Church History
Sunday School

“Sunday School,” Church History Topics

“Sunday School”

Sunday School

Concern for poor working children in England in the 1780s and in North America in the 1790s led to the formation of Sabbath schools, a popular Protestant practice to teach youth the Bible and literacy.1 Early Latter-day Saints often attended Sabbath schools prior to joining the Church. As a child, Eliza R. Snow memorized New Testament passages in her Ohio Sabbath schools, and Jonathan Crosby credited his adolescent studies with prompting important questions about the scriptures.2 In Kirtland, Ohio, Latter-day Saints organized informal Sunday schools where children and teachers recited scripture verses in the temple.3 Emmeline B. Wells sporadically taught a Sunday school in Nauvoo, Illinois, and at Winter Quarters, Nebraska.4

A standard program of Latter-day Saint Sunday School developed in Utah Territory beginning in 1849. Richard Ballantyne, who had organized a Presbyterian Sunday school in Scotland before joining the Church, considered it a duty to teach the gospel to children in a formal setting.5 He built a room in his house with wooden benches and gathered 50 children there on December 9, 1849, to teach them from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants.6 By 1850 classes moved to the recently completed Salt Lake City 14th Ward meetinghouse. Ballantyne was called as superintendent of the school, and children were divided into smaller classes.

portrait of Richard Ballantyne

Portrait photograph of Richard Ballantyne.

The program soon spread throughout the Utah settlements, creating a growing need for teaching materials and guidance. In 1866 editor and Apostle George Q. Cannon launched the semimonthly Juvenile Instructor magazine, which featured scripture lessons, music, and instructions on teaching methods. The following year Cannon was named superintendent of the Churchwide Deseret Sunday School Union.7

The Sunday School preceded both the Mutual Improvement Association and the Primary as a standardized scripture-based class for children and youth on Sunday mornings. By 1872 Sunday School meetings and teacher training sessions, according to one observer, “continued to grow in proportions and interest until they were among the most popular and most largely attended of any of the assemblies of the people of Zion.” Bishops directed the administration of the sacrament in Sunday School beginning in 1887, with the intent that children would receive a “better understanding of the divine mission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and of His atonement.” A few years later, Saints in Ogden, Utah, conducted Sunday School classes at the territorial school for the deaf and blind.8 In 1928 general Sunday School superintendent David O. McKay formally initiated Churchwide adult Gospel Doctrine courses.9

David O. McKay with a time capsule

President David O. McKay in 1949 with a time capsule commemorating the centennial of the Sunday School.

Photo courtesy of Deseret News Archives

As the Church continued to grow globally, leaders in the 20th century worked to streamline Sunday School. In the 1970s a correlated curriculum focused more on the scriptures and trimmed other subjects. In 1980 the consolidated Sunday meeting schedule placed the class in a three-hour block. Beginning in 2019, ward Sunday School sessions were reduced to twice monthly as part of the change to a two-hour Sunday meeting schedule. A new integrated course, Come, Follow Me, encouraged greater integration between Sunday School instruction and personal or family home study.10

Related Topics: George Q. Cannon, Church Academies


  1. Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution, 1790–1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 6.

  2. Eliza R. Snow, “Sketch of My Life,” in Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, ed., The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2000), 8; Jonathan Crosby, “A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Jonathan Crosby [Written] by Himself,” 1–3, Jonathan Crosby Papers, 1871–1872, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. See also Topic: Eliza R. Snow.

  3. Helen Mar Whitney, “Life Incidents,” Woman’s Exponent, vol. 9, no. 6 (Aug. 15, 1880), 42.

  4. David O. McKay, “Sunday Schools of the Church,” Improvement Era, vol. 33, no. 7 (May 1930), 481; Leonard J. Arrington, “Faith and Intellect as Partners in Mormon History,” Mormon History Lecture Series (Utah State University, Nov. 7, 1995), 12. See also Topic: Emmeline B. Wells.

  5. “Brief Review of the Sunday School Movement,” Juvenile Instructor, vol. 34, no. 21 (Nov. 1, 1899), 667; Conway B. Sonne, Knight of the Kingdom: The Story of Richard Ballantyne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1949), 51.

  6. “Brief Review of the Sunday School Movement,” 667–68; McKay, “Sunday Schools of the Church,” 481.

  7. “Brief Review of the Sunday School Movement,” 668–69; see also Topic: George Q. Cannon.

  8. “Brief Review of the Sunday School Movement,” 668–71.

  9. Glen M. Leonard, “125 Years of the Sunday Classroom,” Ensign, Dec. 1974, 12.

  10. Quentin L. Cook, “Deep and Lasting Conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2018, 8–11; “2019 Curriculum: Home Centered, Church Supported,” Ensign, July 2018,