Anyone who has spent much time reading this blog know I love history. I do not believe in living in or dwelling on the past, but I do believe there is much to learn that can guide us through the present and into the future. Too often we dismiss history as being irrelevant to the present, but in doing so we deny the very foundation we stand on.
For the last 11 years I have been honored to stand on a foundation that was established 93 years ago when the leaders of The Baptist Sunday School Board (now known as LifeWay Christian Resources) asked a Washington, Georgia pastor to move to Nashville to begin educating churches on the benefits and practices of Vacation Bible School.
The year was 1924, and Vacation Bible School was primarily a ministry of inner-city churches in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Few churches in the southern and western portions of the United States had every heard of VBS, much less attempted to conduct one.
Dr. Homer Grice and his wife Ethel were the exception. They had led their Georgia congregation to reach the Washington community by offering a summer program they called the Every Day Bible School. It ran for four weeks!
Following is an excerpt from a previously published history of LifeWay’s VBS:
Pastor Homer Grice wrote to The Christian Index about how Vacation Bible School had worked in his church in Washington, Georgia, for the past two years. The church held its first Vacation Bible School in 1922 with an average attendance of 150 for the 20-day school. After reading Grice’s report in the state Baptist paper, Dr. Van Ness, the leader of The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote Grice expressing frustrations with the Sunday School Board’s inability to move forward with a strong Vacation Bible School program and promotion plan.
Van Ness invited Grice to use 20 minutes of the hour allotted to the Sunday School Board at the annual Convention meeting to speak about Vacation Bible School. In a 3 page response to Van Ness’ invitation, Grice outlined ways the Sunday School Board could promote Vacation Bible School, thus creating his own job description. He became director of the new department that was to be formed for Vacation Bible School later in 1924.
Grice worked with state convention Sunday School departments to promote VBS. He wanted to avoid setting up new organizations in the local church and in state conventions. He believed the purpose of getting churches to use their idle Sunday School facilities for a four-week school in the summer could naturally be a function of the Sunday School organization.
Grice promoted a plan that gave children a daily program to minister to physical, mental, moral, and spiritual needs. He incorporated a patriotic regimen with the still-familiar opening exercises of pledges to the United States flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Grice worte the pledge to the Bible that is still used today for use in Vacation Bible School.
The work blossomed under Grice’s leadership and became truly a Southern Baptist program. The Sunday School Board estimated that approximately 300 schools were conducted in Southern Baptist churches in 1926 – only two years after Grice began his work. By 1934, approximately 700 schools were reaching as many as 100 thousand children.
Grice suggested that the Sunday School organization would need to promote VBS if it was to be permanently built into the education program of the churches. The pastor should remain the chief officer of VBS, but the Sunday School officers should plan, promote, and administer the school, Grice proposed.
As Vacation Bible School was promoted through district associations with state clinics to train volunteer workers, the number of schools began to skyrocket. After finally topping 1,000 schools in 1935, the total was well over 4,000 in 1939 and more than 20,000 by 1950.
As he built a Southern Baptist program for VBS, Grice developed a curriculum that was uniquely Southern Baptist, with an emphasis on missions and a related focus on the then-fledgling Cooperative Program.
During his days away from the office, Dr. and Mrs. Grice often traveled to the mountains of Tennessee and West Virginia to conduct Bible schools in regions where churches were unable to conduct the schools themselves. Homer and Ethel had a passion for proclaiming the gospel through the ministry of VBS. They not only gave their time, they gave their money as well.
Friends of Dr. Grice say that in his later years failing health kept him close to home. A small black and white television became an important part of his day. Friends would often ask, “Dr. Grice, why don’t you buy yourself a large color television? You have the money.” His response, “No, this one is fine. The money used for a new television would be one less dollar that could be used to tell a boy or girl about Jesus.”
Upon his death it was learned that Homer and Ethel – having no children of their own – had left their meager estate to the children of impoverished communities across the U.S. Their estate was used to establish a trust fund – The Grice Memorial Missions VBS Fund – to provide VBS resources for churches in extremely impoverished communities.
Interest from the fund continues to be used today to assist churches in providing VBS for kids who would not hear about Jesus otherwise. A great legacy lives on.
Thank you Dr. Grice for the legacy of VBS and the legacy of taking the gospel to the “uttermost parts of the world.”