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VBS: A summer tradition

Children at First Baptist Church work on crosses during their craft time.| Melissa Cason/FCT

It’s that time of year again.

It’s vacation bible school time. While area churches are either in the midst of presenting their bible school or planning their upcoming event, children through out the county are attending vacation bible school.

First Baptist Church of Russellville is one of the few churches that still hold their bible school during the day.

“We have a lot of help to bring this during the day,” children’s coordinator Carole Fowler said. “We have teachers who are out of school right now who help but we also have volunteers take their vacations at work so they can help with bible school.”

Fowler said their theme for this year is The Jesus Expedition, where each day the students explore different parts of the world such as Antarctica, Egyptian desert, Brazilian jungle, and the Pacific Ocean. Each day the students learn something new about Jesus using these themes.

In addition to the story time, the students participate in music, recreation, arts and crafts and snack time. They also have an opening and closing of the service each day.

Fowler said she started planning bible school in February, and the event is planned a little at a time with the final preparations in the weeks leading up to bible school.

Fowler said the church had 78 children Sunday, and 118 children Monday, and they expect to grow each day until Wednesday, when the school concludes.

According to Christianity Today, unofficially, it’s possible to trace the roots of vacation bible school as far back as the 1870s, when the Methodist Episcopal Church offered summer Sunday school institutes to the general public near Lake Chautauqua, New York. In 1873, Bishop John H. Vincent proposed the movement should include educational and cultural programs, and soon other Christian groups across the country followed suit with their own summer retreats, many of them offering services for children.

Vacation Bible school as we know it today got its start more than 20 years later on New York City’s East Side. Mrs. Walker Aylette Hawes of the Epiphany Baptist Church noted a rapid increase in the number of immigrant children in the slums. In July 1898 she rented the only place available—a saloon—to run a Bible school for six weeks during the summer. Hawes structured her program around worship music, Bible stories and Scripture memorization, games, crafts, drawing, cooking, etc. The school caught on: Hawes was presiding over seven separate schools by the time she retired from her work in 1901.

Dr. Robert Boville, who worked for the Baptist Mission Society, picked up where Hawes left off, and the movement grew to include 17 schools by 1903. Fours years later, schools opened in Philadelphia and Chicago, and in 1911, Boville established the Daily Vacation Bible School Association as a national organization. In 1923, he left to promote VBS internationally and founded the World Association of Vacation Bible Schools.

If Boville is responsible for establishing VBS as a movement, Standard Publishing in Cincinnati takes the credit for popularizing it. The publisher created a full-scale VBS program in 1923, divided it by grade level in 1948, introduced a single-theme concept in 1952, and by 1987, offered more than 120 tools for churches wanting to run a VBS. In 1998, the publisher reported that more than 5 million children attended VBS programs every year.