It’s been called “Trickle-Up Evangelism,” a.k.a. “Vacation Bible School” (VBS) – a summer outreach to children that takes place in churches across America and features fun activities and scriptural lessons geared to share the Christian faith.

Recent estimates suggest as many as one-third of congregations will host VBS this summer, a rebound from the pandemic fallout – but considerably down from decades ago when most churches hosted, at minimum, a one-week program for area children.

The ubiquity of VBS, especially for lifelong believers, might leave one with the impression it’s been around forever – but everything begins somewhere and often with someone, and Vacation Bible School is no exception.

You’ve probably never heard of Martha “Mattie” Pritchard Miles, but she’s the “someone” who gets credit for launching the first formal summer outreach.

Some church historians suggest elements of Bible school in the summer date back to Boston just after the Civil War and also a church in Montreal, but Mattie’s model is what finally seemed to strike the spark that set the movement ablaze.

Just 24-years-old and married to Methodist minister Reverend D.T. Miles of Hopedale, Illinois, Mattie was a public school teacher during the week – and a Sunday school instructor on the weekend. Challenged to fit in all she felt needed to be taught to her students on Sunday, Mattie came up with the idea to take advantage of a nearby empty school and the wide-open weekday calendars of area children.

The first summer VBS in 1894 featured 40 students and lasted four weeks. Parents paid $1 per student to cover the cost of the supplies. The American Bible Society donated the Bibles. With the help of teenage volunteers, the students studied the Scriptures, sang, played games, did arts and crafts, and listened to great storytelling. No free t-shirts were distributed.

Word began to spread, and other churches began adopting similar evangelistic models. In 1898, Eliza Hawes of the Epiphany Baptist Church in New York City launched what she called the “Everyday Bible School” – and held classes and activities in a nearby beer saloon.

Dr. Robert Boville of the Baptist Mission Society was impressed. To help manage the expansion to other congregations, he founded the Daily Vacation Bible School Association, and then the World Association of Vacation Bible Schools in 1923.

Reverend Dr. Ed Young, who last month retired as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston, a congregation with tens of thousands of members spread across six locations, credits VBS with helping him solidify his Christian faith.

As a boy growing up in Mississippi, Ed agreed to go to VBS after hearing they would be making shoeshine boxes as a craft. He left that week with the box – but more importantly, was baptized. As senior pastor in Houston, he enthusiastically led the expansion of the church’s summer program.

“We discovered something very simple,” Dr. Young told a reporter.  “You may not like me, my church, what I say. But if your kids and grandkids have a super experience with what we do, I’ll have a chance. You love someone’s kids or grandkids, you’ve got them. Because in our broken world, it’s wonderful to have a home base.”

Despite shifting trends, Vacation Bible School remains an inspiring and mobilizing evangelistic tool that presents truth, sows seeds, marshals the faithful and musters the young masses in a mighty and wonderful way.

The now-century-plus tradition is also a reminder that major movements can stem from minor players who listen to the voice of the Lord and take action. After all, it was probably Reverend Miles who received the compliments at the door of the church each week. Few, if any, back in 1894 could have seen how it was his wife whose actions were to revolutionize children’s ministry during that hot midwestern summer.

Likewise, Eliza Hawes’ pioneering outreach to rent a beer hall no doubt raised some eyebrows – but most importantly, the Lord used it to raise new converts.

One lit the match – the other fanned the flame.

Mattie and Eliza – two Christian women who took some risks, surprised and defied expectations, poured their energies into the rising generation – and wound up changing the world of Christian children’s education.


Image of Mattie Miles. Credit: Find a Grave