Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Camp Meeting Movement

The Church of God with general agencies in Anderson, Indiana is in transition, which is not a bad place to be in this changing time. As the Church prepares to Convene this in a second meeting in Oklahoma City, a large segment from the heartland will also meet under the aegis of The Pastor’s Fellowship in Winchester, KY in early May.

Although we may wonder where we are headed, we have a pretty good idea where we have been, but may never be again. We began under the anointing of our Patron Saint, D. S. Warner, we were a camp meeting movement that came out of the early camp meetings of Wesleyan Methodism and the National Holiness Association. Following is the first chapter of a pamphlet I published via Reformation Publishers, copyrighted in 2005.

This will make a lengthy blog but we’ll try it, putting it online simply to make it convenient to readers who would never find it otherwise.


The Church of God, Anderson came into existence out of the agonies and ecstasies of the Camp Meeting Movement. That social phenomenon among America’s early pioneers  spread so rapidly that by 1805 Francis Asbury called the summertime meetings “Methodism’s harvest time.’

Asbury vigorously encouraged his Methodist brothers and sisters to open six hundred camp meetings by 1810.” (Wallace Thornton, Radical Righteousness Personal Ethics and The Development of the Holiness Movement/Schmul/1998/39).

Shortly after the death of D. S. Warner, W. T. Carter, self-proclaimed pioneer evangelist from Missouri, returned home to St. James for a short visit at the place of his birth. Passing through St. Louis for a stopover with his parents, Carter then pushed on to Chicago, intent on crossing Lake Michigan by means of a lake steamer.

Carter crossed Lake Michigan on a passenger ship early in June 1896, reportedly crossing “Lake Michigan to South Haven, where we met with Bro. H. M. Riggle for the first time.” He preached in the home of Bro. S. Michael’s that day; “then we all went to Grand Junction together, to enjoy the Camp Meeting” (Special Incidents In Pioneer Evangelism/RP Reprint 2000/52).

We cannot understand the Church of God movement adequately without first developing some small understanding of revivalism and the camp meeting movement on the early American frontier, for that is who we are and where our spiritual genes come from.

The Church of God as we know it today was conceived in the womb of the camp meeting movement. It evolved out of a cluster of Christian ministries both Protestant (pro-testant) in nature, and radical (Evangelical) in purpose.

Our pioneers perceived reformation and restoration to be proper biblical perspectives of holiness and unity within the true body of  Christ. 

When Church of God people went to camp meeting, they simply did what many of their friends and neighbors did. There was no “final four,” and no “March Madness.” There were no Sports Spectaculars and no TV Media to titillate curious senses and immerse one’s preoccupation with mindless entertainment.

Persuasive preachers not only redirected the misdirected toward more wholesome life-styles, but they provided the popular pulp (the pop culture and entertainment) for ordinary folks.

Michigan historian, Gale Hetrick, describes an out-of-the-way event that significantly influenced the Church of God Saints at Bangor, MI. and put a premium on camp meetings in the Church of God for the following century:
          “One day in June 1891, D. S. Warner,
            N. H. Byrum and Warner’s son, Sidney
            walked up a winding path toward Les-
            ter Lake, 1 1/2 miles north of the vill-
            age. Sidney himself told me about that
            day and Byrum recorded it. Although
            the area had been burned, the trees on
            the high ground were untouched.
            There were maples, beech, and a few
            hemlock and pine. The birds were warb-
            ling and Warner said, ‘Let’s stop and en-
            joy this wonderful music. Do you know
            Brother Byrum I have been thinking what
            a wonderful place this would be for a camp
(Laughter Among the Trumpets/60).
In cooperation with the nine-member Ministers’ Assembly, several of the brethren purchased that sixty acres early in 1892, at a “very reasonable price” The February 25, 1892 Gospel Trumpet, then carried an appeal for workers needed to prepare for the first camp meeting at Grand Junction to begin June 14, 1892.
The Camp Meeting moved to Grand Junction and the publishing work continued in downtown Grand Junction until 1896, when it relocated to Moundsville, WVA.  Here is HOW Warner reported this series of events from Williamston, MI. (GT 7-1-1886).

          One good and noble work wrought at the
            Bangor Camp Meeting was not mentioned
            in our report. The Spirit led us to appropriate
            the time of one meeting to the consideration to
            one meeting of the publishing interests. It was
            what might be termed a business meeting, but
            about as much unlike a babylon, money-raising
            buffoonery, as Heaven differs from the coarse
            humor of a clown show. It was indeed the most
            melting service of the whole meeting. Few eyes
            of the saints were dry, as we all talked freely of
            the great work God is carrying on in the earth,
            and of the marvelous blessings His evening light
            has brought to our souls. The Spirit of God won-
            derfully presided over the meeting and filled all         
            hearts with increased love to God and the holy           
            The removal of the Trumpet office to that
            part of the state, seemed the mind of the          
            Spirit, and of all the saints. . .a building,
            commodious and substantial was offered
            for half its worth, namely $800, in the town
            of Grand Junction. The place is located at the
            crossing of the Chicago and West Mich. and
            the South Haven branch of the Michigan Cen-
            tral Railroads and is surrounded by about four
            hundred saints, who propose to greatly lighten
            the expenses of publishing salvation, by giving
            fuel, provision, etc. And every dollar saved in this
            way helps to enlarge the circulation of truth.   
            The saints unanimously agreed to purchase the
            property; $80 were raised to pay moving expenses.
            The time agreed upon to pay for the building is Au-
            gust 1st. and there were pledged to be ready by that
            time, $257 by the saints present. Dear Bro. Michaels,
            and several others, were to procure, for one year,       
            whatever was lacking of the full amount, and a few   
            pledged over $100 to be paid one year hence.”
                        (Willowby/Family Reunion/22-23)

At this writing, the current Camp Association just completed the 113th annual Grand Junction Camp Meeting of 2005, Wm. C. Ellis, Evangelist. I began attending Grand Junction in the late 1920’s (1927-28) as a babe in my mother’s arms. Some of my fondest childhood memories come from the eighteen years that followed. Since that time, I have attended camp meetings from one coast to the other, from the deep southwest as far north as Ontario, Canada. Frequently accompanied by my wife and children, we enjoyed cultural diversity as varied as Texas and Ontario, Arkansas and Michigan, Oregon and West Virginia.

Whether the language was the familiar Middle-west dialect of my heritage, the southwest twang of my wife, or an unknown Spanish tongue, the message was always the same in essence. Sometimes it was designed with an ethnically African-American flavor. Yet, the love of God reigned supreme and everyone walked together in the freedom of holiness and unity.

The walls of separation--erected by divisive ethnicity, denominational pride, and gender compe-tition--came down as we worshipped God as brothers and sisters in Christ--sharing a common bond. 

In 1947, Alton and Dorothy Phipps of San Antonio, TX Highland Park church introduced my new bride and me to the gospel in Spanish and the camp meeting setting of Somerset, TX. There, we met Brother Toyfolla and members of his Toyfolla family, as they conducted the first Hispanic camp meetings in the Church of God.
That was the beginning of a long Hispanic Church of God ministry now Coordinated through the Spanish Concilio and expanded to include Native Americans. 

After graduating from Bible College, I visited camp meeting at Hope, AR. I was the new pastor at a southern white congregation, a novice in ministry, accompanied by two veteran white pastors and one venerated older black-brother who would remain my friend for many years.

Hosting us at that meeting were Earl Gladney and his associates--my first exposure to black camp meeting. When I left there, I went with a coterie of names that would remain with me as peers in ministry--and friends--for the next half-century.

Frequently going places I had never been, the 1970’s found me going again--participating in camp meeting in the foothills of northern California, in the Sierra near Nevada City--not far from the Yuba River. Again, I found myself crossing paths with that well known Kentucky orator, Willard Wilcox. Delivering a typical Wilcox camp meeting oration, Willard expressed his pleasure at preaching for the first time in the lovely open air amphitheatre at “Diamond Arrow.”     Californians, many of whom had never met Willard Wilcox, heard the quaint Kentuckian refer to their open air sanctuary as the “Cathedral of the Pines.” Those worshippers heard Wilcox.

The name fit the location and it captured the imagination of the audience, and stuck! Decades later, people still explode with enthusiasm when  describing in glowing terms the experiences they enjoyed at the “Cathedral of the Pines.”

Nestled by Mother Nature at the 3500 foot level of the northern Sierra foothills, it is adjacent to eleven hundred acres of federal park land that includes a gold mine (Ever been in a gold mine?).

In time I would enjoy multiple experiences of rich fellowship with the Ontario Church of God that meets annually at the Free Methodist campground at Thamesford, Ontario.

Having attended our International Convention at Anderson, Indiana for more than half a century, I have been on the grounds when I, myself, heard them announce over the public address system that some 42,000 people were estimated to be in attendance.

Attendance guestimates sometimes risk unintentional inflation, but Richard Willowby was never more right than when he concluded “Nothing is more Church of God than camp meeting!”(Family Reunion/Warner Press/1986).

Our very first such national encampment took place at the Harris Farm two miles north of Bangor, MI. in 1883. It seems that Sebastian Michels handled the dining details, managing the food preparation, which they offered family style to any and all, for a free will offering.

That year saw Emma Miller of Battle Creek receive her sight in a dramatic healing, that we still talk about. Camp Meeting in West Michigan became a journey that has now celebrated more than 120 summers.

The year 1884 saw campers travel hundreds of miles to attend the Bangor Camp Meeting. One brother walked 170 miles. Reports from 1885 suggest that 200-300 people met, erected 19 tents, and experienced 220 consecrations. Remember, this was a “holiness camp meeting,” thus, reports included 200 people sanctified.

By 1890, thousands were driving in. This required a tabernacle, a large tent, and two other lo-cations, to conduct simultaneous services to accom-modate the people.  Church of God families have since that time continued to sing, worship, pray and play at a growing number of camp meetings. By 1895, the Gospel Trumpet was reporting a growing number of defined camp meetings, assemblies, and  fellowship events.

My earliest camp meeting  recollections began with “going to Grand Junction” for preaching services. After Sunday morning preaching, my parents spread a blanket on the grassy slopes adjacent to what is now the camp cemetery--site of D. S. Warner’s grave.

There, a few hundred yards west of the current tabernacle, we joined other families in Sunday dinners, picnic style. Spending the day on the grounds, we walked and talked with gifted preachers and leaders from across the Movement.

O. L. Yerty lived in the area of Cass County--a man noted across the church for an extraordinary gift of healing. Young men came to preach, like Hershel Rice. Hershel graduated from Anderson College, married his bride-to-be and came as camp evangelist to spend the week on his honeymoon.

As an adolescent, I thought Hershel Rice was  greatest preacher I had ever heard. Then Boyce Blackwelder came. The young fire-brand from Concord, North Carolina was a veritable southern style ball of fire and enormously popular.

Camp Meeting at Grand Junction provided the circumstances for my first love affair--I was twelve. I did not see that bewitching girl for an entire year--until the following camp meeting. Then, I learned she attended church in Benton Harbor, fewer than twenty-five miles from me, but by then my affections had bounded off elsewhere.

The Story boys were four in number: Merle, Melvin, Dale, and Bob, As I remember, two of them joined me in hitchhiking the eleven miles to South Haven, probably camp meeting 1944 (at least one was gone to war). We purchased a watermelon at the A&P store, where I was employed, and we thumbed our way back to the camp grounds--eleven miles.

The Story family lived on the camp grounds in what is now called “the Farm House.” At that time, their parents operated a working farm.  Three of the boys, their sister, and I, all went to high school together. All are active in the church and several are retired out west. 

During the early fifties, I went to Texas as a young pastor, attending State camp meeting at Eastland. There, I viewed the ruins of J. T. Wilson’s Bible Training School--blazing sun, rattle snakes, and West Texas Mesquite. The church sold the property to the city of Eastland for developmental purposes shortly after the turn of the new millennium.

Approaching the end of the century, I visited Camargo, KY. and found two of my former Sunday School kids--Paul and Lana Sanders, who grew up going to youth camp at Eastland, Texas--Camargo pastors at the time. There, I learned more about that well-known Church of God camp meeting tradition called “Camargo.” There are documents there that remain from early “Saints” of that area.

Wallace Thornton recalls the year 1771, the year that Francis Asbury landed in North America and America had very few Methodists. Asbury rode horseback for 45 years, covering 270,000 miles. He preached 16,500 sermons, presided over 240 annual conferences, and ordained 4,000 preachers.

At his death, he left in his wake 2,000 ministers, 200,000 Methodists in the States, and several thousand more additional converts in Canada (Radical Righteousness Schmul/19-98/39ff) .

Presbyterians promoted-and-led those earliest camp meetings, men like James Mc Gready and Barton Stone. Without doubt, the most famous camp meeting was the 1801 camp meeting at Cane Ridge, KY., where  The Restoration Movement celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the Cane Ridge event, with “The Great Gathering 2001.”

Dr. Henry Webb left us one description of that event, describing a group of settlers coming to the area on a recommendation by Daniel Boone (“Christian Standard”/7-1-01/3-5). The settlers were searching for good land, led by Presbyterian pastor Robert Findley. Boone had designated a place where there was a big cane break, thus the name Cane Ridge. 

There the settlers built log houses and a large church building out of blue ash logs and that Meeting House still stands today, carefully preserved. That pastor was dismissed a few months later, however, for getting drunk, and in 1798 they called a conscientious young, not-yet-ordained minister named Barton Stone.   Troubled by the poor spiritual conditions on the frontier, Stone learned about a revival in Logan County, down on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and went with eager anticipation. At the Logan County revival, Stone heard James Mc Gready, and his brothers, conducting a powerful revival that produced dramatic conversions that included Peter Cartwright.

Historian James North describes James Mc Gready as “one of the last great preachers in the southern great awakening” and a man who had a great influence on Stone. Strong  frontiersmen were reported fainting, weeping, and swooning. Greatly renewed in his troubled spirit,

Stone returned to Cane Ridge and announced a “sacramental communion” for the first Sunday of August. Such occasions were generally big affairs, but Stone was entirely unprepared for what happened. Surprise! Surprise! Word spread across the region and thousands came--the revival from Logan County spread to the Cane Ridge area.

By 1799 other ministers had become involved and in 1879-1880 the first “camp meeting” took place as people came in with provisions and camped on the church grounds, resulting in a powerful outdoor revival--the beginning of the camp meeting trend (North/Union in Truth/1994/45).

The first Cane Ridge camp meeting of 1801 had no motels, restaurants, or convention centers, but it bustled with an estimated 20,000 people. As many as a dozen gatherings met simultaneously, gathered around different preachers that stood on stumps preaching.
t began with Presbyterians, spread to Baptists and Methodists, and beyond. Interestingly, Squire Boone, the brother of Daniel Boone, became Kentucky’s very first Baptist preacher.

Those self-reliant frontiersmen gathered their families into wagons, loaded their bedrolls, gathered available flour, meal, meat and vegetables, and headed for Cane Ridge--twenty miles east of Lexington. They cooked over open fires and slept in their blankets beneath their wagons, the beginning of  the 19th century phenomenon called frontier camp meeting.

Like a fever, camp meetings spread conta-giously. By 1805 Francis Asbury called them the “Methodist’s harvest time.” He encouraged the Methodists to conduct six hundred camp meetings by 1810. By 1830, camp meetings had be-come an almost totally Methodist event, which made “the Methodist Episcopal Church the largest denomination in the United States by 1830.”

After Peter Cartright experienced his conversion he became a leading camp meeting preacher for half a century. Of special interest to me is Sojourner Truth, who moved to Battle Creek and became that City’s first claim to national fame--predating Tony the Tiger of cereal fame.  

This illiterate black woman and escaped slave also became a holiness Methodist preacher. Princeton historian, Nell Painter, describes Sojourner working in the well-known East-coast Millerite camp meetings that introduced “Adventism” in the mid-1800‘s.

Sojourner reportedly out-prayed, out-preached, and out-drew some of the most celebrated male preachers of that era. This allegedly included the Irish Methodist, John Newland Maffitt, described as being as brilliant as a shower of falling stars.        

Camp meetings became spiritual adventures in fellowship and evangelism. They provided significant times for proclaiming Christ’s Second Advent. They also provided advantageous occasions to vigorously call for the abolishment of slavery and racism. They forthrightly promoted women’s rights, which included equality in the pulpit.       

As Methodism distanced itself from the rapidly expanding holiness movement, and relaxed its teachings on sanctification and holiness, the holiness doctrine gathered momentum under the flag of the National Holiness Association.

D. S. Warner participated actively in the Western Convention of 1880 in Jacksonville, IL. It was there he preached his sermon on “The Kind of Power Needed to Carry The Holiness Work.”

Across the years, as I listened to the pros and cons of supporting camp meeting, I confessed to more than one audience that “I’m not a camper, but I WILL come to camp meeting.” Wherever my family went, we were known for our active support of camp meeting, whether we were on the program or not.

As leaders of a Church of God congregation across forty-five years, my wife and I invested enormous blocks of time and expense in the support and maintenance of camp meetings and would do it again. We enjoyed it, but--most importantly--our people benefited by it--spiritually, socially, and in every way.

Times have changed greatly, as has life in the church. The urbanizing of American life and the introduction of the information age has changed everything about us. Moreover, when more and better methods of ministry come, I’m prepared to change with them. Maintaining programs simply because they are part of a tradition in no way sanctifies them or satisfies me! Ministry is far too important for that!

The one thing I am not willing to relinquish, however, is the kind of spiritual commitment that I learned at camp meeting. In no way do I suggest camp meeting is the only place you can learn it, but the covenant that D. S. Warner signed with God in 1877 concretely illustrates the commitment that is, and must continue to be, at the core of our beliefs and practices. It is a commitment that goes beyond mere discipline and it results in a lifestyle of holiness.
          Warner wrote as follows:

          “. . .In signing my name to this solemn
            covenant,” he wrote, “I am aware that I
            bind myself to live, act, speak, think, move,
            sit, stand up, lie down, eat,” (eat underlined
            3 times), drink, hear, see, feel and whatso-
            ever I do all the days and nights of my life to
             do all continually and exclusively to the Glory
            of God . . .” (Warner’s Journal).       

So, the next time camp meeting rolls around--just maybe--I might see YOU there.........!

From Warner’s World,
I am

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