The church was humming along nicely. There were regular meetings; organization and structure; challenges discussed and met. All in all, the five-year old Seventh-day Adventist denomination was doing well.
The General Conference session of 1868 opened May 12 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Thirteen delegates were in attendance along with Ellen White, M. G. Kellogg, and A. W. Smith. The expected work of the session moved forward. J. H. Waggoner, a delegate, reported, “The business sessions throughout were largely attended, and characterized by a spirit of union and an earnest desire to advance the cause. Perhaps we have never held a conference where more perfect harmony prevailed. In this we have a complete vindication of our organization.”1
Waggoner spoke of the meetings being largely attended, an interesting description for a meeting of fewer than 20 delegates. James White, two months later, revealed a different perspective of the same meetings.2
“This is not a good time for a general gathering of our brethren and sisters to enjoy a spiritual feast. Not understanding this, many have come to our annual conferences, spent a week’s time, and gone home disappointed. They had no special interest in the business sessions, thought they occupied too much time, and concluded that their brethren were becoming formal and backslidden. In this they were mistaken. Meetings for transaction of business are necessary and right. Let those attend our annual meeting who have a part to act in them; and let those who have no special part to act in our general assemblies for the transaction of business remain at home, instead of bringing their wives and children to such assemblies to burden the church that entertains them, for nearly or quite a week, they, meanwhile looking on, and getting tempted because there are no more religious exercises.”3
Fairly strong language from Brother White! But his intent was clear. The General Conference session was a time to do business. It was never intended to be a spiritual convocation. So when their fellow church members arrived in Battle Creek, for a meeting to which they were not invited, the crowds were challenging to care for and distracting to the business at hand, and their expectations for coming not met. While Waggoner spoke of “harmony,” James White saw challenging logistics and misunderstood leadership. While his words may have come across as a bit intense and direct, he did present a potential solution.
“A general Convocation [sic], free from business sessions, where ministers and people could devote their entire time and energies to the spiritual interests of the assembly, would exactly meet the wants of the cause.”4 White went on to propose the idea of a general “campmeeting” that would be held in a large tent with smaller tents to accommodate those who wished to stay. He suggested that a town in Michigan be considered, near a railroad line, and even proposed the following month of August as a date although recognizing it didn’t give much time for planning.
The idea was favorably received. It was announced that a camp meeting would be held at Wright, Michigan, August 26-31. Later the date was moved to September 1-7 to give more time to plan. Whether this is actually the first Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting is cause for debate, but it certainly appears to have been the answer to a problem that arose as a result of a growing church.
To hold a camp meeting was not new. Other denominations, including the Millerites, had done so decades earlier. What appears to be new for the Adventists at this time was to separate the formal business meetings of the church from meetings that would focus simply on “spiritual feasting.” Camp meetings would allow people to come away from their everyday lives, fellowship with like believers, listen to dynamic preaching, and encourage one another.
In fact, the leaders expressed high expectations of this particular camp meeting.
“This meeting has not been appointed for the purpose of spending a few days in recreation and vanity. Nor has it been appointed as a novelty, for the purpose of calling out the idle and the curious who might not otherwise be reached. Nor do we by this means merely seek to gather a large concourse of people, that we may thereby make a display of our strength. We have a very different object in view.
“We desire to call out as many of our brethren, both preachers and people, as we can, and also as many of our unconverted fellowmen as we may be able to interest in this meeting, that we may do them good. We want all who shall come to this meeting to come for the purpose of seeking God. We want our brethren to come for the purpose of seeking a new conversion. We want our preachers to set them in this an example worthy of imitation. We desire also to see many of our fellowmen who have no interest in Christ, or at least no knowledge of the present truth, converted to the Lord, and rejoicing in the light of His truth.”5
More than 300 people camped throughout the week in 22 tents provided by various churches. Some of the outdoor services attracted more than 2,000 attendees (some report up to 3,000). James and Ellen White and J. N. Andrews preached the main sermons, while other ministers offered encouragement.
As electricity had yet to be invented, torches were placed at nightfall strategically throughout the camp. Common meals were shared around a fire. And the first “Adventist Book Center,” constructed from three wooden planks, sold more than $600 in literature (equivalent to more than $10,000 today). Each night as the people retired to their tents, J. N. Andrews, then General Conference president, walked up and down the tent rows asking, “Are you all comfortable for the night?”6
The camp meeting was so successful that two more were planned, one for September in Wisconsin, and another in October for Iowa. This became the beginning of a long tradition. Even as you read this article, somewhere in the world an Adventist camp meeting is being planned, held, or attended. James White’s solution continues to be a beloved and cherished part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Whether it be a full 10-day meeting of tents and trailers or a one-day convocation in an un-air-conditioned gymnasium, hopefully the results are still as a meeting once described by editor Uriah Smith: “characterized by spirited and soul-cheering testimonies, the beaming eye, the voice of praise, the earnest and stirring exhortation, and often the falling tear—scenes in which faith and love flame up anew.”7
Merle Poirier is operations manager for Adventist Review Ministries.