Christian revivalism of the 18th and 19th centuries set the stage for new forms of Protestant Christian leadership and educational vision. John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism, provided educational instruction in the Christian faith through an elaborate system of small groups referred to as classes, bands, and societies. Those who responded to Wesley's preaching were organized into these groups in order to strengthen their Christian living. Concern for the spiritual nurture of children led Wesley to author teaching manuals and establish Methodist schools.
Robert Raikes, a publisher and social activist, gave birth to one of the most significant and far-reaching movements in the history of Protestant education. Due to the impact of 17th century industrialization, masses of poor children were subjected to harsh labor practices 6 days a week with no hope for education. In 1780, Raikes hired teachers to provide moral, spiritual, and literary education for poor children ages 6 to 14. Sunday school-related societies formed to support the movement, and the positive changes in the children led to phenomenal growth with over a million participants by 1831.
Although America borrowed the model of the Sunday charity schools from Britain, by the 1820s there were significant differences between them. While the Sunday Schools in Britain continued to focus on the needs of the poor, the Sunday schools in America included the rich as well as the poor. With the opening of public schools, the American Sunday School began to focus on religious instruction alone. Societies, such as the American Bible Society (1816), and the American Sunday School Union (1825) mobilized massive Bible distribution by Sunday School missionaries throughout America. Sunday Schools promoted memorization of Scripture, catechism, and hymns for the sake of self-discipline and self-respect, as well as religious and moral instruction.
In the 1960s a group of religious leaders from Illinois rallied for a unified Sunday School vision through an international convention system and corresponding uniform lessons. With the aid of 19th century revivals led by D. L. Moody and others, the renewed interdenominational Sunday school movement spread rapidly with millions of participants in the United States and abroad by 1890. The convention system de-emphasized theological themes for the sake of interdenominational harmony and promoted institutional networks for teacher training. Sunday School leaders focused on moral reform and a staged process of religious growth through the implementation of a regularized curriculum system.
The growing theological diversity at the turn of the century led to denominational control of the Sunday School by 1930. While Evangelical Christians expanded their educational efforts through mission projects, vacation Bible schools, Bible institutes, and Christian colleges, those in the liberal theological stream formed the Religious Education Association influencing the development of religious education programs in colleges, public schools, and churches.
The leading educators and theories that emerged throughout the 20th century supported three major Protestant groups. George A. Coe, Sophia Fahs, and H. Shelton Smith represented the liberal stream. Neo-orthodox educators included Iris Cully, Hulda Niebhur, James Smart, D. Campbell Wyckoff, and Lewis Sherrill. Lois LeBar, Henrietta Mears, and Larry Richards were a few of many evangelical educators. In spite of the theological distinctions, ongoing dialogue between and within each theological stream has led to a growing pluralism of approaches to Protestant Christian education.
Distinctions between traditionalists and reformers continue into the 21st century for both Catholics and Protestants. Yet, leading educators among the Catholics, such as James Michael Lee, Gabrial Moran, Mary Boys, and Thomas Groome, and among the Protestants, such as John Westerhoff, James Fowler, and Mary Elizabeth Moore, have enabled interfaith dialogue and vision appropriate to a postmodern ecumenical world.