y husband likes to say we met at camp meeting. That’s not technically true. We were at
the same camp meeting, but we never actually met there. Someone pointed me out to him as I walked across a field, and according to him he had one of those “That’s the woman I’m going to marry,” epiphanies. Meanwhile I had no idea he even existed. We met at some point after that, though not at a camp meeting, and 27 years later we’re still married and still talking about it.
One of the items on my bucket list is to go to camp meeting for the entire time. I’ve been only for a day or weekend. I’ve attended as an off-site camper, a presenter, and once for a book signing back when the ABC book sale was such a highlight that people attended clutching long shopping lists of books they intended to buy. Not to sound nostalgic or anything, but I sure do miss those days: the smell of new books, the excitement of stocking up on Sabbath reading, the agonizing choices you had to make to fit the most titles you could into your budget. It was like making out your Christmas list and then getting everything you asked for.
One of the best things about camp meeting is all the interesting people you see. When I say interesting, I mean strange, but in the very nicest sense of the word. At my home camp meeting there are the elderly women—all with the prefix “sister”—who had to have been besties with Ellen White back in the day. I love to watch them tottering up the aisles looking for a seat right up front so they can hear—or correct—the speaker. You’ll see clothes in styles that haven’t seen civilization for at least a half century. Maybe that’s why I can almost imagine that William Miller is going to step onto the platform next. I know I am always impressed most by the sincerity of the folks, the simplicity and genuineness of their faith.
Glamping, Anyone? How About Cowboy Camp Meeting?
For a long time my conference’s camp meeting was the only one I’d ever seen, so I thought that’s how they all were until I was asked to speak at one to the south of us. As soon as I stepped onto the campgrounds, it reminded me of a new camping term that’s been coined recently: glamping. It’s a combination of “glamour” and “camping,” and it’s all about luxury camping. The folks at this camp meeting really put the “glam” in the “glamping.” The difference was dazzling to a girl from the sticks. There were no Birkenstocks and prairie skirts here; this was fashion central.
For fun I took a peek at the list of camp meetings for this year in the North American Division alone. It reads like an exotic menu. There are camp meetings by ethnicity, and even by language. I want to sample all of them, like dishes at a fellowship dinner. It’s usually easiest to go to your own conference’s camp meeting, but wouldn’t it be an adventure to go visit a different camp meeting?
Speakers Come to You
Of course, the main attraction isn’t the people, the fashions (no matter how amusing or inspiring), the camping experience, or even the food. The main attraction is the teaching. And this is where camp meeting is hard to beat, because this is when the really dynamic speakers come to you.
These are widely known people for the most part—faces you’ve seen on 3ABN or Hope Channel—and they’re going to be in your very own backyard. Not only can you hear their message in person, but you can even talk to them afterward.
And if they aren’t already widely known, they’re probably on their way—camp meeting speaking engagements are reserved for the crème de la crème.
I, personally, will never forget a camp meeting at which Clifford Goldstein was a featured speaker . . . and I never even got to attend. I had a very good reason: I was having a baby at the time. I wanted to meet Clifford and ask him to sign my copy of his book Best Seller.
(OK, I really wanted to gush all over him and tell him how his book changed my life.) I read it at the beginning of my writing career, and his story convinced me I should write about subjects that have eternal value.
I was so bitterly disappointed that my in-laws took pity on me and carted my copy of Best Seller
up to camp meeting with them and asked Clifford to sign it. He graciously did—in Hebrew. I have no idea what it says. I’m still waiting for him to come back to camp meeting so I can ask him.
Into the Future
In some ways camp meeting is such a throwback. It has its origins in the American frontier during the nineteenth century. Ellen White herself first gave her heart to God in 1840 at a Methodist camp meeting in Buxton, Maine, at the age of 12.1 Attendees would gather together and live in tents for a week or two, socialize, fellowship, and listen to preaching.
Seventh-day Adventists, as members of a brand-new denomination, were familiar with camp meetings, but feared unruly crowds and were skittish about holding them after they officially organized in 1863. But then individual conferences held some small events whose success encouraged the General Conference to call the first “official” camp meeting in Wright, Michigan, in 1868.2 They’ve been held ever since.
We take getting together with like-minded believers for granted, but imagine what it must have been like for the pioneers who spent most of their time isolated even from neighbors. Those endless hours of preparation, bumping along on hard wagon seats—or walking—for miles, the inconvenience of camping in primitive conditions, those all paled when they all got together, and started praising God. In comparison, most of us can be at a camp meeting in a couple hours, tops, and we’ve got the option of glamping.
They say those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In this case maybe a return to the past is in order. By participating in the history and tradition of our denomination maybe we’ll catch some of that pioneer spirit to carry with us into the future. Who knows, you may even meet your future spouse there. If you do, take a tip from me: don’t let “the one I’m going to marry” become “the one that got away.” Find a way to introduce yourself right there at camp meeting. Then you may be telling your
kids camp meeting stories 27 years later . . . maybe even on the way to camp meeting. I’ll see you there!
1 See www.whiteestate.org/about/egwbio.asp.
2 Gary Land, Historical Dictionary of Seventh-day Adventists (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005), p. 53.
Céleste Perrino-Walker is waiting for Clifford Goldstein to come back to the Northern New England Con-ference camp meeting. Hint, Hint. This article was published May 24, 2012.