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Educating the Working Class Through Religion

Many working class women were educated through their religious schools in the first several decades of the nineteenth century.  Religion played such a large role that the education of people through religious schools became known as the Sunday school movement. Sunday schools did not offer a formal education, however, they did allow students to learn to read and write through copying and reading the Bible. Although the movement began in England around 1800, it had swept into the United States by 1803.  One of the first places to house Sunday schools was New York City. Isabella Marshall Graham and her daughter, Joanna Graham Bethune, began several Sunday schools in New York after witnessing the beginning of the Sunday school movement in their native Scotland. Graham, Elizabeth Bayley Seton and others were instrumental in establishing the Society to Aid Poor Widows with Young Children in 1797. Mrs. Seton was treasurer of the organization.

Graham and her daughter were both Presbyterian and started their Sunday schools to teach reading, writing, and religion to poor adults and their children.  Bethune also helped the working class and poor New York City residents through her other charity work such as the founding of several houses for orphans.  By 1816, Bethune began her largest project in educating the working class children of New York, the Female Union Society for the Promotion of Sabbath-Schools.   This society started several nondenominational schools that taught as many as 8000 children in New York.

Maryland, a haven for Catholics in the 1600s, also developed roots in religious education.  Elizabeth Seton, a Catholic convert, took private vows for one year in 1809 in Baltimore, Maryland. Land was set aside for her to establish a religious community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s (1809), and the next year a school for girls, St. Joseph’s Free School and Academy (1810), near Emmitsburg, Maryland. Mother Seton was well qualified to begin St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, due to her prior experience of teaching in New York and of opening a boarding school for Catholic girls in Baltimore.

St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg was a pioneer in the field of Catholic education for females in the United States. Mother Seton used the monies from the wealthy girls’ tuition to offer free schooling to the poor girls of the surrounding area. The Sisters of Charity became so well known that soon Mother Seton was expanding her horizons by managing an orphanage and associated educational programs in Philadelphia and New York. St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, developed into Saint Joseph College (1902-1973) for women. Today Mother Seton School, a Catholic elementary school in Emmitsburg traces its roots to the educational foundations laid by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Philadelphia, founded by Quakers, was more accepting of Jews than many areas, and Rebecca Gratz, a Sephardic Jew of a wealthy merchant family in Philadelphia, was a major contributor to the betterment of the working poor in the city.  In 1801, she helped organize a society to help poor women and children and in 1815, she helped found the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum.  By 1818, Gratz became interested in religious education for Jewish children.  She based her new school on the Sunday schools set up by her Protestant friends, teaching children in her home with help from a rabbinical scholar.  She began the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia in 1838 and acted as president until 1864.  The school was open to both boys and girls and charged no fee for tuition.  It survived as a school for Jewish children into the twentieth century.

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A photo of Isabella Marshall Graham. Isabella Graham

A photo of Mother Elizabeth Seton. Elizabeth Seaton

A photo of Rebecca Gratz. Rebecca Gratz





(c) Copyright National Women's History Museum, 2007