, during which a lesson on the scriptures or a gospel topic is presented. Ideally, classes are to be interactive with every member participating and the teacher leading the discussion, preparing the outline of the class, providing explanations and clarifications where necessary. In a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in May of 1831, the Lord declared:
- Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And if it be by some other way it is not of God. And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God. Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together (Doctrine and Covenants 50:17-22).
This passage shows that the things of God are to be taught by the Holy Ghost, so that both teacher and student are edified. In a later revelation regarding one of the first Sunday schools organized in Kirtland, the Lord said: "Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:122). Therefore, every member should share his or her views in turn as guided by the Holy Spirit until all have an opportunity to share and be taught.
Sunday School was held in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and England in the early history of the Mormon Church. Sunday School classes were held for a set period of time to prepare missionaries or others for a specific duty, or were conducted spontaneously and often out of doors. Sunday School was not organized and practiced consistently, however, until the 1840s, when a young man named Richard Ballantyne joined the Church in Scotland and journeyed to Utah. He had been a Sunday School teacher in a different Church and saw the importance of gospel instruction on a regular basis. In 1849, with permission from his bishop he organized the first Sunday School in Utah.
The first Sunday School was specifically for children. Richard Ballantyne recorded, "There is growth in the young. [...] I wanted to gather them into the school where they could learn not to read and write, but the goodness of God, and the true Gospel of salvation given by Jesus Christ" (quoted in "Sunday School," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol 3, p. 1424).
In 1858 Sunday Schools were disbanded, because the U.S. government had sent troops to Utah in response to false reports that the Church was planning an insurrection. In 1864, Sunday School was re-instituted, and quickly grew to have a membership of thousands. In 1872 Sunday School was officially unified as an auxiliary of the Church and has continued as an important part of Church services ever since.
Sunday School Classes
The main Sunday School class for adults is known as Gospel Doctrine. Each year the class teaches from either the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, the Old Testament, or the Doctrine and Covenants. The same book of scripture is studied by the entire Church around the world and rotates in a four-year-cycle. Teachers are provided with a basic lesson plan which is designed to have more information than can be taught in the given class period. This enables the teacher to prayerfully study, ponder, and then decide what needs to be taught most to the particular class. Because the same manual is used Church-wide, a member can travel and attend Gospel Doctrine class in a faraway place without missing a lesson.
Large wards or wards where the desire is expressed also often teach optional Sunday School classes. The more popular optional classes which are approved by the Church and have official manuals are:
- Teaching the Gospel: a course for teacher preparation.
- Marriage and Family Relations: this course is often taught in special wards known as married student wards near Church-owned universities. A bishop can also ask that this class be taught if he feels there is the need for it.
- Family History: where people can learn to research their ancestors.
- Temple Preparation: this course is usually offered in wards with many young single adults preparing for either missions or marriages.
- Missionary Preparation: held in wards where a number of young men and/or women are preparing to serve missions.
- Gospel Principles or Gospel Essentials: this class is also sometimes taught when a ward has a group of newly converted members in the ward. This class teaches the fundamentals of the gospel and is often smaller, so that individual questions and concerns can be addressed.
Each lesson has a purpose statement, preparation section, attention activity, scripture discussion and application, conclusion and additional teaching ideas. The purpose statement is to help the teacher focus the lesson on a specific idea found in the scripture passages that are being studied in that lesson. The preparation section guides the teacher to scriptures and other readings that would help in understanding the topic. The attention activity is a simple activity, object lesson, or quote that helps members of the class focus on the topic at the beginning of the lesson. The scripture discussion and application takes up the bulk of the class time. During this time teachers are encouraged to have members of the class give input and add to a discussion about different passages of scripture. The conclusion is a summary of the lesson; it often includes a challenge to the members of the class to apply some principle that was taught during the lesson. The section called additional teaching ideas is provided to help the teacher keep the class interesting with supplemental scriptures, activities, and alternate teaching approaches.