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Old Chester, PA: Third Presbyterian Church

World's First Summer Bible School

Links in this history:

Beginning Basics

Spread of the S.B.S.

Crescents, Stars, and Records




A Letter of Interest

Related links:

A Summer Bible School Report Card c. 1947-1949

Third Presbyterian Church

Bible Presbyterian Church

How to Conduct a Summer Bible School
by the Rev. Abraham Lance Lathem, D.D.
[excerpted from Christianity Today,  8.2 (June 1937): 32-33]
Courtesy of  the Presbyterian Church in America Historical Center Archives


The thought greatly troubled Pastor Lathem. Why! -- Why are so many promising members lost to the church? Instead of advancing, there only seems to be a marking of time and a lethargy toward the work that needed to be accomplished. Having just read the minutes of the General Assembly, he noticed they were dropping over 50,000 names from the rolls of the Presbyterian Churches. With alarm, he checked back for several previous years, and found this was average-- not unusual.

As he prayerfully pondered the case, the Lord brought to mind the parable of the sower in Matthew's gospel. Seed sown on poor ground are the people ignorant of the Bible. We train lawyers in law school and doctors in medical college, but we see church members that spring up and die. How can we get away from this ignorance? 

"If we want Christians to grow, a Bible School is needed. They must be shown how to study the Word correctly," reasoned Pastor Lathem, "--and how to be saved and 1ive for God."

With the determination of God's will settled, he asked permission of the Church's Session to start a school the following summer. Although doubting much success, they gave permission provided he secured his own funds. He then asked around to see if anyone else was doing anything like this. Not only could he find no such effort being endeavored, but no one seemed interested in trying. The consensus, of children studying the Bible after school was over in June, seemed the height of fantasy. In addition, parents would not permit their vacations to be so interrupted. It couldn't be done--said the experts--so he went ahead and did it! Doctor Lathem always did feel that God knew more than the crowd.

Certainly there were many philosophical principles to encourage such determination:

1st. As the twig is bent, so the tree's inclined. 
2nd. It is easier to take the crooks out of the twig than out of the tree. 
3rd. The Spring season is the time for planting and sowing.
4th. Satan still finds mischief for idle hands to do. 
5th. If good seed is not planted and cultivated, all soils, and especially the richest, produces weeds and never fruits, vegetables and flowers. 
6th. The Holy Scriptures are able to make wise unto salvation. 
7th. The thing which the church emphasizes and reverences, the youth will likewise emphasize and reverence.

The year was now 1911, and the Lord reminded him that the cattle on a thousand hills, and the silver in the hills were His and to make preparation for the coming year--He would provide. 

Preparation was continued by taking his vision before his congregation. A series of sermons were given which included questions on the Bible that people were to answer for themselves. Although a silent test was intended, they offered voluntary responses that indicated a poor knowledge of the Word. Pastor likened this to the hard soil where seeds of God's truth wouldn't grow well.

Some expressed the opinion that improvement in the regular Sunday School activity would be sufficient. Al though expressing a high appreciation for the place of the Sabbath (or Sunday) School 1, one could never duplicate the work of the other. The value of the Sunday School was chiefly that of the influence of the teacher over the pupil. The educational importance is relatively small by its very nature -- 20 or 30 minutes separated in intervals of a week, given for the most part by inexperienced teachers. Who would seriously claim one could be trained for a position in the world if school studies were pursued in such a manner? Yet, the task of living a Christian life is more important than anything else.

It was obvious -- "the Book" must be made the subject of study, recitations, test, and reports (the same as public school). False prophets predicted failure, but their prognostications passed into oblivion, and their names were never long remembered. However few were as enthused as the pastor and doubted it would get much further than just a brainstorm. Even son, Lance, remarked, "the Lathem children will be the only ones present in the Bible School."

Contrary to that point of view, there was a fine attendance in 1912 when the first Summer Bible School opened at the Third Presbyterian Church at Ninth and Potter Streets in Chester, Pennsylvania. Great interest continued through the scheduled five weeks in the first such school in the entire world. With 163 students, it even became necessary to employ an additional teacher. Not only children from ages 3 to 16 attended, but also adults of various ages--one even being an octogenarian. Later a night class was formed for adults unable to attend during the day. 

When the final audit for that first year was made, the income in gifts, and the expenses totaled the same--$368.84! The Lord gave -- and blessed -- as He promised. 

Satan was certainly not going to permit the development of such a training facility without a challenge. Surely, if he can't win by one method, there are other ways to sidetrack the effort. Money was found to be missing from the missionary treasury and it was felt that the Presbytery should seek an investigation. The committee that was appointed discovered the culprit. Coming from a prominent family in the church, it was expected that pastor would not make the findings public. But Dr. Lathem made changes in the officials handling the funds and methods to prevent any reoccurrence.

This caused some division in church sympathies, and, there was talk of seeking another minister. However, the congregation was not permitted to discharge Dr. Lathem, although sixty-five prominent people of substantial means made their exodus. One lady wrote, "I'll not give anymore money while you are there!"

Pastor wrote a graceful reply, but he was never moved by threats. He fought against the liquor industry and saloons when he first moved to Chester. After one hard-hitting message, a man met him on the street, shook his fist in the Doctor's face and shouted, "If you preach another sermon like that, I'll blow your brains out!", Without an iota of change in delivery, he kept his thinking machine until the end of his days--at age 88 plus. 

Many churches daring to venture for God, have found they multiplied by subtraction. It was astonishing how the church prospered after that 1914 confrontation. A fine Irish evangelist, William P. Nicholson, came to Chester and a good portion of those converted sought membership at The Third Presbyterian Church.

When Pastor Lathem gave the "hand of fellowship" to those joining the church, he always gave a verse of Scripture from memory. Some Sundays he would need verses for sixty or seventy persons. 2 To accomplish this, he would rise at 5 AM to study. Indeed, he rested on the Word -- "Those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength".

In early years many local churches encouraged their youth to attend The Third Presbyterian Summer Bible School. With other local schools not yet organized, enrollment increased from 193 to 453 by 1923. However, the one school in Chester had, by then, become 228 schools nationwide with 19,113 pupils. By 1935, enrollment was 627 at Third Presbyterian. Nationally, nearly thirty different denominations were represented in reports and schools were listed.

In a few years, others began to come to learn how to establish their own Summer Bible School. From neighboring churches and surrounding communities, to Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites, leaders came to visit the classrooms. Missionaries on furlough considered importing it to other lands. By 1936 (the 25th Anniversary) reports were received from 44 states, Canada, Mexico, West Indies, East Indies (Indonesia), Korea, India, Brazil and Ethiopia. More is written elsewhere of the Korean “explosion”.

Beginning Basics 

To know the reason for the origin and success of the Summer Bible School movement, one must study the personality that God chose. Born on a small farm in the Appalachia of Pennsylvania, A.L. Lathem lost his father at the tender age of 12. But by then he had grounded his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and seeds of habit were sown creating a stern disciplinarian.

This is seen in clearest focus in the training of his only son, Lance. Each morning he was called at 4:55 and was expected to be downstairs for recitation of Bible verses by five o'clock sharp. Two new verses were studied each day. By the age of seven, he had "memorized and recited correctly the Gospel of St. John, the Epistle to the Romans, and the Epistle of James, each entire on one occasion". 3

Words that best describe A.L. Lathem include, "one of the old school", "no ordinary man", with "qualities of Puritan 
discipline". Lance described his father as "indomitable and persevering", but a faithful and devoted parent who had no other desire than to live for God and train his son in that direction.

This resulted in a most unusual son, who would recite one-half of the Presbyterian Shorter Catechism every morning, and by the age of ten was able to read from the Greek for evening devotions. Mother Elizabeth, with a winsome and feminine spirit, was a happy counterpart of her husband. With an ability in music, she began teaching Lance piano at the age of three, using the hymn book as a basis for lessons. By the time he was five, he could play any hymn in the book and was the regular pianist for the Primary Department in Sunday School.

Dr. Lathem continued his practice of thorough preparation and diligence in the design and growth of the Bible School. Being a pioneer in teaching children and youth in such a concentrated, yet extended period, required the writing of much educational materials as well as formulating curriculum.

Financial records were meticulously maintained and open records available. Thus grieving parents, whose son was taken at the age of eighteen, could confidently write, "All our boy ever got to know about the things of Christ, he learned through the Summer Bible School. We plan for funds to be set aside for the promotion of the work”. Contributions to “The Foundation” were securely guarded through the years and precautions taken to maintain harmony with the Fundamentals of Christianity.

During the S.B.S. period itself, Dr. Lathem visited every classroom two or three times daily – often bringing a special message. In addition, he would endeavor to contact the home of each absentee to insure, if possible, their return the following day. Teachers were also instructed with immediate follow-up to prevent the danger of losing a pupil. In this way, the parents of every absent child received two telephone calls that day. Because of this, a majority received the special award for perfect attendance. Average attendance for 1936 for 560 pupils was 97 per cent. From the earliest years faithful attendance was rewarded by a visit to the zoo or as in 1915, an excursion to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, which required 37 automobiles or “public conveyances.” One peak year later, 80 vehicles were needed.

Planning for the next year was equally comprehensive. Teachers were secured by February, and previous pupils were enrolled in March. The methodical practices that became so important in developing the Bible School could be noted here. Each page of the registering ledger had twenty-six spaces. Thus, a days’ work was complete when 26 students were registered.

Later, canvassing continued in the neighborhood and announcements were made in other churches. Many pastors encouraged their members to send their children to Dr. Lathem’s school, feeling the problem of trying to compete with the quality operation for which Third Presbyterian was noted.

Even the public schools gave permission for the doctor to tell in school assemblies of the Summer Bible School and the opportunity to distribute flyers. After all, it was not only free, but bus routes were available without cost to the students.

A mid-winter conference was scheduled each year. This evaluated the accomplishments of the past and considered recommendations of change or improvement. From Thursday afternoon through a full day Friday, speakers, special music, and demonstration classes with competent teachers illustrated successful methods. Of special note, Dr. Robert G. Lee of Memphis was the featured speaker at the 1934 conference. Those in attendance represented Africa, China, India and Korea. In later years, such conferences were encouraged in local areas for mutual encouragement and skill excellence.

Every church having a Summer Bible School was encouraged to send two delegates to the conference. 9 Third Presbyterian Church was responsible for their care, but non-delegates entertained themselves because of large numbers involved. Through the years, many Christian leaders such as Rev. James M. Gray, President of Moody, challenged the vision of those attending. Only the Lord has the record of future fruit as a result. Lance was one such pioneer in his own right, in developing the AWANA movement.

Spread of the S.B.S.

Each year there was sustained growth and interest. By 1923 enrollment was 453 with 95% attendance. In addition, other schools were starting in the neighborhood, but with little effect on the "mother school". Rev. Tedesco's Italian Presbyterian Church established a strong school with 100 children, and black area congregations quickly followed suit. In that twelfth year of operation, there were six schools in the Chester area counting 1163 students. Nationwide, 228 schools reported an attendance of over 19,000.

Encouragement for Third Presbyterian stretched far beyond the summer activity. Beside a more manifest loyalty to Christ and the church, the grace of giving could now (1923) support eight instead of one or two missionaries. Benevolences increased 800%, and Sunday School grew to over 1400, necessitating the erection of a well-equipped educational wing.

God’s hand in expansion during the 1920's was evident in the general acceptance by denominations united in fundamentals, but differing significantly in other areas. With the exception of the catechism, all material was interdenominational. Churches could thus incorporate their own Catechism or doctrine and use the program without offense. Twenty-seven church denominations of differing protestant faiths used the Summer Bible School literature. The greatest numbers, however, represented four church groups -- Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and independents such as city children's missions and camps.

One such group of schools was carried on by Rev. C.E. Morrison in the isolated Upper Michigan peninsula, west of Sault St. Marie. Here, for some years, 23 schools spread through the Hiawatha National Forest, uniting mission stations in the five-week effort. Reporting in 1935, 434 pupils were enrolled, varying from 2 students at Fibre, to 30 at Strong's for an average cost of 31 cents per pupil.

In Pocomoke City, MD, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Methodist Protestant Churches united in one school of 212 students. Following is a letter of testimony from Rev. S.J. Venable, pastor.

Dear Dr. Lathem, 
You will probably be interested in the history of our school. When I came to this pastorate from the southern Presbyterian Church three years ago, I had learned of the Chester plan of S.B.S. work thru my good friend, Dr. Gilmer of Lynchburg, VA. So the first summer I was here, I began a school by confining it to the smaller children. I used your materials, and paid my teachers. Last summer I included all the children in my school thru 13 years of age, following the same methods as the year before, using 5 teachers instead of 3. This spring when I was planning for my school this summer, the other pastors and superintendents of the town asked me to make my school a Union School, as they had observed the work in my Summer Bible Schools, and wanted their boys and girls to have the same opportunities as the Presbyterians. So I agreed to do so, provided that they would use your plan, employ teachers of ability, and continue it on the same high level as I had my school in the past two years. They readily agreed to do so, and asked me to take entire charge of the school, and run it as I saw fit. This year I put in 9 grades, and the response was far greater than we expected. Every church in the community joined in the movement, and everyone is enthusiastic for a larger school with the 12 grades next year.

Our commencement was held in the M.E. Church on Sunday evening, June 23, about 600 people being present. All of our teachers were employed, and all had teaching experience.

With best of wishes for the success of this great movement you are leading for youth in the church, I am

Fraternally yours, 
(Signed) S.J. Venable
Pocomoke City, MD 

For the record that year (1935) sixty union schools reported, with an unknown number never bothering to give figures of their activities.

Probably the greatest united effort occurred in Korea. In no other spot in the world did the S.B.S. find such an existing void. For many years the Presbyterian Church had strengthened its missionary field in this land. Since the first Presbyterian missionary had forced a testament in the hand of the soldier who had immediately beheaded him, the outlawed religion had grown. By the 1920's, most towns supported a protestant church -- usually Presbyterian.

During the 1930' s Japan (which had annexed the Korean peninsula and changed the name to Chosen) increased its military dictatorship and the future role of the church was uncertain. In such an atmosphere, with time uncertain, the church Bible Schools expanded rapidly. They followed Dr. Lathem's philosophy, "Whatever the church does or does not do, she must take adequate care of her youth".

By the 1932 report, 1071 schools enrolled 101,768 with over 80% attendance. Employed teachers numbered 6,769 and with all average cost of six cents per pupil, registered 11,616 conversions. This represented an accomplishment greater than all other reporting schools combined.

With increasing difficulty, the schools in Korea continued. By 1935, enrollment was down to 65,000 in 680 schools. 4 Dr. Holdcroft Submitted the report noted,

You will see we have had many difficulties this year. It is almost impossible for one in America to understand why there would be such difficulties, and yet in many places this year the police forbade the local people carrying on the work of Summer Bible Schools, even in places where we had schools for several years continuously. We did all we could with the Government General  authorities. They approved our text books and said there ought to be no difficulty, but as a matter of fact, the supervision of all activities in every locality is in the hands of the local police, and it is almost impossible for us to take up every case as it arises and see that the churches get the privileges they ought to have. A good deal of this opposition cannot be explained by anyone, but the Government is very unwilling to allow any work to be done by any organization that calls itself a school unless it has a charter from the Government. For this reason, in many places this year we called the Summer Bible Schools simply "Children's Bible Classes." I am afraid that we are going to have this difficulty constantly for the next few years at least, but although it has interfered with our work considerably yet we are able to report 9,153 decisions for Christ. 
(Ed. Note -The cost per pupil that year for the five-week school was listed at two cents.)

By the 1930's, the concept of The Daily Vacation Bible School began to find popularity. A shorter period of time (two weeks instead of five) aided in securing teachers and bus drivers. Emphasis on handwork also had its own appeal. This threatened a compromise with an all Bible program. 

But the issue was clear to Dr. Lathem that the Bible itself was being relegated to a minor place. Even when Hymn Studies were added to Bible Stories and Memory Work, less than an hour was needed. In addition, the handwork itself often contained little truth of the Word of God. Nevertheless, the more modern D.V.B.S. seemed to fit the spirit of the time.

In an effort to cope, some schools condensed the work to two weeks and have continued in that form of curriculum for some years. Dr. Carl McIntire's church in Collingswood, N. J. started in the early years as a four-week school and continues this way. Pressure continues on remaining schools to "modernize ". However, the knowledge drifts across our path occasionally of those that refuse to alter original schedules.

Figures in 1938 were impressive. Doctor Lathem reported an increase in enrollment of 35% over the previous year. Twenty thousand converts resulted from 10,678 teachers in 2000 schools meeting with 147,122 boys and girls. Probably several hundred other schools did not report.

Such expansion could be the result of live advertising. Lance Latham 5 took some of his "White Shirt Brigade" boys on tour earlier that year to bring to new areas the story of his dad's S.B.S. Not only could these cherubs sing their way into the hearts of delighted audiences, but the organ artistry of Lance Himself frequently brought standing ovations .His rendition of "The Storm", “Stars and Stripes Forever" and great Christian favorites set the mood for the description of how God was using the concentrated summer study of His Word throughout the world.

This showed the value of personal contact in encouraging churches to consider using the S.B.S. program and materials. But on a limited budget, it was not easy to find qualified men to do this. Jack Murray (in the early 1940's) thought that Dr. Lathem himself was the best one to devote time in this effort. But the doctor did not feel he could leave home base for extended periods of time, though he had scattered engagements throughout the South on occasions.

In 1948 it was agreed that $5000 be raised for promotion activities, with each director bearing a share of the burden. Mr. Murray, the director at Harvey Cedars Bible Conference and Vice President of S.B.S. agreed to devote the fall months for travel activity for S.B.S. for an appropriated $1000. 

Crescents, Stars and Records 

[Click here to see an actual Summer Bible School Report Card c. 1947-1949, courtesy of Betty Embert (Martino)

Vital to the success of the Summer Bible School was the keeping of records and knowing how to charge a young child with enthusiasm to excel in many areas. Year after year methods that brought results were strictly enforced with the doctor carefully watching every detail. Even parents were urged into a cooperation they had doubted possible of arranging their vacations and even ignoring inclement weather.

The motto of the Summer Bible School was "This one thing I do" -- which was to focus the scriptures upon the Lord Jesus. God's Word was felt to be the most interesting Book in the world -- which was the reason handcraft was considered irrelevant to create interest. Use of such activities to Dr. Lathem would be like trying to brighten sunlight with tallow candles. Only drawing maps of the Holy Land was accepted. If every pastor and teacher had Dr. Lathem's enthusiasm for the Bible this would certainly continue to be true.

The course of study was comprehensive enough to create a thirst for the Word. Twelve summers of five-week sessions followed strict public school methods. Public education teachers were acquired where possible as well as Bible School graduates. But the key to success was felt to be teaching ability and an evangelical Christian experience.

In return for such dedication, it was only right that teachers should be paid. A beginning teacher started at $10 per week. If they returned a second year, it was raised to $11. Each succeeding year found an additional dollar increase until $15 per week was earned. However, if a summer occurred without teaching, the salary reverted back to ten dollars. In later years, all teachers received $15 per week. It was felt that volunteers may be a mistake in this school for "a laborer is worthy of his hire". Thus, financial encouragement was to be considered carefully and prayerfully.

Report cards were designed to not only inform parents, but to develop enthusiasm with the student as well. For this reason, they were displayed in the classrooms where added stickers could be immediately enjoyed. 

Variety, color, and the ease with which even the poorest student could obtain some stickers usually meant a report card kept with pride for many years. Stars, suns, crosses, crescents, moons, smiling faces, hearts, harps, crowns, seals, and ribbons always stimulated interest.

To get a "smiley" one must be present the day before Independence Day. A flag sticker was issued to all attending the day after the holiday and a blue star for any day you came in the rain. A red star showed that you had brought a new pupil that came for at least ten days.

Gold stars represented memory work with a special large star for a complete chapter. Children's Catechism earned blue hearts, and the Shorter Catechism (grades 4 to 10) was marked with green hearts. Bible stickers were given if you brought your own Bible every day for an entire report period (8 work days).

Recitation of 7 special verses put a red cross on the card. Perfect attendance earned an orange heart each period. Good conduct deserved a red heart, and if you had one for all three report periods a harp was added. Very good work habits for a period gave a gold sun. When three of these were earned, to a smiley face was added a crown.

Attendance at your own church was encouraged by additional emblems on your report card. A silver star showed Sunday School attendance, and a gold star for morning and evening services. But earning a small red candle was possible only by being at Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Finally, crescents represented effort with the atlas and maps of Palestine (Israel).

Today many of the variety of stickers are impossible to find. But noting the approaching scarcity, large supplies were purchased and are still used -- at least in Chester.

A picture of Dr. Lathem ringing a large brass bell is a memorable picture. In this way he called the children to line up behind their teachers according to grades. After the march into Chapel, opening exercises included salutes to the American and Christian flags. Then an excited tot would be lifted to the platform to hold high their Bible for all to pledge their faith.

--to God's Holy Word and I 
will hide its words in my heart 
that I might not sin against God.

With great gusto, the entire school would next shout their goals in concert:

"We will not miss one day
We will do our best 
We will boost our school 
We will pray for our school each day." 
--then prayerfully, "All these things we will do for Jesus' sake."

Singing, prayer, and joint recitation of selected salvation verses 6 from the Way of Life conclude the chapel time. Constant repetition of key verses was important so the older ones would not forget, and the younger ones would have a sense of familiarity when it was their turn to learn them.

One morning chapel each summer is designated for a time of decision with a special speaker encouraging each child to be certain of their eternal relationship with God.

The final program on Friday evening centered on honoring God's eternal Word. Many church Bible Schools display handwork, group singing or projects to the public audience as their final accomplishments. But for the S.B.S., memory work was emphasized. Friends who hadn't attended past closing exercises, were amazed at the long passages of scripture that could be recited. Second grade did the twenty-two verses of Psalm 24, and seventh grade the last portion of the Sermon on the Mount.

To accomplish this display of talent, much of the final week is review and repetition -- and repetition -- and repetition! Oftentimes, the kindergarten class would be a highlight with not only the Twenty-Third Psalm, but the Books of the New Testament as well. Musical talent on piano or violin was also displayed.

With the close of the program, the tenseness of perfection gave way to joy of anticipation. The promised trip to the Philadelphia Zoo and special treats well repaid the week of pressure to do one's very best. 

Even into the 1930's, most schools registered increasing enrollments as bus routes were developed. If a child must use public transportation, the Bible School met the cost. In addition, a diploma earned at graduation was recognized and accepted as College credit in most Bibl e Schools.

The final attainment as an alumnus of the S.B.S. was not easily secured. Every requirement of each grade must be fully met. If a child did not begin in first grade, he must make up all work of grades missed.

Mrs. Martha Chandler first came to S.B.S. when in fifth grade. By the time she reached eleventh grade, she determined to earn the coveted graduation diploma. But that meant doing all the past work she had missed before entering. One of the teachers agreed to listen to her recitations the rest of the summer. In this way, Martha not only joined that comparatively small number of alumnae, but eventually became a key teacher in holding the Bible School together in the lean years that followed. In 1985, she was honored for twenty-five years of service – primarily as a seventh grade instructor.

The care of accurate records was the reason 7 colleges could recognize the value of studies at S.B.S., and give credit toward a degree. Before a teacher could receive a final pay check, records for each child were examined and completed. The first and most prominent entry must be what work was not completed. Thus, no matter what amount of time would elapse before twelfth grade, records could be quickly checked for any incompletion that remained.

The difficulty of obtaining graduate status may be seen in the number so honored in the 1930’s. Although enrollments averaged around six hundred, the graduating class for 1932 numbered seven; 1933 – ten; 1934 – eleven; 1935 – fifteen; 1936 – eighteen; 1937 – twenty-seven; 1938 – twenty-four; 1940 – five (taught by Evangelist Jack Murray).


As I became interested in S.B.S. history, I was increasingly aware of the outreach and impression it made through the years. Living in the immediate vicinity and acquainted with evangelical churches, there were frequent contacts with former students who often attended forty or fifty years ago. Their remembrance of Dr. Lathem concerned his austerity and as a child they held him in awe. But their adult reflection was, that if there was ever a man who lived what he preached, it was A.L. Lathem.

Although at a glance, it may not be apparent, Dr. Lathem had a deep love for children. During the short recess each day, many children would want to share a cookie from their snack. Of course, he couldn't eat them all, so often came home with a pocket full of "goodies".

He was particularly aware of the needs of the handicapped children attending. One such boy was Ralph Snyder, a victim of Down’s Syndrome and severely retarded. He was brought to the S.B.S. as a small boy by his mother who attended with him. As the years passed, the other children would tease him, and this probably was the cause of hi s being disruptive in class. When this became a problem, Dr. Lathem made the final decision. The schooling Ralph was receiving was probably the only opportunity he would have at anything approaching formal education. Therefore, he remained and was promoted year by year with his class. At graduation, he could not be given a diploma, but a special certificate was awarded for his faithful attendance and efforts. It is believed that his class was especially blessed in their adjustment to having him. There were other children who also were handicapped in various ways. One little girl had a problem where speech was seemingly impossible. Through much encouragement however, she was able to articulate John 3:16 sufficiently to repeat it for closing exercises.

This summer I visited Sandy Cove Bible Conference in Maryland and took with me a copy of the Annual Report of S.B.S. for 1955. When some black guests wanted to look at it, they were ecstatic upon seeing a picture of their Bible School in Norfolk, VA. They laughingly painted out themselves and their friends. In glowing tribute they told of Rev. J.A. Handy and his Colored Union Mission and Christ Church.

For many years some 250 children attended and a few of the top students were chosen to accompany Rev. Handy when he attended the Annual Conference of the S.B.S. in January. "For some of us children to go to Chester with Rev. Handy", commented one, "was like going to Heaven!".

My! What an inspiration a pastor like Brother Handy must have been. He planned a trip to Los Angeles and said one of his prime purposes was to encourage churches to use S.B.S. plans to train their youth also. Incidentally, that church is still using the five-week course.

Recently I met Edith Schaeffer, widow of Dr. Francis Schaeffer, of L’Abri in Switzerland. Dr. Schaeffer was Associate Pastor at The Bible Presbyterian Church from 1941 to 1943. As soon as I mentioned S.B.S., she began to sing the Bible School song, “We attend our Bible School in all kinds of weather…” as she continued to autograph her latest book to a waiting crowd.

Jack Murray, evangelist, was assistant pastor of Bible Presbyterian also from 1939-41. Recently I had the opportunity of speaking with h9im while he was in a local church engagement. I was again interested in something to add to his history. A first remembrance was that the doctor never called Jack by his first name – it was always “Murray”.

When Dr. Lathem, at the age of 72, resigned his pulpit at Third Presbyterian Church to start his own church, the congregation rented an old mill a few blocks away until their new sanctuary was completed. 7 Each morning Jack remembered meeting with the doctor to open windows and get ready for the avalanche of boys and girls.

This year (1986) the Bible Presbyterian Church of Chester conducted their seventy-fifth consecutive Summer Bible School, using original materials and curriculum. Without a pastor for two S.B.S. seasons, and in a changing neighborhood, only thirty children were enrolled. Your historian acted as superintendent. The teacher problem was also critical. But the closing program demonstrated the concentrated memory work from kindergarten through grade eight.

Miss Elizabeth Lathem, 8 Dr. Lathem’s daughter, and her co-laborer Anna Gatchel met each morning for intercessory prayer following opening exercises. Miss Lathem, a graduate of the class of 1919, also taught fifth grade for a week until a permanent teacher was secured.

The Third Presbyterian Church merged with First Presbyterian Church, Chester, in October of 1982 and their original buildings on Ninth street, where the S.B.S. began and grew for 27 years is now given over to social services under the Presbyterian Church.

Perhaps this is a good point to end our history -- written in honor of the Diamond Anniversary for Dr. A.L. Lathem's Summer Bible School. Many of his spiritual children are rejoicing with him today because he was faithful to his God-given vision. Times indeed change, but necessity of obedience to the leading of the Spirit remains paramount.

Most of the printed materials used in the S.B.S. are still available (and listed in the appendix). It would be interesting if this short history of a glorious past could spark a desire in some church for a new beginning. The scriptural ignorance of our youth today and lack of church stability and vision is probably greater than it was in that distant year of 1912. Perhaps this is an event that needs to be "born again".

Jon M. Clayton 


This history honors not only the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Summer Bible School, but also the unnumbered teachers throughout the world that willingly experienced many difficulties to teach five demanding weeks in hot weather. 
* * * 


1. "Sunday School" was a phrase the Doctor refused to use. In earlier years it was the Sabbath School, but later referred to as the Lord's Day School. 

2. At the close of the evangelistic services about the year 1915, there was one Sunday that Dr. Lathem welcomed 234 into membership each with their own scripture verse. 

3. Copied from a book presentation dated October 27, 1902 and signed by Abraham L. Lathem. 

4. In addition about 50 Korean congregation churches had been established in Japan that ware unable to report. 

5. Son, Lance Latham, changed the spelling of his last name, using .the "A" instead of "E", sometime after moving to Chicago. 

6. Special Verses

7. In 1939 about 450 members left Third Presbyterian Church of 1200 members. After the cornerstone of his Bible Presbyterian Church was laid in 1942, they occupied the basement until dedication in 1946. 

8. Dr., Lathem had three daughters - Elizabeth, Evangeline and Helen, and one son, Lance, (Died Jan. 15, 1985)

9. Taken from the Forty-fourth Annual Report. "Dr. Lathem was taken ill on Friday night of the S.B.S. Conference. The next day he underwent surgery at Chester Hospital (and passed a way 2/21/55) 


Miss Mary MacIntyre (a 1940 S.B.S. graduate) corresponded with Lance Latham for some years. On one occasion, she sent a clipping from the Chester Times from a "50 Years Ago Today" column. This concerned the effort of Dr. Lathem to keep the Times from publishing a newspaper on the Lord's Day. Here are excerpts from Lance's reply to Miss MacIntyre:

"Yes, the newspaper clipping you enclosed surely reflected Father at his best--denouncing something. I'm afraid the Sunday newspapers are here to stay. But such difficulties never disturbed Father. He did keep out the saloon planned for Edgmont Avenue, and also put out that pharmacist who was selling booze under the counter. And Father helped a Methodist, Mr. Berry, get elected as mayor of a rum-ridden city, and later to become state treasurer. And Father did have his life threatened by the liquor interest.

Have you ever seen anybody else like him? There never was and never will be! I know, for I knew him well. He certainly was one wonderful man … courageous … and, when he felt something should be done, he did not hesitate to do it.

Yes, I am very thankful for the training I had as a boy. People want to give me credit for getting through high school at 13 years of age … or memorizing Romans at age seven. I say -- don't give me credit -- this was my father's doings.

Imagine when the hearts of us four children were all set on going to the seashore for a vacation, our father rented a house in Germantown where we knew nobody. He said to me, 'Lance, wouldn't it be wonderful if on our vacation (?) we could memorize the book of Revelation together?' You can just imagine what joy (?) and anticipation (?) that brought to my heart!" 

Copyrighted; Reprinted by permission of the author, Mr. Jon M. Clayton




If you have any information and or pictures that you would like to contribute about Chester, please forward it to john@oldchesterpa.com

© 2002, 2009 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 05/15/09