The Camp Meeting Movement Matures

ocean grove 3By 1830, the camp meeting movement had matured with more permanent preaching facilities taking the place of the temporary brush arbor, and more permanent cottages taking the place of the covered wagon and tent accommodations. The raucous behavior of earlier decades had been largely tamed. (Many early camp meeting facilities actually had a jail to house the misbehaving!)

After the Civil War, the now mature movement was still going strong leading to the construction of more permanent facilities, some of which are still in operation today. A slew of well-know preachers and bishops were highly sought after as speakers. All this was in sharp contrast to the open-air or tent accommodations and the often uneducated itinerant preachers of the early days.

Tents move upscale

But in spite of its seeming success and its widespread popularity, the post Civil War camp meeting was not without its problems. The work of local churches near the camp — and even those at a distance — was seriously hindered by the exodus of much of their leadership to the camp meeting. Excursion trains that ran to the camp sites on Sundays brought all types of people, many of whom came only for a day’s outing and had no sincere interest in the meeting or Christian faith. Such persons typically did not bother to attend the services, but instead promenaded over the grounds — often disturbing the meetings by their laughter and loud conversation. In short, they made it a holiday rather than a day of worship.

Commercial interests were quick to take advantage of the opportunity for profit and erected stands at the borders of the camp grounds to sell various kinds of merchandise and refreshments. Conditions became so bad that the 1878 Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law prohibiting the erection of booths or stands for the sale of merchandise of any kind within one mile of a camp meeting without consent of the trustees of the sponsoring association.[1]

Inside the pavilion at Ocean Grove, NJ
Inside the pavilion at Ocean Grove, NJ

During the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, the trend was away from a serious evangelistic emphasis to that of a series of preaching services to which people came for worship and social contact (much as places like Ocean Grove, NJ, are today). As Sunday School Conventions, and later Epworth League Institutes (early name for Methodist youth work), assumed greater importance over the years, they indirectly detracted from the camp meeting.

The camp meeting having served its purpose well, most associations eventually disbanded and the services were discontinued. A few still remain today, however, only as a vestige of that unique institution which probably did more than any other single aspect of the life of the church to give impetus to the expansion of Methodism in the developing years of our nation.[2]

[1], p. 53

[2], p. 55

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