A Novel Sight

The origins and early years of Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings

David Trim
A Novel Sight
Ellen White, right, seated and holding books, at the Moss, Norway, camp meeting, June 1887 - Photo: Ellen G. White Estate

To Seventh-day Adventists, “camp meeting” may seem a distinctively Adventist event. Since we are so keen on nature, what could be more natural—or indeed, more Adventist—than getting away from houses, apartments, or hotels and camping out in the country, isolated from the world, its distractions and its temptations, and enjoying fellowship and worship surrounded by the beauties of God’s creation?

Yet the camp meeting predates Adventism. Camp meetings emerged on the American frontier, where vast distances meant settlers often lived considerable distances from each other. The first known camp meeting was held by Presbyterians in the American state of Kentucky in 1800. A year later another Presbyterian camp meeting in the same state was attended by more than 10,000 people, and the idea quickly caught on with Methodists and other American denominations, and spread away from the American frontier, across the country. Different denominations’ camp meetings frequently competed against one another each summer.

Adventist acceptance

The founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church grew up with camp meetings, and the Millerites embraced them enthusiastically. But some early Adventists were skeptical, since camp meetings, as held by other churches, could be rowdy events, with liquor flowing freely. They were a natural fit, however, for American society, in which distances were still much greater than in Britain or Europe, and in which society was very egalitarian. This was a contrast with the Old World, but in the New World, people of all social classes could happily camp together, especially when engaged in worship.

In addition, Seventh-day Adventists were regular users of tent meetings for evangelistic purposes, and thus it was probably inevitable that they would also adopt the camp meeting. Business sessions of the Wisconsin Conference were held in a tented encampment in 1867, which drew 300 campers; and it seems that, as a result, a larger number of church leaders, under the guidance of Ellen White, decided to embrace camp meeting.

The sixth General Conference Session, in May 1868, held in Battle Creek, Michigan, actually took an action on the matter, perhaps because a few Adventists still doubted whether the followers of the third angel should be indulging in camp meetings. “Resolved, That this conference recommend to our people to hold a general camp meeting annually at the time of the sessions of our business associations. Camp meetings are a series of meetings held for a number of days, generally in a rural or semirural setting, with provision for encampment on the grounds; a type of meeting now peculiar to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a few other denominations.”1

The first official Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting was that of the Michigan Conference, held at Wright, Michigan, in September 1868. By the 1880s “camp meeting season” was well recognized in North America and referred to as such in church periodicals. What, however, of the camp meeting outside the United States?

International involvement

The first camp meeting held in Britain was on May 31, 1807, near Stoke on Trent, an event staged by Methodists, prompted by a charismatic and controversial American revivalist preacher, Lorenzo Dow. Wesleyan Methodist authorities considered such gatherings dubious, but a group of Methodists went ahead anyway, and one result was the formation of a new denomination, the Primitive Methodists.

Camp meetings did not catch on in England, however, and 80 years later, for the subjects of Queen Victoria they were truly an alien concept, one the American Adventist missionaries who arrived in the 1880s had to work hard to sell to the locals. In 1884 The Present Truth, the journal founded by Adventists in Great Britain, reported on a series of Seventh-day Adventist camp meetings in “Missouri, Minnesota, Tennessee, and California” and noted that “the largest meeting ever held in Michigan was held in the city of Jackson Sept. 18-30. We fancy that it would be a novel sight to our English readers to behold one of these encampments.”2

No doubt the “English readers” would have been astonished at the lavish scale on which the tent gathering was held. Another report in The Present Truth, reprinted from an American Adventist periodical, observed: “A telephone connects us with the city and with the world. Water is supplied through pipes from the city water-works. . . . A provision-stand and boarding-tent supply board at moderate cost to those who wish it. A post-office receives and distributes mail.”3 All this was, of course, facilitated by the hot and largely dry weather that could generally be counted on in the summer in the United States—unlike England.

Attendees at the first camp meeting held outside of North America in Moss, Norway, June 1887. Photo: Ellen G. White Estate

The first Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting held outside the United States was in Canada in 1879. Soon after the article in The Present Truth appeared, the first camp meeting outside North America was held at Moss, in eastern Norway, in June 1887. Ellen G. White and her son Willie, who were both visiting Europe, attended the Moss camp meeting—Ellen White can just be seen at the left of the above contemporary photo of those attending. The camp meeting at Moss was promoted as an event for all Seventh-day Adventists across Europe to attend, including being advertised to British Adventists in The Present Truth.

It was regarded as so successful—such a “great blessing to the church, and to the cause at large,” as one report put it—that the following summer, in 1888, the Central European Conference organized its first camp meeting, “held at Upper Tramelan, Switzerland, which was still more successful, being more largely attended, both by the Adventists, and by the people in general.”4

Thereafter, camp meetings spread across Europe and into other continents and became regular annual events, while in America all the conferences in the United States and Canada held their annual camp meetings as well. The camp meeting had truly become a part of Adventist society and culture.

1 Retrieved from https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Minutes/GCSM/GCB1863-88.pdf.

2 Retrieved from https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/PT/PT18841201-V01-08.pdf#search=novel%20sight%20encampments.

3 Retrieved from https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/PT/PT18851119-V01-20.pdf#search=post%20office%20receives%20and%20distributes%20mail.

4 Retrieved from https://documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/PT/PT18880927-V04-19.pdf#search=camp%20meeting%20upper%20tramelan.

David Trim

David Trim is the director of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research at the General Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.