Sunday Schools, Young People's Societies and Women's Missionary Societies
"Feed my lambs--tend my sheep." John 21:16.
1. Sunday Schools.
In tracing the early history of Sunday schools in our German churches, we must remind ourselves of the fact that a considerable number of our early pioneers had come out of German Pietist and Separatist surroundings, where a definite religious experience is generally made in later life. In the missionary program of these men they would obviously be appealing largely, if not exclusively, to men and women rather than to children or to youth, for in this way they themselves had been won for experiential Christianity. In only rare cases did the Sunday school form a nucleus of a new missionary center in the earliest days. It may also be said that our "fathers," those of the first generation, had very decided doubts as to the possibility of any conversions among children, and to secure conversions was the chief burden of their preaching. The first reference to the Sunday school is an admonition in the Conference Minutes of 1851, that the ministers should establish German schools on Sundays, and, if possible, also on weekdays. The inference may be made that the emphasis was rather on the language factor than on religious instruction.
It was only after a larger number of churches had been established that the Sunday schools were really considered a necessity, and that was about the time of our Civil War. The statistical reports in the early sixties are very incomplete, and the figures given for the membership in the schools are guesses, for they are all in round numbers. From 1866 onward there is a marked change. There is even an extended reference to a "Mass-meeting of children," at a Conference session in 1867, at Muscatine, Iowa--probably the first one of its kind in our history.
This very great advance in the conception of the value of the Sunday school at about this time is due in a very great measure to Philip Bickel, who rightly called himself "an enthusiastic Sunday school man," and who justified the name he bore as "Onkel Saemann" by his epoch-making Sunday School Hymnal "Singvogelein," and his illustrated Sunday school paper, "Der Muntere Saemann."
The Sunday schools in our German churches have gone through the same developments which this grand institution has had in all churches in our land. It has "growed" like Topsy. It is an easy matter to criticize these early schools, where there were no uniform lessons, no lesson helps for teachers, no adequate supply of the right kind of teachers, no buildings adapted to class work, much preaching and no teaching; but, with all these early imperfections, there was more of a personal appeal to the scholars and more definitely directed prayer for scholars, often at the opening and closing services of the entire school, than there is probably today. One defect, of course, was apparent even to that early generation: there was a woeful lack of knowledge of the fundamental doctrinal and historical movements of the Christian Church, and children were often accepted for baptism and church membership on the strength of their emotions, rather than on the strength of their definite knowledge and convictions of the meaning of their Savior for their lives.
The Sunday schools in their turn have had a notable influence on the work and plans of the churches: (1) they have changed the type of church buildings, by making it possible in churches erected lately to have group instruction in separate rooms; (2) Sunday School Institutes have been called into being in many parts of the country, where plans were outlined which made for greater efficiency; (3) the services of William Kuhn, as Field Secretary, paved the way for a yet greater movement, when the General Conference in 1922, at St. Paul, Minn., appointed men of large experience in Sunday school work as Secretaries, who should give their entire time in suggesting methods and aiding teachers in furthering this "right arm" of the local church in the very important mission it can perform.
There are, according to our latest figures, 361 Sunday schools, a body of 8129 teachers and an enrollment of 30,768 scholars connected with our German churches.
2. Young People's Societies.
The Young People's Movement among us is scarcely forty years old. It began in a few of our larger churches, where social and educational needs brought the younger element together for the purpose of organizing themselves under a variety of names and programs. In most cases these programs were of a literary nature. A perusal of the several monthlies published in the interest of these Young People's Societies as soon as they had become numerous enough to attract attention, reflect the life in these organizations: (1) For about the first quarter of a century following 1888, when the first Magazine was published in the interests of the Young People, the German language was still used by the younger generation of our churches, for the "Jugendherold" and its successor, "Vereinsherold," were published in German. There has been a marked decline since about 1910 in that regard, the subscription lists shrinking to such an extent that it was not possible to continue the paper in the German language without incurring a growing deficit. The publication of a bilingual English and German Monthly was tried out for a few years; then came two separate papers, "Der Jugendfreund" and the "Yokefellow," but the experiments were unsuccessful. At the last General Conference in 1922, as has already been stated elsewhere, the "Baptist Herald" was founded, which is endeavoring to meet the needs of the Young People's Societies as well as those of the Sunday schools. (2) As long as the German monthlies were in existence, they supplied the Societies with programs of great intrinsic worth, some of them running as monthly lessons through an entire year-on the Life of Jesus, Apostolic History, History of Foreign Missions, Baptist History, Christian Ethics, History of the Bible and other similar subjects. There were other informing articles in large number and many reports of individual societies. They were ably edited, but the trend among the younger generation was unmistakably in the direction of a greater, if not an exclusive, use of the English language.
Like the Sunday school, the Young People's Societies, arising out of a need, have fulfilled, and are now fulfilling, a valuable service. Young people are always drawn by their equals in age and ideals. In a great many cases, membership in a society of the Young People was the first step to an acceptance of the Christian life and church membership.
It is gratifying that there are at present 212 such societies with a combined membership of 8683 in connection with our churches. Of late years the interest in the Young People's Movement has greatly increased. The yearly Conferences are giving more attention to them than at any time before, and at the General Conference, in 1922, as has already been stated elsewhere, a general organization, "Union of Young People's and Sunday School Workers," was effected, which will have a yet more potent influence on the movement.
8. Women's Missionary Societies.
Under this general name, often shortened and known among us as "Schwesternvereine," the women in the greater number of our churches have been organized for a number of helpful activities, largely for missionary and benevolent purposes at home and abroad. While local interests largely occupy their attention, they have engaged in larger work in conjunction with other groups of like societies, and then meet either annually with the local Conferences or triennially with the General Conference. There are 207 Women's Societies with a present membership of 6331.