When you see the words, “release time” it’s likely that one thing will come to mind. It most likely needs no explanation, and it may bring back some fond memories.
Release time*…that one day per week that our class was excused from school to go to religious education for one hour.
In my hometown of Evansville, it was a weekly ritual of sorts, as it most likely was in any other small town (or large urban area for that matter) across America. In my hometown, Release Time Bible School was organized in 1953 with the cooperation of then Superintendent Sorknes. A plan had been agreed upon whereby classes could be released one at a time over a period of three days, thus making it possible to conduct a school of three full days each week, all being taught by one teacher. Classes commenced in the fall of 1953, with instructions given alternately each month in Our Saviour’s and Immanuel churches. In 1956, the Mission Covenant church joined the program, and classes were held in their building. In November 1961 the large upstairs room over the creamery was made available for the Release time classes. **
I remember lining up outside of our public school classroom, girls in one line, boys in another, and marching either to the Evansville creamery or one of the two churches on the hill.
When attending class at the creamery, we’d climb the steep stairs to the second floor and the large room that housed the tables and chairs, set in one large U-shape, with the teacher’s desk squarely in the front.
Our teacher was Mrs. (Theodore/Ted) Johnson, and we all usually sat in the exact same chair each week.
There was a piano in one corner of the room. How they got that piano up those stairs, I’ll never know, but there it sat every week, beckoning us to play it. Mrs. Johnson invited and encouraged any and all brave students to play and accompany our opening session of singing. I always wished I would be as brave as Candace, who on cue, stepped up to the piano bench and played Blest Be the Tie That Binds (I’m humming as I spell out the title, and I still know all the words, thanks to Candace) without any music book in front of her. How I longed to play the piano like Candace in front of our class.
After singing, we’d go around the room, each reading a verse from the chapter of the Bible Mrs. Johnson’s lesson for the week was based on. She was a great teacher, and when I think back, so very dedicated to her students. I might have feared her just a little bit. Yet, she made us feel like the most important people in the entire world. She had a quiet, yet solid, discipline during class. You didn’t mess around, and I don’t remember any of us misbehaving. EVER. We respected her. She taught by reading and explaining things in a way I could understand. I loved it when she used her “felt board” to illustrate a story.
Oftentimes, Mrs. Johnson would ask if any of us wished to recite our favorite Bible verse by heart. I think it was Robert who recited “I thirst. John 19:28” every single week. And someone always, ALWAYS, raised their hand and recited John 3:16. And they always did it before I was brave enough to get my hand in the air. I was pretty good at staring a great big hole into the floor.
Mrs. Johnson used the good, old-fashioned method of repetition and recitation to teach all the Old and New Testament books of the Bible. Around the room we went, week after week…repeating and reciting and accidentally memorizing. Playing the memory game put a little fun into the lesson (or panic and dread, depending on how you want to look at it). Again, around the room we would go (no peeking or cheating) as we started at Genesis and ended with Revelation. If (and when) you missed a book in sequence, you were eliminated from the game, and you sat and observed as the winning student eventually reached the ultimate goal of perfection. I was always happy when, during the game, I was lucky enough to be sitting right after First Corinthians or First Thessalonians, or First John, or First Samuel, etc…you get the idea. Even if we were out of the game, we were still learning as we listened. And interestingly, a good number of us all had the good fortune of being the last one standing.
There were occasions I remember, in between going to the Evansville creamery, when we marched “up the hill” in Evansville to Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church or Immanuel Lutheran for our release time classes. We entered the churches through the basement door entries and what I remember most is the cold metal chairs we sat in (I doubt the heat was ever turned on). They were lined up in rows. I thought it was pretty cool to go to the church basements every now and then, mostly because we didn’t have a basement in Erdahl where my family attended church, and, I liked it because I had a chance to see where my school friends went to church and Sunday school. It was just a little bit different than Erdahl, and my world was obviously expanding.
The one single thing that was never different during release time was Mrs. Johnson. She was always our teacher. She was always there…steady, disciplined and a safe face for our sometimes anxious selves. She followed lesson plans based on Bible stories. She gave us time to sing and allowed us to ask questions and learn in a pretty simple way…reading Bible verses, explaining the Bible verses to us, and sneaking a life lesson in there without our realizing it. I think we all left each week just a little bit smarter and a little more confident and ready to apply Bible lessons to everyday lessons. Perhaps we all left with hopes of being a better person. No gold stars were handed out at the end of the day, but my goodness, I look back at that time and those lessons and I think about Mrs. Johnson and her genius teaching and a much simpler time. Release Time.
And I can still recite (most) of the books of the Bible. By heart.
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Released_time: The original idea of release time in the United States was first discussed in 1905 at a school conference in New York City. The proposal was that public elementary schools should be closed one day a week, in addition to Sunday, so that parents could have their children receive religious instruction outside the school premises. Most release time programs were held outside school property, and the public school system had no involvement in the religious programs taught. In 1922, programs were active in 23 states, in 1932, 30 states, in 1942, participation reached 1.5 million in 46 states. Release time reached its peak enrollment totals in 1947.
**This abbreviated history was taken, in part, from “Our Centennial – Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church – Evansville, Minnesota 1869 – 1969.”