History of VBS: Summers with Jesus

Since the 1870s, loving children and sharing the gospel has been the motivation for VBS. Much has changed since then, but the mission remains the same. This year especially, kids need a faith-filled experience to point them to the One who can guide them through difficult times and all of life.

As we navigate our way through the challenges of VBS 2020, let’s take a look at the long and successful history of VBS for a little inspiration…

History of VBS: Summers with Jesus



The first origins of Christian Bible education to children (that eventually grew into vacation Bible school) is traced back to Boston just after the Civil War by Wheaton University education Professor C.B. Eavey. (1)


Early roots of VBS date to 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. (2)


Other reports indicate beginnings of a summertime Bible program for children took place in Montreal, Canada. (3)


D.T. Miles, a public school teacher and wife of a Methodist minister, wanted more time to teach the Bible to students, thinking the school system failed to provide enough time. In response, she started a daily Bible school to teach children during the summer. She enrolled forty students and it lasted four weeks in duration. Children paid one dollar to attend and the American Bible Society provided Scriptures to those who did not have a copy. (4)


Virginia Sinclair Hawes (often identified as “Mrs. Walker Aylett Hawes”), director of the children’s ministry at Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City began an “Everyday Bible School” for immigrant children. Her first location was a rented beer garden behind a saloon during the mornings (324 East 71st Street, NY, NY) and it lasted six weeks. (5)

Professor C. B. Eavy described the early days of VBS like this:

“The vacation church school was started to gather idle children into unused churches where unoccupied teachers might keep them busy in a wholesome way in a wholesome environment.” (6)

“These summer programs in the eastern part of the country reportedly lasted five weeks and included not only Bible    content but also worship, music, open-air games, “expressional activities” like sewing, weaving, basketry and hammock-making, plus talks on patriotism and hygiene.” (7)


Howard R. Vaughan, a Congregationalist pastor in Elk Mound, Wisconsin began a shorter summer program for children in the western U.S. that was shorter in duration and focused primarily on Bible teaching. (8)


Dr. Robert Boville of the Baptist Mission Society, became aware of Mrs. Hawes’ summer program and recommended it to other Baptist churches. Boville established a handful of summer schools which were taught by students at the Union Theological Seminary (NYC). During one summer, one thousand students were enrolled in five different schools. (9)


After the program spread to other cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, Boville established a national committee. (10)


While not under the title of Vacation Bible School, Dr. Abraham L. Latham of the Third Presbyterian Church in Chester, Pennsylvania initiated a five-week, four hour per day summer Bible school in 1912 which at its peak had 650–700 students. This has been claimed to be the world’s first summer bible school. (11)


Vaughan’s approach inspired a 1920 teacher’s manual published by Abingdon Press, The Vacation Religious Day School. (12)

History of VBS: Summers With Jesus
The Vacation Religious Day School and Rev. Horward R. Vaughan – public domain


Nationally, 5,000 summer Bible schools were established and most lasted five weeks long. Dr. Boville founded the World Association of Daily Vacation Bible School.


Standard Publishing produced the very first printed VBS curriculum. Enough material was provided for a five-week course for three age levels (kindergarten, primary, and junior). (13)


An estimated 60,000 vacation Bible schools existed, teaching approximately 5 million students, and including 500,000 volunteers. (14)

Daily Vacation Bible School At Woodlawn Mennonite Church
Daily Vacation Bible School At Woodlawn Mennonite Church Source: Public Domain


Estimated 80% of churches offer Vacation Bible School in the contemporary format (According to a Barna group report in 2013)(15)


An estimated 67% of churches offer Vacation Bible School (16)


According to one VBS publisher alone:

■ 21,376 churches reported a VBS

■ 2,494,059 people enrolled in VBS

■ 65,301 salvation decisions from VBS

■ 835 decisions made for vocational ministry at VBS

■ 160,926 prospects discovered through VBS

■ $7,012,010 given to missions during VBS

■ 78% of churches use VBS as their largest outreach to unchurched kids in a given year (17)

History of VBS: Summers with Jesus
The Vineyard Church, Mishawaka, IN by Anna Earl – Source: Unsplash


Another year of lives changed for life and eternity! For about 140 years, God has worked through VBS to impact the eternal destination of children all over the world. Much has changed. Much more remains the same.


  1. “A Brief History of Vacation Bible School”, Chris Gehrtz, June 20, 2017. Retrieved May 21, 2020. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2017/06/vbs-brief-history/
  2. “From Beer to Bibles to VBS”, Steven Gertz, June 2, 2003. Retrieved May 21, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/juneweb-only/6-30-43.0.html
  3. Gerhtz
  4. Gerhtz
  5. Gerhtz – also http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/EpiphanyBapt.html Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  6. “In the beginning: The connection between a 19th century beer garden, VBS”, Jennifer Cohron. July 21, 2017. Retrieved May 21, 2020. http://mountaineagle.com/stories/in-the-beginning-the-connection-between-a-19th-century-beer-garden-vbs,12315
  7. Gerhtz
  8. Gerhtz
  9. https://happytoknowhim.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/the-history-of-vacation-bible-school/ Retrieved May 26, 2020
  10. Gerhtz
  11. http://www.oldchesterpa.com/churches/thirdpres_bible_school.htm Retrieved May 26, 2020
  12. https://happytoknowhim.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/the-history-of-vacation-bible-school/ Retrieved May 26, 2020
  13. “The Legend of VBS” by Mike. January 13, 2013. Retrieved May 26, 2020. https://lookoutmag.com/2013/the-legend-of-vbs/
  14. Gerhtz
  15. “Why Fewer Churches Offer Vacation Bible School”, Abby Stocker. July 21, 2013. Retrieved May 21, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2013/july/barna-why-fewer-churches-offer-vacation-bible-school-vbs.html
  16. “The State of Vacation Bible School” Research Releases in Family & Kids, July 9, 2013. Retrieved May 26, 2020 https://www.barna.com/research/the-state-of-vacation-bible-school/
  17. “It’s Worth It Presentation Outline” Lifeway Publishing, adapted from It’s Worth It: Uncovering How One week Can Transform Your Church, Landry Homes, Lifeway Publishing, 2019.
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