On the Founding of the First Sunday School in New England
Note from historian Charles E. Wainwright: Robert Rantoul Endicott was a leading citizen of Beverly and an active member of the Church. Born March 28, 1833, he was a student of Miss Hannah Hill’s Sunday school class. A grandson of Robert Rantoul, he carried on as proprietor of Rantoul’s Drug and Dry Goods store from his grandfather and father. He was a two-term member of the Massachusetts Legislature following the Civil War. He was President of the Beverly Savings Bank, and is credited with building Endicott Block on Cabot Street. He served the Church and Parish as its Treasurer, Custodian of the Ministerial Fund, and for ten years, Superintendent of the Sunday School. He died on 18 September 1914 at the age of 81. His speech to the Parish is, arguably, the most accurate account we have of the founding of the Beverly Sunday school. Rantoul delivered the following speech on October 4, 1885:
Swift as a Weaver shuttle the days and years fly by weaving the wash and wool of history. Three quarters of a century seems, especially to the young, an almost endless period. But as though I can sort the realms of space without let or and hindrance so can we in the few moments allotted to us this evening scan the salient points, superficially of course, for our history. Since this, the first Sunday school was established in this country. At the close of the revolutionary war, that sturdy shipmaster and patriot Capt. Hugh Hill, who had done good service in the impromptu Navy of his adopted country, then in the employ of Messrs. John and Andrew Cabot-merchants of Beverly, sailed for Ireland with the intention of bringing home his brother James and family to live with him in Beverly. And on the return voyage to Philadelphia on board the ship Rambler on the Delaware River September 17, 1784 Hannah Hill was born. And to this lady daughter of James and Elizabeth Hill in combination with Miss Joanna B Prince belong the credit of establishing the first Sunday school in America, for the religious introduction of the young.
It is true that schools for teaching poor children to read and write had been kept on the Sabbath a few years earlier in Philadelphia but I believe it is generally conceded that this is the first distinctive Sunday school for religious instruction in the country.
Misses. Hill and Prince, both taught private school during the week and in the summer of 1810 they gathered a company of about 30 neglected children who were playing about the wharves on the Sabbath in a chamber of Miss Prince’s house- corner of Davis and Front Street- and taught them that knowledge which is beyond price. The good work thus once begun will never cease, until the millennium is at hand.
They doubtless had read of the success of Robert Raikes of England who organized a Sunday school in London some 30 years before for the religious introduction of poor children in that great metropolis. But we should do these pioneers of the Sunday school enterprise in America great injustice if we failed to give them credit for great originality, benevolence, and philanthropy, with Christian solicitude for the neglected waifs whom they gathered in their first school.
We of the present generation can hardly realize the difficult life led today from that of our ancestors 75 years ago.
There were no telegraphic cables binding old England to New England with cords of steel, no swift steamers, treading a trackless ocean between them to carry the latest news, no paper printed on lightning presses giving the minutest detail of every enterprise. So that if these ladies had learned at all of the school of Robert Raikes, it is more than probable it was only an item in some obscure area of the Columbian Centennial or Salem Gazette which met their gaze.
However the seed may have been wafted across the ocean we are certain that it fell into fruitful use and by the blessing of God sprang up and bore a thousand fold.
There are now in the United States 91,000 Sunday schools with more than 7 million scholars and nearly 1 million teachers.
What if these noble women could have foreseen the results which were to follow their labor for the religious development of the young, with they not have been amazed at the thought and loved the humble gratitude to God that such opportunity good had been granted them.
Miss Hannah Hill is described by persons still living, who knew her well, as a woman of great originality, intellectual and scholarly, possessing a lively interest in children. I remember Dr. Peabody of Cambridge said at our 50th anniversary that he was a pupil for many years in her Sunday school class and that later in life, at her own solicitation, he gave her lessons in Greek so that she had the satisfaction of reading the New Testament she loved so well in the very language in which it was written.
Miss Hill continued her connection with this Parish and Sunday school until her death which occurred March 16, 1838 at the age of 53 years and 6 months. Her grave is in yonder Cemetery, her spirit has passed on to an ever widening sphere in that house not made with the hands eternal in the heavens.
Miss Joanna B Prince was born in Castine Maine, February 23, 1789 and removed to Beverly with her parents during her childhood. She was a person of entirely different temperament from Miss Hill but like her delighted in doing good; the master will being her ideal of life. Her mind was not cast in a common mold. She was not only sincere, pious, charitable but also wise, witty, and mirthful: a character of rare excellence. She was a worthy companion of miss Hill in her great work. In 1819 she married Ebenezer Everett Esq. of Brunswick Maine to which place she removed. She died September 5, 1859.
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me wait blessed was the dead each die in the Lord from henceforth yea, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labor, and their works to follow them.”
The school in addition to its founders had the fostering care of Rev. Dr. Abiel Abbot at that time the pastor of this parish. A man of God, whose very presence was a divine benediction.
“He watch’d and went, he pray’d and felt for all;
“And, as a bird each fond endearment ties,
“To tempt its new-fledged offering to the skies,
“He traced each not, reproved each dull delay,
“Attuned to brighter world, and led the day.”
“E’en children follow’d with endearing wile,
“And pluck’d his gown to share the good man’s smile,
“His ready smile a parent’s warmth express’d,
“Their welfare pleased him, and their cares distant,
To them his heart; his love, his griefs were given,
“But all his serious thoughts had rest in Heaven.”
The school after its formation was removed to the house of Col. Abraham Edwards, thence to the brick schoolhouse in the south district, the Dane Street church, the Briscoe school house, and finally about 1819 to this church.
It is probable at the start that the children who attended the school had no church connection but as the school widened its sphere and increased in number it embraced scholars and teachers from the various Parishes in town until 1819 when the Dane Street society organized a parish school and from that time to the present various societies formed schools under their own organizations.
In the summer of 1822, Hon. Robert Rantoul was chosen the first superintendent at which time the school held 214 scholars and 44 teachers, he held the office till 1830 when Hon. William Thorndike succeeded him and continue as superintendent for three years when he was succeeded by his brother Albert Thorndike Esq., who held the office till about 1837 when Rev. C.T. Thayer, then pastor of this society was chosen as superintendent with Mr. Rantoul as assistant, they continued in office until May 7, 1854 Mr. Rantoul resigned and Charles Davis Esq. was chosen assistant with Mr. Thayer and so continued until the close of Mr. Thayer’s pastorate in 1858 when he was chosen superintendent and served in that capacity until 1869 during the pastorate of the Rev. JC Kimball.
Mr. Davis, who was born October 19, 1806 took a lively interest in all matters pertaining to the school and at his death January 14, 1870 left a bequest of $5000, the income to be spent annually for the benefit of the school. I doubt if a bequest of this kind was ever productive of more innocent enjoyment. $6000 income from it having been already extended for Christmas presents, picnics, a cabinet organ, library and prize books etc. for the scholars. Mr. Davis was succeeded by Mr. A. L. Wiley who held the office three years when Rev. Mr. Butler was chosen and continued superintendent until his resignation October 13, 1878.
He was succeeded by the present incumbent.
Time would fail me to enumerate all the many zealous workers who cooperated with Mrs. Hill and Prince at the start and have since held high the banner with the insertion “in the cross of Christ we glory”. But the names of Mrs. Caroline and Charlotte Lovett, Miss Adaline Abbot, Miss Nancy Bridge, Miss Joanna B Thorndike, Miss Charlotte Rantoul, Miss Susan Lovett, Miss Mary Ann Page, Mrs. Martha T Giddings, Miss Mary Endicott, Miss Sarah D Cox, Robert Rantoul Junior, Jonah B Prince, Joseph Hale Abbot, Samuel D Lovett, Henry P Woodbury, will readily occur to all familiar with the school with that of Ezra Foster Stone but yesterday joined the godly company of the redeemed who lived not themselves alone but that others might be better for their life.
The first celebration of which I find any account and which I also remember occur July 4, 1838. The school assembled in the church at 8 o’clock in the morning appropriate hymns were sung by the school and other services by Rev. Mr. stone of North Beverly and Mr. Thayer after which the school proceeded to the Chapel and partook of refreshments. The whole celebration was concluded at 10:30.
On 4 July 1842 a minor celebration was held on the town Hall Square, 1123 scholars and teachers being present.
An address was delivered by Hon. Robert Rantoul Junior after which the scholars marched in procession without music and then a creation was served in the town Hall.
The 50th anniversary was also a minor celebration. A large formal procession of all the schools with two bands of music marched through the principal streets to the common on which a mammoth tent had been erected and in which a sumptuous creation was served after which addresses were made by many distinguished speakers.
Since the bequest of Deacon Davis to the school we have usually held a Christmas or New Year’s Festival and a picnic in the early part of July of each year.
These pastimes will be remembered by many of the children in their later years as among the brightest days in the calendar.
From the report of the Secretary, I give the following statistics regard to our school for the present year.
Whole number connected with the school during the year – 364
Officers and teachers, 43. Scholars 321.
Average attendance 192
Largest attendance 232
Smallest attendance 120
62 have entered the school and 33 have left making the number now belonging 331, a gain of 30 for the year.
45 scholars have been present at every session of the school.
The school has contributed the following sums;
to the needy of our own school $70
to the kindergarten school for the blind $46
to the school for the deaf mutes $45
to the home for the wanderers $30 to the children mission $45
and also about $45 for the purchase of new service ports
and $25 to the Sunday school society of Boston.
Mr. H Lovett the library and reports as follows.
“The library contains 741 volumes in good condition the circulation for the year being 4346. He currently recommends that parents assist the children in making their selection by referring to the catalogs which have been freely distributed in the school.
In conclusion let me urge the earnest cooperation of the parents with the teachers in carrying on the great work commenced by the noble women whose memory we celebrate tonight and made the blessing of God without which the labor in vain, rest upon this school in the future as it has in the past.