Summer camp. What vivid memories those words invoke. Many Minnesota United Methodists will recite place names such as Koronis, Little Hanging Horn, Kingswood, Frontenac, Northern Pines, Star Lake, Groveland, and Decision Hills. We remember swimming, singing, Bible study, badminton, evening vespers, dinner bells, canoeing, and week-long crushes on another camper that one might not see again for a year. Cabins, tents, crafts, singing, mosquitoes, mail call…the list goes on.
Now, think some more. What kind of “camp” stories do you remember hearing about when you were young? Did parents or grandparents tell stories about Epworth Institutes? Chautauqua Grove meetings? Camp meetings? How have American Christians nurtured themselves for the past 200 years in outdoor settings at gatherings resembling a revival, vacation, and family reunion all in one?
Many 19th century camp meeting (or grove meeting) sites were used from year to year but without permanent structures. Most are barely documented, but we do have descriptions of a few. The first Minnesota Evangelicals organized a camp meeting south of St. Paul at the present day Old Salem Church in 1857. Families occupied 7 tents and 2 covered wagons. Four preachers each preached 4 times in 6 days. Nine persons were converted and eleven joined the church.
Chauncey Hobart, our first Minnesota Methodist historian describes a similar camp meeting in some detail:
In the summer of 1858, a union camp-meeting was held about midway between Rochester and Chatfield, in a fine grove on the banks of the South Zumbro; the members of the societies at Rochester, Chatfield, Marion and Pleasant Grove, uniting in the meeting. The attendance at this camp-meeting was unusually large for so new a country. There were thirty-one tents on the ground. Many of the people came in their emigrant wagons,…Doctor Crary’s [Benjamin F. Crary, president of Hamline University] sermon on Sabbath morning will probably never be forgotten by those present…At the close of the sermon, the preachers and people sang, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name,” and before the conclusion of the hymn, the congregation were on their feet and pressing forward to the stand. There they engaged in a prayer meeting, such as made the hearts of the believers glad…This was a great day for Methodism in that section of country…
Eventually, the largest camp meetings purchased grounds and added buildings, particularly a tabernacle, a roofed structure with open sides. Red Rock Camp Grounds in Newport was the most famous in Minnesota, attracting thousands between 1869-1889. Early 20th century campgrounds had similar features. Think of the tabernacles built at Northern Pines and Lake Koronis in the 1920s, with adjacent cabins maintained by individual owners.
Red Rock and many other camp meetings were influenced by the Holiness Movement with its emphasis on entire sanctification and Christian perfection. Chautauqua, named after the first such teacher training summer school in New York, offered general education and learning in a Christian setting. Maplewood Park in Waseca was a Chautauqua assembly. People boarded in a simple hotel by the lake or set up tents. Speakers such as Henry L. Osborn of Hamline University were engaged to lecture. Osborn, a professor of biology, spoke on “Animal Intelligence” in 1890.
Nineteenth century “camping” emphasized the adult experience even though whole families were present. By the 1920s
and 1930s camping focused more on older youth and young adults at conferences such as Epworth Institutes, an outgrowth of the Methodist Epworth Leagues begun in the 1890s. By mid-20th century, religious educators had expanded the camping vision to include younger adolescents. Now we needed cabins for children at places like Camp Koronis built in 1952. Later, many campers moved out of cabins and back to tents as at Star Lake. Today camping attracts all ages in many settings. Some things have not changed, trees, water, Christians in community – a revival, vacation, and family reunion all in one.
Brochure for Red Rock Park
This brochure, from 1891, was handed out during an annual state camp meeting at Red Rock Park. Pastors, elders, Bishops, and laity were all invited to come together to discuss the question of "how to reach the masses."