Celebrating 150 years of Uniform Lessons

Tammy Wiens recounts the history and importance of the diversely ecumenical Uniform Lesson Series.

In March 2002 I traveled with Grace Kim and Jaime Delgado to Florida for the annual meeting of the Committee on the Uniform Lessons Series (CUS). As editors of the denominational curriculum, The Present Word (English, Korean, and Spanish), we shared responsibility for the development of the International Sunday School Lessons (ISSL) outlines. Those who use The Present Word may not realize they are joining thousands of other Christians around the world who also use Bible study materials based on the ISSL outlines — also known as the Uniform Lessons Series. Much like a preaching lectionary, though far more complex in scope, the lesson outlines are designed to cover the whole Bible across every six-year cycle.

Little did I know that in attending that 2002 meeting I was stepping onto the pages of history to celebrate an ecumenical partnership of pastors, scholars, writers, editors and Christian educators that traces its roots to the Fifth National Sunday School Convention of 1872. What’s more, I could not foresee that this was the beginning of a vocational journey that would lead me to direct the ecumenical project on behalf of the National Council of Churches 15 years later.

Now, in 2022, I’m honored to have a part as CUS celebrates a sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary. As I consider what I most treasure about working with these ecumenical partners, it’s astounding to discover that the values shared by those who formed the first Lessons Series continue to find resonance in the committee’s work in each successive generation.

Teaching from scripture feeds our spiritual hunger and nourish growth as disciples

The concept of Sunday school as a location for training in discipleship was not a concern of early American settlers. Only in the late 18th and early 19th century did Sunday school societies begin to form. In response, several skilled educators attempted to create a systematic study of Scripture that could bring substance to the largely unstructured approaches of local Sunday school teachers operating without any lesson plans or curriculum. It would take decades, however, before denominational leaders could align a vision for an organized lesson series.

John Vincent, a Methodist Episcopal Christian pastor and educator, is considered the founder of the Uniform Lessons Series. Vincent, in cooperation with other interested clergy and lay-leaders, persuaded delegates assembled at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, in April of 1872 to approve the first Uniform Lessons Committee. Ten members were appointed from five of the denominations supporting Vincent’s proposal. The convention minutes record the mandate “to select a course of Bible Lessons for a series of years not exceeding seven, which shall, as far as they may decide possible, embrace a general study of the whole Bible, alternating between the Old and New Testaments semi-annually or quarterly, as they shall deem best.”

Their commitment to bring a study of Scripture to the forefront of Christian learning in Sunday schools found favor in the US and internationally. A 1905 report stated that the Uniform Lessons Series was reaching every continent, selecting lessons for more than 17 million teachers and pupils. A 1922 publication glowingly describes “an enthusiasm which concentrated a greater amount of scholarship upon the study of the Bible than had been given to it for centuries before.”

Despite great successes, dissenters along the way disputed the committee’s effectiveness in teaching all of Scripture. There are approximately 31,102 verses in the English version of a typical Protestant Bible. A print passage of 10-20 verses on each of 52 Sundays in a year is, at best, 6,200 verses. This means that large portions of the Bible are not covered. In the first six-year cycle, 54 of the 66 books of the Bible were cited at least once, but in the second cycle that number dropped to 44. Often the overlooked books of one cycle were overlooked again in later cycles. For example, a report from the International Lessons Committee in 1928 noted, “from 1872 to 1918 the Uniform Lessons used only 14.6 percent of Old Testament prophecy.” Though the adequacy of the uniform plan would continue to be debated, no substitute plan arose that offered a more satisfying solution. To the credit of the Lessons Committee, the critiques did not go unheard. Changes and modifications were made along the way to widen the use of Scripture, and to incorporate the best of educational theory and curriculum design. As early as 1922, biblical scholars and theologians, desiring to improve the quality of the lesson outlines, consulted with the highly regarded educators and practitioners from across North America. Cooperation across disciplines continued to infuse the lessons development process at critical points in CUS history.

In 1951, the International Council of Religious Education (I.C.R.E.), which then held oversight of the Committee on the Uniform Series, joined forces with thirteen national religious organizations to form the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC). The I.C.R.E. became the Division of Christian Education of the NCC and from that point forward has stewarded the work of the CUS. Its major task remained constant, retaining its commitment to emphasize the Bible as the “record of the revelation of God in Christ; as the major sources of understanding the meaning of the Christian faith; and as the most effective means of confronting persons with the great concerns of the gospel as these relate to personal faith, moral values, human relationship, social responsibility, Christian hope, and the implications of Christian discipleship under the lordship of Christ and in the fellowship of his Spirit” (CUS Handbook).

In an age of technology, CUS has an enhanced ability to track Bible usage. Every team that fleshes out a new cycle of lessons strategically references a searchable database of the previous twenty years’ worth of lessons in arriving at a fresh six-year outline. For example, the Scope and Sequence Committee for Cycle 25 discovered that nowhere in the previous 208 lessons (Fall 2022- Summer 2026) was there reference to Joshua, Job, Lamentations, Obadiah, Hosea, Malachi, Philemon, 2 or 3 John. Therefore, it committed to include at least one lesson from each of these books in the 2026-2032 cycle. It will be a challenge, since lessons from these books might awkwardly pair with other lesson texts for a given quarter.

Committee members are challenged in that key doctrinal texts in one tradition are different from key texts in partnering tradition, but that is the beauty – and sometimes frustration – of learning together across multiple expressions of faith in Christ. In the end, however, what most people appreciate about the Lesson Outlines is that an intentional exposure to the entire biblical witness forces learners to grow outside of their most familiar or best-loved verses and gain exposure to a wider swath of Scripture.

Theologically diverse voices with freedom to retain their distinct perspectives

Creating a “uniform” set of outlines does not mean that committee members must agree on every scriptural interpretation. The mutual forbearance baked into every Uniform Lessons Committee from the start is one of the essential ingredients in the recipe for its longevity. Writing in 2002, then CUS Chair, Marvin Cropsey, wrote an article for the United Methodist Church News Service, assuring his Methodist audience that following a Uniform Lessons Outline “does not mean that Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others have to check their denominational histories and beliefs at the door… but we get to be who we are together. That sense of confidence in each other, and in our ability to work as Christian brothers and sisters, is inviolable.”

Earlier this year, James Deaton, writing in the Brethren Messenger, said, “The Uniform Lessons Series is not prescriptive, forcing partner publishers to align to any theological agenda or to remove denominational uniqueness. Instead, the series is a well-planned framework that leaves generous room for adaptation, and our writers have the freedom to craft Bible study material especially for Brethren congregations.”

Human ingenuity and generosity alone would not create the success of a 150-year’s long effort. There is an abiding awareness of the Holy Spirit at work in calming nerves and settling heated doctrinal debates as committee members work tirelessly into the night. In a 2020 interview, Carmichael Crutchfield (CUS Chair, 2005-2008) shared, “I am convinced, without a doubt, that the Holy Spirit is involved in the development of these lessons. It’s way beyond any of our recognition, but just as in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit works in community… Every time I’ve left a meeting where there are many, many differences about what word should be used or how something should be phrased, we always walk away with one document that all of us agreed on. That must be the work of the Holy Spirit!”

Ecumenical partnerships to enliven the experience of oneness in Christ

In their 1922 Handbook, Rice and McConaughy (editors) noted, “The ‘Uniform Series’ of lessons has been a great object lesson and argument for the oneness of Protestant Christianity. It has shown that in the great essential doctrines of our religion there is a unity which had not been before emphasized and has thus promoted a wonderful spirit of oneness in our Christian life.”

Garland Pierce and Carmichael Crutchfield. Photo submitted.

In preparing to commemorate the 150th anniversary, I took time in 2020 to do phone interviews with several of those who had served as CUS chairs. I was able to record lengthy conversations with six of the previous 12 chairs including James McGuire (Cumberland Presbyterian 1993-1995), Wellington Johnson (National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 1996-1998), Marvin Cropsey (United Methodist Church, 2002-2004), Carmichael Crutchfield (Christian Methodist Episcopal, 2005-2008), Mozella Mitchell (African Methodist Episcopal Zion, 2016-2020), and current CUS Chair, Garland Pierce (African Methodist Episcopal). Earlier this year, I was able to interview Marvin Simmers (PC(USA), 1987-1989). Each expressed appreciation for the way service to CUS infuses a greater sense of who we are in Christ and opens our eyes to the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit in people whose lives are different from our own — culturally, politically, racially, theologically and in every other conceivable way. It is a holy miracle that a group of people who in any other context might never come together, do, in fact, come together, and publish a shared Bible-study outline.

This collaborative spirit is especially stunning in a day when dialogue across our differences is often fragile. I know of no other ecumenical project in which mainline and evangelical, Black and White, American and African, sit down together year after year across multiple decades and forge a friendship on their way to producing a unified document. Here’s just one example, though I could offer many. James McGuire (CUS Chair, 1993-1995), a representative of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church began service to CUS in the 1970s and never missed an annual meeting until his retirement in 2019. In our 2020 interview, McGuire said, “CUS was and is the most integrated racially group that I’ve ever been a part of. . .One of the first people I met at CUS was Wellington. I think his first year was my first year and that was in New Orleans.” Wellington Johnson, born in Nassau Bahamas, attended college in Nashville, Tennessee. As a pastor and editor, he came to CUS representing the National Baptist Sunday School Publishing Board. Wellington served a term as CUS Chair (1996-1998) and remains active on the CUS Executive Committee, serving as Chair of the Home Daily Bible Reading committee and an at-large member of the Scope and Sequence Committee. Wellington, too, has his stories of friendships across the years. Stories like these speak to the bonds of fellowship that are formed in Christ and to the Holy Spirit’s mark of approval on our shared task.

The future of faith formation

The CUS continually assesses its effectiveness. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, we identified an urgent need to evaluate our work through a racial justice lens. We became curious as to whether an invisible racial bias seeps into the process of selecting the print passages for weekly lessons. We realized we could not take for granted that just because we have Black Methodists, African Baptists, and Puerto Rican Disciples of Christ working side by side with members of mostly White evangelical and mainline churches, we could not fall into the habit of previous generations who, either intentionally or unintentionally, erased the voices of those long silenced. In privileging some texts while bypassing other texts we control a narrative and unwittingly avoid biblical stories most difficult to confront. To help us address these challenges we invited Dennis R. Edwards, Vice President for Church Relations and Dean of the Seminary at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, to teach at the CUS annual meetings in 2021 and 2022. Drawing on insights like those in his book Might From the Margins (Herald Press: Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2020), Edwards opened up space for hard but honest conversations about what it takes to dismantle racism even at the root level of selecting passages for a quarterly lesson plan.

Then, during the NCC’s Fall Christian Unity (virtual) Gathering, the CUS sponsored a session on “The Future of Faith Formation.” We invited Christine Hong, associate professor of Educational Ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary, to give the keynote address. In celebrating the stories of our ancestors in the faith, Hong also challenged viewers to name the wrongs of the past and to confess the harm the Church has done in erasing the stories of women, children, immigrants, refugees, and those from minoritized communities. She identified the ways in which we are malformed in the faith until we open new channels for bringing to light stories previously concealed. The future of faith formation depends on our vigorous commitment to listen to each other’s stories without insisting that all stories be told in the exact same way.

As we envision this interdependent future, does a Uniform Lessons Series continue to hold value? Yes! That I dare stake such a claim resides both in my 20 years of shared experiences with esteemed and beloved colleagues of the CUS and in the profound alignment of the CUS values that we share with our siblings in faith comprising every Uniform Lessons Committee since 1872. If that point of view sounds naive or blasé to you, then take a walk with me to consider a page out of Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land!

The 150-year roll of members comprising the CUS is a genuine embodiment of the same kind of interconnectivity Anthony Doerr so brilliantly captures in his epic novel. In it, a tapestry of five stories across a span of eight centuries is held together by the thread of an ancient Greek text by Diogenes. Tracing the survival and influence of Diogenes’ text across storylines from 15th-century Constantinople, present-day Idaho and a spaceship that exists in the future, Doerr creates a portrait of our incontrovertible interconnectedness.

For CUS, and for the communities of faith we represent, our ancient text is, of course, both Hebrew and Greek. Our stories span much more than eight centuries, reaching as far back as Genesis. In 2022, the Committee on the Uniform Lessons is perfectly poised to address the challenge of living out our intersectionality because it has already built a healing community in which the harms of the past and present can be addressed and repaired. We are braced to be accountable to each other’s health and wholeness, even where it means recovering the stories of faith that were previously buried, overlooked or sometimes violently erased. For those who have eyes to see, our continued study of Scripture is helping to shape us into a better people who desire to prepare a better planet for those who follow.