Summer Special: Camp Meeting Then and Now
by Debbonnaire Kovacs
We’re going to do a series for a few weeks on camp meetings in the United States. The camp meeting tradition began in the middle 1800s, when large revivals and Chatauqua lecture series were highly popular. According to that fount of wisdom, Wikipedia:
Wikipedia also has a short article on Adventist camp meetings, with this to say:
When many readers and writers of this magazine were children, camp meetings were an important, even essential part of summer. Not only were there large varieties of meetings, with all the attendant spiritual blessings, but fellowship, the kind that only develops in the midst of heat, mosquitoes, storms, wet tents, ice chests full of vege-food, and the desperate need for the can opener forgotten at home, blossomed into friendships that lasted a lifetime. Some of those friendships might only catch up once a year during that unforgettable camp meeting week, but they brightened the life all year.
Ohio Camp Meeting in the 1970s and 80s, was an unforgettable experience. If memory serves, there might be 2,000 attendees during the week, swelling to 5,000 or even more on weekends. The pastors from all over the state met the week before to have their own special experience, consisting of meetings, prayers, and the setting up of hundreds of 10×14 canvas tents and thousands of chairs.
Individual children’s departments might hold 100 or more small wigglers, all expecting something at least as exciting as VBS, but all day long, not just at night. Teachers and leaders of these programs worked all year to plan them. One teacher in central Ohio built giant backdrops of Bible scenes out of cardboard from appliance boxes, storing years’ and years’ worth of them all year in her basement. Wrist band security systems were set in place so leaders knew which children were allowed (only above a certain age) to go to their parents, which must wait for parents to pick them up, and which must be sent to between-meetings day care and play set-ups. Security guards (volunteer pastors with walkie-talkies and a sense of importance and authority) walked the grounds, helping people, finding lost children, and hushing noisy night-time wanderers.
As early as 6:30 am, loudspeakers rang out with wake-up music, attempting to drag out these same night-time wanderers to early meetings—“the best of the day!” From that point on, if you attended them all, you’d be in meetings all day, with meal breaks (the lunch one might include time for a quick nap), and then you might well stand or sit around discussing anything from the three angels’ messages and the nature of Christ to the recipe of the loaf at lunch or the bad behavior of everyone else’s children, until midnight or later.
On the last night, it was hard to pack up and go. We lingered and lingered, wishing it could go on, but also more than ready to be back in a normal routine, all at the same time. Camp meeting! We thought they’d go on forever.
But times change. Many conferences no longer have camp meetings, some are larger than ever, and some have taken creative steps to remake camp meeting in ways that will be relevant to a very different world. During the next few weeks, we’ll look at some examples of camp meetings today. Please post your own camp meeting memories and join the discussion!