Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Evolution of the Camp-Meeting

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HALF a century ago, camp-meetings were chiefly the outgrowth of Methodist zeal and enthusiasm. They were a sort of religious holiday, when good men and women who were loyal to their convictions, and earnest to disseminate the truth as they understood and believed it, came from far and near, in sparsely settled regions of country, to kindle afresh in the hearts of each other the fervor and inspiration of their peculiar dogmas and methods.

Ox-teams and hay-wagons, the old-fashioned chaise and chair, the side-saddle and cart, were among the means employed to reach the place of meeting. Many also went on foot, making a long and weary pilgrimage. Congregations joined each other, employed their own means of transportation, carrying their own society tent and commissariat; and thus thousands came together with but one single object in view, which was, in the language of their distinguished founder, "to spread holiness throughout these lands." Their greatest preachers were called to join and help them; and, with characteristic fidelity, and sacrifice of personal ease, ecclesiastics of highest renown joined in the simplest and rudest methods of tent-life, and labored with power and efficiency to bring the thoughtless and wandering to a better and a higher life.

The preaching was simple, direct, and powerful, and the result was, large accessions to the church. A camp-meeting was a sort of religious harvest-home, an ingathering of fruit from seed that had been sown during the year, in local churches, as well as from the direct influence of the special services. In addition to this, old fellowships were renewed and fraternal interests and greetings were revived, and, at its close, thousands of the faithful scattered to their homes again, with renewed assurances that camp-meeting work was a blessing to themselves and to others. Such was the old-time line of thought and expression. But now, times have changed. Population has increased rapidly, facilities for travel have multiplied, the desert and wilderness have been penetrated by railroads, and the adventurous frontiersman is not without numerous companionships.

Towns and churches have grown up, as the migrating crowds have moved on in one continuous caravan, until the mountains, and the Pacific slope beyond them, are already occupied; and we find prosperous settlements of miners, farmers, and adventurers of all kinds and grades, dwelling in the midst of each other. The fathers in the olden time would have looked to the West, with its moving multitudes, and planted their tents to capture them; but modern Methodism plants the churches as the people settle, and, to preserve the camp-meeting feature of the denomination, they seek fields already populated and locate themselves in more profitable places. Where are these places? The answer to this question discloses a phenomenal fact, that, could it be announced to them, would bring the scarlet to the cheek of Wesley, and bow the heads of Asbury and Whitefield with confusion of face.

The camp-meeting of to-day is a very different affair. It is not an extemporaneous festival in which the membership of one or more churches take the lead, select a place of meeting, and invite neighboring churches to participate in a common service, each bearing its share of the burden, and then scatter to their homes, to disband and be as if they had not been. No, it is a very different thing. It is the fruit of a chartered association, with corporate rights and franchises, of the same nature as those which belong to banking and railroad associations. Of course, the corporators are religious men, and the controlling influence is secured to the ministry. A copy of such a charter is now before me. It gives the institution its corporate name, and states its object to be "the establishment and maintenance of a sea-side resort, founded upon Christian principles, and affording religious privileges as well as healthful recreation."

Provision is made for the transfer and redemption of stock, for voting by shares and by proxy, as is usual in other money-making companies. It defines the number of directors, one third of whom shall be ministers, and one other third shall be ministers and members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Its president "shall be a regularly ordained minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, having control of the conventions, assemblies, and other meetings that may, from time to time, be held on the premises; and the secretary and treasurer must give bonds for the faithful performance of their duty—in one instance, as high as thirty thousand dollars. Is not this an anomaly? The camp-meeting feature, if indeed it is prominent enough to be a feature, is merely incidental to the main object, viz., the establishment of a sea-side resort. To do this, land must be purchased, stock must be sold to pay for it, and the pastor-president is to be the executive officer through whom these conveyances are to be made, and by whom all the real-estate transactions are to be ratified. The entire time, out of the three hundred working days of the year, that is to be set aside for camp-meeting services, is ten days or a fortnight, and the remainder is occupied with the secular business of the concern. We are largely indebted to these associations for the grand development they have made, on the New Jersey coast especially. Witness Ocean Grove, Ocean City, and Atlantic Highlands. They have taken up coast-lands, some of which were comparatively worthless, and made them into fruitful towns, with prosperous and happy peoples. They are to be credited also with the testimony they have borne to sobriety and good morals, by preventing the sale of intoxicating liquors within their boundaries; but it is a question for them to consider, whether the cause of Christianity has been actually benefited by their policy. It is a question whether the sample preaching of the present camp-meeting style is as effectual as were the direct and incisive appeals of those whose voices are now hushed in the grave. Is it not more after the manner of "trial-efforts"? Which can do the best? Who can make the best impression? It may be ornate, picturesque, and beautiful. It may captivate the senses and satisfy the taste of the hearers; but does it meet the needs of the multitudes who come to hear?

Again, are immense crowds of people wholesome? Are there always vigor and force and efficiency in numbers, unless there is exact unity?

In such promiscuous multitudes as crowd the cottages and the strand, and as go in and out of tents and barracks, coming as they do from all parts, and representing as they do various grades of social life, there must be forces and influences that are constantly at work, and whether their influence is toward the better or worse side of human nature it is hard to say. They are not all Christian professors, and they are all human. They are loosed from the restraints of home, and are on a vacation for pleasure. They are crowded together, and, in order to be physically healthy and morally pure, their environment must do much to assist them. In this regard their relation to space and surroundings should be, if possible, essentially promotive of such conditions. How is it? In the number of cottages and tents, especially those appropriated to cheap boarding, we venture to say that there are more people lodged and fed than can be found in any equal number of dwellings in any other city or community of an equal population of well-to-do people. This is of itself demoralizing. It is out of harmony with the spirit of the age, which demands freedom and space, in proportion to population, in a ratio that is overlooked or disregarded at such sea-side resorts. There is, however, one conservative and redeeming fact in connection with this practice of promiscuous crowding, and that is, that the season is short and the people live most of the time out-of-doors. The time is at hand, however, when there will be a change. It will not be tolerated by a sanitary-wise people that there shall continue an unwholesome contact of dwellings, with cess-pools and water-wells within stepping-distance of each other and from the kitchen-doors. Nor should buildings continue to be so contiguous that one may walk from roof to roof, under which people live in contracted apartments, separated by thin board partitions, which, even for purposes of common privacy and propriety, are scarcely sufficient. It is true, and justice demands its utterance, that later improvements have, to a good extent, avoided these evils, and that the class of private homes and boarding-houses now being built are more in accord with a civilization that, at a Christian resort especially, should be conspicuous.

The great end of these corporations is to establish and maintain sea-side resorts; that is to say, to sell and lease lots and to build houses. To provide a market and secure competition, conventions of various kinds meet at these ample grounds, occupy the commodious buildings, and transact their legitimate business. It is all done in the name of religion, and may or may not be in fact and in spirit harmonious with the most exalted standard of Christian methods, according to the out-look from which the subject is viewed. If we take Ocean Grove as the type of such places, it is not, after all, so great a marvel that it has grown from a desolate sand-bank to a beautiful city within the last twelve years, when we consider the whole case. With missionary conventions, Sunday-school anniversaries, temperance assemblies, and camp-meetings, drawing upon an immense constituency in all parts of the country, and bringing thousands of visitors to the spot, with fair opportunities for investing money with a good hope of speedy return, it is not surprising that investments were made. Then, every laudable thing was done to rekindle and keep alive denominational pride and loyalty. The lakes that bound the Grove on the north and south are named for Wesley and Fletcher, while the avenues and parks are known by the names of departed worthies, whose memory is revered by the Church; and then, to complete the programme of attractions, the annual camp-meeting, occurring in the height of the holiday season, is made the central, the pivotal figure around which all the others are grouped. It has been a success as a venture to establish a sea-side resort; whether it has been a success as a means of intensifying and purifying the religious life of the people is as yet a problem without a solution. The time is past when even the common mind measures the depth of human character, and gives it credit or not for truth and righteousness, by the amount of religious fervor or the degree of religious profession it may exhibit. To be acceptable to common sense, and appreciated by right-minded people, the manhood must show itself moved to all good activities by a force from within that is invincible—a force, in itself silent and unobserved, but in its effect on character demonstrative in a life of goodness.