Sophia Lyon Fahs: A Pioneer in Religious Education
A Revitalized Legacy

By The Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews, Minister Emeritus, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock


Sophia Fahs (1876-1978) was a progressive religious educator who believed deeply in engaging children where they lived, in the world of their daily lives, in the process of equipping them to deal with everyday problems. She also sought to stimulate their sense of wonder and curiosity about life. Her approach to religious education, as described in her book Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, marked a radical departure from traditional content and methods. Instead of telling children what they ought to believe, Fahs encouraged them to ponder for themselves the mysteries of the universe and human destiny. “One’s faith,” Fahs wrote, “is the philosophy of life that gathers up into one emotional whole...all the specific beliefs one holds about many kinds of things in many areas of life.”

Fahs pioneered in exposing children to the stories, myths and legends of other cultures, and to the discoveries of science. In place of rigid lesson plans and structured learning, she introduced painting, role-playing and creative self-expression. In place of beliefs that are divisive, discriminatory and damaging, she promoted beliefs that are expansive, inclusive and gateways to wider understanding. She insisted that there is no special religious knowledge. “Instead of helping 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.”

Fahs not only used progressive teaching methods; she also understood that the process of achieving religion never ceases. Faith, too, is progressive. “As the personality grows and changes so do beliefs grow and change.” Thus it was important, from Fahs’ perspective, to offer children alternative points of view and to stimulate them to be both self-reliant and sensitive to the needs of others. It is more important to encourage self-reflection, critical thinking and the development of one’s inner resources  than to reinforce rigid beliefs. Only in this way will our children learn to promote global peace and human solidarity.

Fahs‘ ideas were developed in the context of the experimental Sunday School at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the Union School of Religion and the Riverside Church School, each of them laboratories of religious education theory and methods. In her sixties she was hired by the American Unitarian Association to edit the New Beacon Curriculum. In keeping with her prior experience, she insisted that teaching and learning should be collaborative in nature, that subject matter should be consistent with the children’s cognitive development, and that curriculum should be field-tested to ensure that it engages the children’s interest.

Sophia Fahs’ contribution to Unitarian Universalist religious education has been transformative. Almost single-handedly, she shifted religious education from Bible-centered to experience-centered learning and from adult-driven to child-driven pedagogy. She was on the leading edge of developments in the field of religious education theory and practice. No doubt, were she writing and teaching today, she would still be looking for new ways of implementing her philosophy of creative religious development.