I have fond memories of Vacation Bible School, of days filled with singing songs, playing games, making crafts, eating silly food, and learning more about my faith. Once I became an adult and began working at the parish where those childhood memories were formed, I couldn’t imagine not making Vacation Bible School a part of our ministry to children. For a great many families, summer = Vacation Bible School.
I think that’s great, but it also got me wondering: What is the origin of Vacation Bible School? After doing some research, I discovered that VBS not only long predates the 1980’s (when I was a kid); it actually has some roots in Kentucky!
VBS in the Beginning
Vacation Bible School owes its origin to the Sunday schools, tent revivals, and Bible institutes of early American Protestantism. All of these eventually required some gathering of children to receive instruction over a prolonged period of time, and VBS organically developed from that.
In the early 19th century, the phenomenon of tent revival meetings emerged. A large tent would be erected, and a traveling preacher would come and give rousing sermons over a span of many days. This strategy for reviving churches and bringing people to Jesus quickly spread throughout the country. Since these gatherings were primarily for adults, it was the practice in some places for the children to receive special instruction before the big event in the evening.
In 1874, inventor Lewis Miller and Methodist Episcopal bishop John H. Vincent founded the Chautauqua Institution, a teaching camp for Sunday school teachers. Soon after, programs for children and families were established, and this model was copied in “Chautauquas” all over the country. The flame died out after World War II, but the original Institution on Chautauqua Lake in New York exists to this day.
In 1898, Mrs. Walker Aylette Hawes established her “Everyday Bible School” to minister to the immigrant children who spent their summer days running the streets of New York City’s East Side. She rented a beer parlor that was not used during the day (it was the only space available), and for six weeks, she gathered the neighborhood children together for worship music, Bible stories, Scripture memorization, games, crafts, drawing and cooking.
By 1910, the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches had really taken up the banner of Vacation Bible School, formalizing the process and method of instruction, and publishing their own VBS textbooks. Two of the earliest and largest publishers of VBS materials – LifeWay and Standard Publishing (now Christian Standard Media) – grew out of these early efforts.
The Kentucky Connection
Many historians trace the origin of tent revivals to Kentucky and the Appalachian territories. One of the earliest, if not the first, took place in July of 1800, when Rev. James McCready held a camp meeting at Gasper River Church, near Bowling Green.
Remember Mrs. Hawes? Her “Everyday Bible School” provided a form of instruction similar to VBS as we know it today. Well, she was a sister-in-law of John A. Broadus, a founder and later president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Her Baptist missionary and evangelistic zeal is what prompted the effort to found a bible school for children.
Many of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Owensboro and the surrounding area have VBS programs. These are usually scheduled at different dates throughout June, July, and August. In fact, if you plan it right, your child won’t have a week of summer unoccupied!
It’s easy to see why this has become so popular. Vacation Bible School is reasonably priced (free at some churches), it’s a lot of fun for the kids, and it even provides a little morning break for the parents! It has been going strong in this country for over 110 years, and shows no signs of slowing down.