On a sunny fall morning, the bell in the steeple of Harvard’s Memorial Church calls worshippers to Sunday services and a flock of sleepy undergraduates, hurried graduate students and long-time congregants begins to file through the doors of the storied sanctuary.
In the midst of conventional University faces are the smiles, giggles, and eye-rolls of chatty young children in the herding tow of parents and grandparents. Each Sunday during the academic term the children, ages 3-15, take part in a Christian education tradition that is commonplace in churches across America, but more the exception and not the rule at university churches in the U.S.
“We have to remember that we are a large university and we cater to a cross section of students, not just undergraduates, but also those in the graduate schools and those in the professional schools, and many of them are starting and have begun young families,” said Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. “And when I think about a church, when I think about a vibrant church community, it always includes babies and young people.”
Sunday schools were originally established in England in the late 1700s to help educate working children in industrial areas, and were as embedded in the American anthem as baseball and cheeseburgers by the mid-20th century. It was not until 1957 that a Sunday school program opened in the Memorial Church under the leadership of George Buttrick, the Plummer Professor and Preacher to the University from 1955 to 1960.