By Dai Morgan, Pastor of Swissvale United Methodist Church
Summer is the time for Vacation Bible School. During the next eight weeks, churches in our region will be offering a variety of Vacation Bible School programs. One source described VBS as "the siren call of summer, the epic event of the season.” Perhaps, this statement is slightly exaggerated. Then again, perhaps not. If the power to elicit fond memories is any indication, VBS has been an “epic” experience for many people. In our culture, the mention of VBS to an adult is likely to bring back happy childhood memories.
Vacation Bible Schools have been a long-standing children’s ministry in American churches, especially among Protestants. Most VBS programs consist of a week-long schedule of religious education employing Bible stories, music, arts and crafts, recreation, entertainment and social interaction. Cost is typically minimal or free, making it possible for anyone to participate. The concept seems to work pretty well. At one point during the 1970s, someone suggested that VBS had exhausted its potential. However, 40 years later, the VBS movement shows no signs of fading away.
Vacation Bible School, as we think of it today, goes back a century. Part of the success of the concept is based on its universal appeal. Christian parents do not seem to worry about crossing denominational lines when sending their children to a VBS. Indeed, unchurched and non-religious parents are often quite happy to have their children participate in Vacation Bible School. The positive experience of generations of VBS-attendees has quieted sectarian concerns. It can be argued that VBS is one of the most effective ecumenical and evangelistic tools in the Church’s “playbook.”
The earliest link in the Vacation Bible School movement can probably be attributed to Mrs. D. T. Miles, the wife of a Methodist minister in Hopedale, Illinois. Having worked as a school teacher, Mrs. Miles was passionate about education. Desiring to teach the Bible to children and feeling limited by the constraints of once-a-week Sunday school, she instituted a daily Bible camp in the summer of 1894, utilizing classrooms in a nearby school building. The program lasted four weeks. Forty students were enrolled.
The next step in the evolution of VBS can be attributed to Eliza Hawes. Mrs. Hawes had moved from Charlottesville, Virginia, to New York City, with her physician husband, who was conducting a medical ministry to children. In an attempt to provide children with an alternative to playing in the street, Mrs. Hawes rented an East Side beer hall in July 1898, to operate as the Everyday Bible School. It was a six-week program.
Mrs. Hawes, a Southern Baptist, retired from her work in 1901. However, Dr. Robert Boville of the New York Baptist Mission Society, recognized the value in Hawas’s work. Dr. Boville expanded the program and began to promote interdenominational Vacation Bible Schools in New York City. He continued further by organizing a national committee for Vacation Bible Schools. By 1916 the movement had spread across the country and even into Canada. Boville promoted VBS for the rest of his life.
The Vacation Bible School movement was given its greatest momentum in 1923, when Standard Publishing Company—still active in the publication of religious educational material—began production of a VBS curriculum. As a result of the ease and convenience in using pre-designed printed material, the popularity of Vacation Bible School soared. Today, one can find dozens of sources for VBS materials. Furthermore, VBS programs can be found throughout the world.
If you are looking for summertime activities for the kids, consider Vacation Bible School.
Please share your own experiences of Vacation Bible School in the comments section.