In the beginning: The connection between a 19th century beer garden, VBS

Attend enough Sunday sermons, and you’ll hear the story of the pot roast. A young woman is preparing a pot roast one day. Before placing it in the pan, she cuts off both ends. “Why did you do that?” her husband asks. “Because that’s how my mother does it,” she said. A seed of doubt is planted. The young woman calls her mother. “Mom, why do you cut the ends off of a pot roast?” “I don’t know,” the mother replies. “That’s how Grandma taught me to cook a pot roast.” A call is made to Grandma. “Mother, why do you cut the ends off of a pot roast?” “Because my pan is too small. I have to cut the ends off a roast to cook it.” The moral of the story in most contexts is that traditions should be examined on occasion to ensure that they are still relevant. For me, it’s a reminder that we’re all part of stories that were being written long before we came on the scene and that you never know what you’ll find when you trace them back to their beginning. For example, this week I became curious about the history of vacation Bible schools. A quick Google search turned up this headline: “First Vacation Bible School was held in a beer garden in New York in 1898.” I assumed it was a Southern thing that was invented much later than that, but mostly I was surprised by that beer connection. So I read on. According to the article, Mrs. Virginia Sinclair Hawes held vacation Bible schools in 1898, 1899 and 1900 that led to a larger movement at the start of the century. Hawes, a native of Charlottesville, Va., was a member of Epiphany Baptist Church when she held a six-week summer Bible school in a beer garden behind a saloon at 324 East 71st St. in New York. The “Everyday Bible School” only met in the mornings when the beer garden was not in use. The church later moved the school into its own facilities against Hawes’ wishes. “Attending the school in church required dressing up and making a special trip. In the beer garden, the children came to the classes in their play clothes from their nearby homes,” the Daily Progress article from 1958 states. A Wheaton professor who wrote a book on the history of Christian education 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.” The first VBS participants were the children of immigrants, and the first denominations to embrace it were the Presbyterian Church and the Northern Baptist Convention. In 2013, the Barna Group released a study titled “The State of Vacation Bible School” that showed the tradition is still going strong, though it isn’t quite as popular as it once was. The number of churches offering VBS declined from a high of 81 percent in 1997 to 68 percent in 2012. The South is now a VBS stronghold. Nearly 75 percent of all Southern churches and 91 percent of all Southern Baptist churches hosted VBS in 2012. Churches most likely to host VBS have an annual operating budget of $500,000 or more, an average attendance of at least 250 and a pastor who is between the ages of 30 and 48. Churches who didn’t host VBS most commonly cited a lack of volunteers as their main reason. Approximately 20 percent said they chose not to do VBS because they already offer other activities for children.

Though VBS is usually seen as something to be offered for children and preteens, the vice president of research at Barna Group encouraged church leaders to get their young adults involved. “So many young adults lose their connection with a local church because they feel underutilized. Churches can give key VBS volunteer roles to young adults and college kids in their congregations...Using young people as servants and not just consumers is an important way of establishing a faith that lasts,” Clint Jenkin said in a press release recapping the study. Jenkin also hinted that hosting VBS because it’s always been done (think pot roast) is a pretty poor reason. Instead, he encouraged church leaders to establish a goal, whether it’s recruiting new members or raising the church’s profile in its community, and to plan accordingly. Though hosting VBS is certainly a lot of work, Jenkin reminded church leaders that it is supposed to be fun. “One of the key ingredients in childhood is unstructured play. To the extent churches can provide this along with spiritual teaching, they are performing a valuable social function for the children in their neighborhood,” he said. Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.