Children’s RE Then and Now

Celebrating our 100th anniversary made me wonder what children’s religious education was like at the First Unitarian Church of Trenton (UUCWC’s precursor) when it started in 1948. Amazingly, there are a lot of similarities in both the method and the content of Unitarian Sunday school in 1948 and our RE program today. But that is because Unitarian Sunday schools experienced a huge transformation in the early 1940’s.

Prior to 1940, Unitarian curriculum consisted of Bible and church history-centered content delivered in a question and answer format. Children were viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled with truths from their elders. By the mid 1930’s, Unitarian congregants, who have always tended toward the more liberal movements in educational philosophy and psychology, were dissatisfied with this outdated style of education for their children.

At the same time, realizing that religious education could be a vehicle to renew and revitalize churches that had declining enrollments, the American Unitarian Association decided to devote additional resources to religious education. It started by hiring Sophia Lyon Fahs, a progressive religious educator with a significant body of work behind her, as children’s editor for a new curriculum series. It was a brilliant decision.

As children’s curriculum editor Fahs brought together the two key elements necessary for a long overdue modernization of religious education instruction: a consistent philosophy of religious education and progressive instructional methods grounded in children’s experiences and interests. In place of rigid lesson plans and structured learning, she introduced painting, role-playing and creative self-expression. She insisted that there is no special religious knowledge. “Instead of helping children…to think about ‘religious things,’ we need to learn how to help children think about ordinary things until insights and feelings are found which have a religious quality.”

By the time the First Unitarian Church of Trenton started its RE program, Fahs had almost single-handedly shifted Unitarian religious education from Bible-centered to experience-centered learning and from adult-driven to child-driven pedagogy.

Here are some examples of Fahs work that continue to impact our children’s RE program today:

  • Stories in our curriculum come from many religions and cultures, not only Bible stories;
  • Children are encouraged to explore life’s questions, to engage their own experiences, to ask questions and develop answers that make sense to them;
  • Children are taught to understand others rather than to judge them, to see all people as part of one family with common problems, concerns and joys
  • We believe our spiritual lives are a continuous journey. As the personality grows and changes so do beliefs grow and change. Seeking and searching is being religious.
  • Curriculum is focused on the needs and the interests of children;
  • Everyone in class, adults and children are learning from each other;
  • Lessons lead to emotionally experiencing the stories and activities associated with them;
  • Wonder and Mystery is the genesis of religious experiences;
  • Science is in the curriculum.

Some of her curriculum, like The Church Across the Street (1947), have clear contemporary successors, like the UUA’s Neighboring Faiths and Building Bridges curriculums (currently used by our 6th-8th grade).

As transformative as Sophia’s influence has been, Unitarian Universalist religious education did not rest on her ideas, nor would she have wanted it to. The criticism of the curriculum she developed is that although it was broad, it was without a center. Today the curriculums we use in our religious education program are intentional about nurturing a Unitarian Universalist identity in our children. We teach the seven principles and the way they shape and inform who we are and influence our way of being in the world. Our children know that each of us is responsible and capable to help change the world for the better. Our curriculums also include human sexuality in four different age groups, anti racism and anti oppression, social justice and Coming of Age.

Unitarian Universalists have moved forward in religious education and will continue to do so. That is part of the legacy, and the philosophy of Sophia Lyon Fahs.

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