He looked concerned, but it wasn’t the pressure. A recent victim of the orthodontist, the 10-year-old spent the weeks leading up to the finals worrying that his braces would cause him to stumble and force him out of the competition.
One wrong word, and he’d be eliminated. A 10-second pause? Eliminated. And there’s always the fear of a black-out, with more than 2,000 memorized verses blurring together when they are needed most.
So, with a deep breath, he took a run at Timothy 2:9-11.
“In like manner also – that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls or costly array, but which becometh women professing Godliness with good works,” he recited. “Let the woman learn in silence with subjection.”
The Kansas City, Mo., competitor waited for the judges to nod, and took his place back among the other four finalists in the national championship’s youngest category, which pits children aged 7-10 against one another in a spelling-bee-style competition that pulls from the Bible rather than a dictionary.
During the past seven months, more than 5,600 students across the United States have spent tens of thousands of hours memorizing verse. Through a series of online competitions, written tests and oral exams, the field was cut to 300, and they descended on Nashville over the weekend for the finals.
The stakes are high – top place in the senior category comes with a $100,000 purse. There’s $260,000 to spread among all the divisions, along with other prizes such as waterproof Bibles and five-year memberships to the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
While it doesn’t get the same attention or numbers as the hugely popular Scripps National Spelling Bee, the prize money is far superior. The national spelling champion walks away with only $35,000 cash.
David wouldn’t win the top prize in his primary category despite answering with precision through 12 rounds. That honour went to the now-two-time champion Olivia Davis, 9, of Salem, Org.
But his performance still placed him among the country’s elite Bible Bee participants, in a competition that is gaining in size and popularity as it wraps up its third year.
“It’s pretty much how I spend my time,” the boy said, after opening his mouth and tilting his head back to show off his not-quite-complete braces. “We asked the dentist not to put any more on until this was over.”
Winning doesn’t come easy. Olivia spends four hours a day through the summer memorizing and contextualizing Biblical passages, says her mother Linda Davis. When school starts, study time is cut in half.
“You need to have that level of commitment,” said Ms. Davis, who, like many others at the event, home schools her children. “But it’s not just memorizing – you need to know what it means and how it all ties together. We spend hours together walking and reciting. It’s nice time together.”
The event was organized by the Shelby Kennedy Foundation – named after a Texas woman who spent her life memorizing verse and doing ministry work in Haiti before dying of cancer at 23. The foundation suggests the winners put their money into a scholarship, but doesn’t insist. Last year’s winners bought puppies and Macbooks.
Organizers and parents say they’re engaged in a stealth education campaign that ensures the next generation of Christians are better armed for the challenges of the world than the current generation.
Prize money is nice, but they hope the memorized verse will serve them throughout their lives and make them better ambassadors of their faith.
“People may ask why on Earth we’re doing this, and many in our culture say Christianity is irrelevant and we should move on,” said Phil Vischer, a presenter at the Bible Bee and co-creator of the VeggiTales faith-based cartoon series.
“That’s Christianity performed poorly. These kids are learning the Bible so they can live Christianity well.”
For Olivia, the competition is a reminder of “how important the Bible is compared to worldly entertainment.”
But it’s more than that. Her first call after winning was to a rival from last year’s competition, who is now a pen pal. Minutes after hanging up, she was writing her address down for friends made this year.
“If young people all did Bible Bee, we could change the country forever,” said Olivia, who hadn’t started thinking about how to spend her prize money yet. “Also, it’s fun.”