At Slatersville Congregational, Sunday School keeps churchgoers connected to the village’s rich history

At Slatersville Congregational, Sunday School keeps churchgoers connected to the village’s rich history

Nathaniel Dexter served as the school’s first superintendent after it was founded by John and Samuel Slater.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – When the children of Slatersville Congregational Church, UCC, return to Sunday School this weekend, they’ll follow in the footsteps of a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Slatersville village, when town life revolved around the workings of the local mill.

The Sunday School, which celebrates its 210th anniversary this year, was founded in 1808, only one year after John and Samuel Slater founded the original Slatersville Mill with their partners, William Almy and Obadiah Brown, on the banks of the Branch River. In those days, children often worked alongside their parents, and education, for most, was a luxury that could only be afforded after a long week working in the mill.

“They worked Monday through Friday, whatever the hours were, and then on Saturday, they worked till noon,” explained the Rev. Eileen Morris, pastor at Slatersville Congregational Church.

As the story goes, it was Samuel Slater, father of the Industrial Revolution in America, who sparked an early interest in Sunday School. The Slater brothers had attended Sunday School as children in England and were eager to bring the custom to the mill villages of the United States. Morris recounted an old legend in which Slater, upon hearing local boys were stealing apples from a nearby orchard, decided to bring the young mill workers into his home for their education and gave them apples as they studied their Sunday lessons.

“Sunday School happened on Sundays because that was the one full day that they didn’t work at the mill. It was for boys, and it was to teach them letters and numbers and reading, and that kind of thing,” she said.

In those days, explained Morris, Sunday School was not the religious education it is today, but a general instruction for boys who could not afford to attend private schools during the week. The Slater brothers brought on Nathaniel Dexter, an associate from their mill in Pawtucket, to run the Sunday School, which operated independently of any church until the founding of Slatersville Congregational Church in 1816. At that time, the church took over operation of the Sunday School and has been running it ever since, making it one of the longest continuously operating Sunday Schools in America.

Of course, a lot has changed since the early 1800s when poor young mill workers would make their way to the church’s grounds for lessons in reading and arithmetic. Now, the 60 to 70 children enrolled in Slatersville Congregational Church Sunday School study Bible lessons and songs and prepare for their sacraments in a basement classroom they share with the North Smithfield Food Pantry. The children also learn about kindness and community involvement, often hosting birthday parties where they request donations for the food pantry and present them during the congregation’s weekly 10 a.m. Sunday worship.

Morris said the Sunday School continues to serve an important function in church life in a day and age when many families are falling away from organized religion and most children don’t receive religious education in their day-to-day classes.

“We have quite a few young families,” she said. “We also really focus on our children, because we know if children are not actively involved in the life of the church, you’re just one generation away from closing your doors.”

Formal Sunday School classes, along with summer activities and special events like Christmas and Easter presentations, allow the children to contribute to the church and offer opportunities for community members to volunteer their time with the kids.

“So many of the things that we do as a church, the question is always, where are the kids in this?” said Morris.

This Sunday, in an annual church tradition, the children will kick off the start of the new Sunday School year by celebrating its roots. In a re-enactment for the entire congregation, the children will “steal” apples from the orchard and attend Sunday School with Mr. Nathaniel Dexter before distributing apples to the churchgoers and feasting on apple cakes and goodies after the service. It’s a remembrance of the church’s history and celebration of the upcoming year, but, most importantly, it’s a way to keep the children rooted in the sharing and kindness at the heart of the Sunday School tradition.

“When talking to my parents at church, what they really want for their children is for them to be good people. It’s the one place that they know that their children are going to get that kind of exposure and education,” said Morris.

With 210 years to its name, you’d be hard-pressed to find a school with a long tradition of teaching kindness to children than the Sunday School at Slatersville Congregational.

An undated photograph from Slatersville Congregational Church shows Sunday School participants making a craft. Founded in 1808 to serve the children of mill workers, the school is one of the longest continuously operating Sunday Schools in the country.
Then and now: The Slatersville Congregational Church 2017 Confirmation class celebrated the end of their Sunday School journey and official reception into the church last year.