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:

The camp meeting is a phenomenon of American frontier Christianity. The movement of thousands of settlers to new territories without permanent villages of the types they knew meant they were without religious communities. Not only were there few authorized houses of worship, there were fewer ordained ministers to fill the pulpits. The "camp meeting" led by itinerant preachers was an innovative response to this situation. Word of mouth told there was to be a religious meeting at a certain location. Due to the primitive means of transportation, if the meeting was to be more than a few miles' distance from the homes of those attending, they would need to stay at the revival for its entire duration, or as long as they desired to remain. People generally camped out at or near the revival site, as on the frontier there were usually neither adequate accommodations nor the funds for frontier families to use them. People were attracted to large camp meetings from a wide area. Some came out of sincere religious devotion or interest, others out of curiosity and a desire for a break from the arduous frontier routine; the structure of the situation created new converts.

Wikipedia also has a short article on Adventist camp meetings, with this to say:

Camp meetings in the Adventist church trace back to the preceding Millerite movement led by William Miller. These in turn had influences from the existing Methodist camp meetings. The Millerites held more than 130 camp meetings from the earliest in summer 1842, to prior to Autumn 1844; with an estimated combined attendance of over half-a-million people. Media campaigns surrounding the camps extended their influence further.

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!