The Egyptian Founder of the Sunday School Movement

Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

Perhaps it is likely you find one word in this title a bit odd? We’ve had Sunday School in American churches long before I can remember – could it really have been an Egyptian immigrant?

That would be a tale, but the idea traveled in the other direction. Sunday Schools in Egypt are thriving, and America had a role.

But it is largely due to the tireless work of a Coptic Christian few have heard of.

Habib Girgis is the subject of a new biography published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, written by Bishop Suriel of the Melbourne, Australia diocese of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Here is a review, provided by the Center for Law and Religion. Afterwards I’ll continue the story of cross-pollination.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in a state of deep vulnerability that tore at the very fabric of Coptic identity. In response, Girgis dedicated his life to advancing religious and theological education.

This book follows Girgis’ six-decade-long career as an educator, reformer, dean of a theological college, and pioneer of the Sunday School Movement in Egypt—including his publications and a cache of newly discovered texts from the Coptic Orthodox Archives in Cairo. It traces his agenda for educational reform in the Coptic Church from youth to old age, as well as his work among the villagers of Upper Egypt. It details his struggle to implement his vision of a Coptic identity forged through education, and in the face of a hostile milieu.

The pain and strength of Girgis are seen most clearly near the end of his career, when he said, “Despite efforts that sapped my health and crushed my strength, I did not surrender for one day to anyone who resisted or envied me…. Birds peck only at ripe fruits. I thank God Almighty that, through his grace, despair never penetrated my soul for even one day, but in fact I constantly smile at the resistances…. It is imperative that we do not fail in doing good, for we shall reap the harvest in due time, if we do not weary.”

Habib Girgis remains a pioneer of Coptic religious and theological education—a Copt whose vision and legacy continue to shape his community to this very day.

I must read the book to know the details and his particular impetus. But as I understand the greater trends, the American Presbyterian missionary efforts in Egypt put the Coptic Orthodox Church under great stress. The church, as mentioned in the excerpt, was vulnerable due to a state of internal decay as simony and Biblical illiteracy plagued the faithful. The church kept to its ancient rituals, but little more.

The Presbyterians, following a general failure to work successfully among the Muslims, began converting Copts to the evangelical faith and starting new churches.

Habib Girgis worked tirelessly to renew the Orthodox Church, as described above. His activity furthered the reforms began in the papacy of Cyril IV (1854-61), and continued with Pope Cyril V (1874-1927), the longest serving patriarch in Egypt’s history, who supported it.

The Sunday School Movement that was launched would eventually animate to-be Pope Shenouda III and other eventual bishops. The monastic heritage of the church found new life with an emphasis on education, and Bible reading was encouraged among the young, old, clergy, and laity.

Girgis was declared a saint by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 2013.

Today the Presbyterian Church in Egypt is also thriving, but the Coptic Orthodox Church are the revived mother church respected by most. Habib Girgis is largely to thank, and now he can be.

Perhaps also Christians worldwide might realize – oh, Copts have Sunday School, too?