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Last summer, Newsweek ran a cover story on Americans' perceptions of heaven and hell. Finishing up the piece, the author quoted a 14-year-old vacation Bible school counselor that heaven is "whatever you dream it." It may be just one more case of bad journalism, but for a venerable tradition like VBS—established to teach children the Bible and to mature them as Christians—the quote couldn't have been more embarrassing. Buried in the article as it was, though, the quote seems to have attracted little attention.

Many of our readers won't need an introduction to VBS. But for those who do, vacation Bible schools are typically offered by churches once every summer, starting usually on a Monday and finishing up that Friday. They center around a single theme, involve kids in games and crafts, and—most importantly—seek to teach biblical truths. Christian youth are encouraged to invite their neighborhood friends who otherwise would never bother with church. In many communities, the week of summer fun is anticipated with rising excitement.

But, as one of our readers recently asked Christian History, how did VBS become so popular, and who was the inspiration behind it?

Unofficially, it's possible to trace the roots of VBS 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 ...

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June 2003

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