The camp meeting is a North American contribution to church history. Begun as frontier wilderness evangelistic meetings, they were not the original invention of the Methodists, who were among the leaders in the "holiness" movement. However, they fit so well with the Wesleyan message and itinerant methods of ministry that holiness groups came to play a prominent role in the camp meeting phenomena across America. Attempts to introduce camp meetings to the settled church life in Europe had only short-lived and modest success, though they did lead to the establishment of the Primitive Methodist denomination in England. They had greater success in the countries outside Europe and North America where Wesleyan groups established missionary work.
The rise of holiness denominations in the last half of the 19th century was significantly tied to the camp meeting tradition. It was felt that the older Methodist churches were neglecting John Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification. Holiness advocates in the Methodist churches joined hands with the newer Wesleyan denominations to make the camp meetings the major platform for holiness teaching. Thus, the National Camp-Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, the parent body of what became the Christian Holiness Association, was born in 1867. The number of camp meetings held annually in North America has reached ca. 1,000 in the late 1980s, indicating the continuing strength of the movement.
Holiness camp meetings became a part of the two Anabaptist-Mennonite churches which espoused Wesleyan views in regard to the doctrine of sanctification: the Evangelical Missionary Church (one branch of which was formerly called the Mennonite Brethren in Christ) and the Brethren in Christ Church.
Less than a decade after several Mennonite groups came together to form the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, the first camp meeting was held in 1880 at Fetter's Grove near Wakarusa, IN. Within a matter of a few years, meetings were being held in all districts of the church. In time property was purchased and permanent camps established. In 1986 Missionary Church camp meetings were located in James River, AB; Fetters Grove, IN; Ludlow Falls, Ohio; Stayner and Kitchener, ON; Brown City and Mancelona MI; Weeping Water, NE; and Mountain View, WA.
The Brethren in Christ Church did not hold its first camp meeting until 1936 at Roxbury, PA. It was an outgrowth of evangelistic meetings held annually at Roxbury from 1933 onward by area Brethren congregations. When it became apparent that the ten-day camp meeting for the promotion of holiness had become an annual event, land was purchased in 1941 and buildings constructed to assure the permanence of the camp and enhance its ministry. It holds the distinction of being not only the first, but also the largest of the Brethren in Christ camp meetings.
Soon, however, other districts of the church established camp meetings in their areas. Niagara Holiness Camp began at Fort Erie, Ont., in 1941. Memorial Holiness Camp near West Milton, Ohio, was launched in 1944. Other camp meetings were conducted for a time in Iowa, Kansas, and California. In 1963 Camp Freedom was begun in Florida to minister to those who frequented Florida. The United Zion Church, closely related to the Brethren in Christ, also operates a camp meeting grove.
The central purpose of the camp meetings was to promote the doctrine and the experience of entire sanctification. No other structure of these churches, except possibly the annual congregational revival meetings, has proved as effective as camp meetings in leading church members to experience the more extensive work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Initially the camps enjoyed extensive evangelistic influence in the communities where they were held. While the evening evangelistic service is a regular feature of most camps, it now ministers more to the church constituency than it does the community. Home and foreign missions have been enthusiastically supported by the camp meetings, with special emphasis days devoted to missions promotion. Along the way, the special needs of children and youth have given rise to separate facilities and programming for them.
The camp meetings through the years have been a unique family experience, both in terms of the nuclear family and the church family. They have brought together more members of the churches in something of a family union atmosphere than any other church structure. Consequently, they have helped to shape a denominational identity through intimate association and focused teaching regarding the distinctive doctrinal emphases of the respective denominations. While some aspects of the camp meeting histories are difficult to appreciate today, this positive benefit can not be overlooked. It is one reason why the camp meetings remain a vital force today though different in style than they were in past generations.
Lageer, Eileen. Merging Streams: Story of the Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Pub. Co., 1979: 65-70.
Sider, E. Morris. Holiness Unto the Lord: the Story of Roxbury Holiness Camp. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1985.
Storms, Everek Richard. History of the United Missionary Church. Elkhart, IN: Bethel Pub. Co., 1959: 171-80.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 331-38.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 386-387. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Keefer, Luke L., Jr. "Holiness Camps." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H656ME.html.
APA style: Keefer, Luke L., Jr. (1989). Holiness Camps. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/H656ME.html.