A while back I fielded a query from a New Hampshire pastor about the origins of "rally day". It's a tradition of sorts among many local churches even today, and at least in my experience, it often involves a big tent, some lively music, and maybe a picnic. Lots of churches, especially in New England I think, tend to coast over the summer and welcome their people back in the fall.
I'd never thought much about where rally day came from, and the query sent me up into the Library stacks for an answer. I guessed (rightly, it turned out) that it had something to do with Sunday schools, and that it probably originated at the turn of the last century -- there was just something about the whole idea of a rally day that brought to mind ice cream socials and oompah music, pageants and plays.
One book on How to Conduct a Sunday School (1905) noted that "This festival is rapidly growing in favor. It usually comes at the end of the summer break-up, and is used as a means of rallying the forces again for the work of fall and winter. When a general is preparing for a battle he is said to rally his forces. When a sick person begins to recover it is said of him that he his rallying. When a bookbinder brings together in one place the different sections of a book to be bound into one he is said to be rallying the book. All of these phrases may be applied to the Sunday-school work; we are rallying our forces for the great campaign of the fall and winter."
This author suggested holding the rally on the last Sunday of September, with "strong, vigorous" music and perhaps an outside speaker. The main event is a "grand review", a procession of all the Sunday-school students, from the cradle roll to the senior class, marching up to the platform and dropping off their offering envelopes in a barrel, a small plaster of Paris egg, or one time, a real pumpkin. Rally day, he enthused, "is one of the happiest days of the year."
Another book about The Sunday-School of Today, published in 1911, described the popularity of "Rally Day Devices", including pins, badges, post-cards, buttons, flags, ribbon hangs, and the like. "The ethical value of such traps is doubtful," he warned, for "even the practical value as an allurement wears off after a year or so." But when given out with a "personal touch", the Devices were genuinely useful. "Post-cards are not only the rage and craze at present," he admitted, "but they serve as an effective free advertisement scheme, since so many, other than the direct recipient, are apt to read and profit by them."
Sending out post-cards, personal notes, and typed invitations were not enough, however. "No practical business man is content with sending out a catalogue or one letter after a reader has been caught by an attractive advertisement and written for information." A good Rally Day system provided for instant and regular follow up to keep students coming to class.
Eventually, Rally Day became more of a church event than a Sunday school one, and also seems to have lost much of that old competitive edge. People are welcomed back to church without a word, though I doubt that the church leaders of a century ago would have approved of a summer vacation from church-going -- a three-month break from Sunday school was bad enough.
The rallying image is still a useful one, especially because the meaning can vary so much. In some cases, it’s the troops getting ready for the next campaign -- in others a listless patient gathering strength to rise off a sickbed.