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Once a staple of summer, Vacation Bible School, where, in addition to religious instruction youngsters often do arts and crafts, has dwindled over the years. 

Vacation Bible school, while not as widespread as it once was, is still a rite of summer for many children and churches.

But where did it start and why?

Late 1800s

One reference said the first summer church program was in 1877 in Montreal but offered no details. Another mentioned a Methodist Episcopal Church holding a program near Lake Chautauqua, New York, in the early 1870s.

In a 1964 history, the idea was traced to Boston just after the Civil War, but others say it started in 1894 when D.T. Miles, a Methodist preacher’s wife and former public school teacher, enrolled 40 children in Hopedale, Illinois, in a four-week Bible school. Parents paid $1 per child, and Bibles were donated by the Bible Society.

Teenagers helped Miles, and the group met in a school and held recreation activities in a nearby park. Activities included crafts, singing, contests and storytelling.

1896 New York

Virginia Sinclair Hawes, who was a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, living in New York City, is credited with the idea by some researchers.

In 1896, 1899 and 1900, Hawes rented a beer garden in New York to hold a six-week Everyday Bible School in the summer. The children met there in the mornings when there were no patrons. The youngsters were allowed to come in play clothes and the building was near their homes.

Hawes’ school was successful, so her church, Epiphany Baptist Church, tried to hold its own version of the school. However, attendance at the church required children to dress up and make a special trip, so numbers dropped. Later, the church rented a room from a church closer to the beer garden, but that one wasn't successful either. 

At the peak, Hawes ran seven of the summer schools.

1900 Wisconsin 

In Elk Mound, Wisconsin, Congregationalist pastor Howard R. Vaughan started a program that was shorter and more Bible-focused than some of the other programs. He hired public school teachers to lead the classes.

His work led to a manual, “The Vacation Religious Day School,” being published in 1920. The book is available on Google Books.

1901 New York

In 1901, Robert G. Boville, executive secretary of the New York City Baptist Board of Missions, ran five summer schools. He used university students, including Harry Emerson Fosdick, who would become a famous pastor, to run the programs.

Boville was inspired to start the program for reasons similar to Robert Raikes, who is considered the father of Sunday school. Both felt keeping children busy during down times would keep them out of trouble.

By the second year, Boville's program had 1,500 students. It would spread to Philadelphia and Chicago, and Boville created a national association in 1907.

Today’s VBS

While the summer Bible program was very popular, by the 1950s, what was once a seven-week program was down to two weeks. And by the 1970s, many churches had one week of Vacation Bible School.

A study by George Barna showed in 1997, four of five American churches held Vacation Bible School, dropping to two of three churches by 2013.

In the past few decades, churches have reworked the summer Bible school format. Some have dropped it to just a few days. As more adults work, some programs have moved from day to night, allowing more adults to volunteer or to add adults classes with the children’s programs.

While the history may not be clear, memories from students often are. What is your memory of Vacation Bible School?

SOURCES: “First Vacation Bible School Was Held In a Beer Garden in New York in 1898,” June 27, 1958, Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Virginina; “Fond Memories of Vacation Bible School Can Last a Lifetime,” Aug. 6, 1994, The Virginian Pilot; “A Brief History of Vacation Bible School,” June 20, 2017, Chris Gertz, patheos.com

Facets of Faith runs every other Saturday in Living. Reach Leila Pitchford-English at lenglish@theadvocate.com.