Back over the July 4th holiday, we found ourselves with friends Mike and Carolyn at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where, every August for nearly 150 years, Methodists have held the largest annual camp meeting of probably anywhere in the world. By the late 1860s, the old-style exuberant camp meetings staged out on the American frontier had largely died out of favor, but the Methodists held on. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association formed in December 1869 and carved out a large tract of land right along the ocean, next to Asbury Park, to be a permanent destination spot for evangelicals and their families to spend a wholesome summer vacation and to renew their conversion commitment. Some felt that God had ordained the land for this purpose, as it was just about the only place on the Jersey shore curiously devoid of mosquitoes.
“God’s square mile” they called it—or an earthly “Beulah Land,” like the hymn that was written there in 1875. And it is indeed a remarkable place. Having seen old pictures of the grounds, we had an idea of what to expect, but we were amazed by how little seems to have changed—and not in that way that some places never change because nobody cares. Ocean Grove looks the same, if not better, because it is still a living, breathing town, hosting events, full of vacationers and sight-seers. The houses, hotels, and association buildings—many of them original—are bright and clean and well-kept. People are sitting out on their porches reading or having conversations, never too busy to say “hello” to passers-by.
As you drive in close to the city center, you get to the heart of the matter. The grand Auditorium, the fourth and final auditorium built on the grounds, in 1894, rises impressively from its surroundings and beckons toward its visitors. We couldn’t get in because they were preparing for a concert, but we could see in from the side. Something about this auditorium makes it more awe-inspiring than others. At the time of its construction, it could fit about 10,000 people; today, after renovations over the years (including the substitution of bigger seats), it holds something like a fifth less than that. Outside the front of the building is an impressive statue of Elwood Stokes, first president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, who died in July 1897, just before the start of that season’s official meeting. Remember that date.
Flanking the Auditorium, along modest old pathways, are the tent houses, evidence of the humble traditions of more than a century’s worth of meetings. These are virtually unchanged between pictures of old and today. We conversed with residents whose families had been coming every summer for fifty, sixty, even seventy years. One kind woman brought us inside her tent house, and how affecting it was! The tent portion attaches to a very small, modest edifice. When the tent is extended it provides living space, while the permanent fixture houses a small kitchen and bathroom. Every summer, the owners come and unload the contents of the houses and open the tents; every fall, they fold it up and pack it all in.
In their free time, all the residents head down to the beach, just as they have done since the 1870s. We were there on a slightly overcast, slightly drizzly afternoon, but no matter, the beach was teeming with bathers, Frisbee-throwers, and volleyball players from the boardwalk to the surf. In the old days, the Association held its “Surf Meetings” there on the beach at dusk as the tide rolled out.
What has all this to do with the phonograph and the acoustic era of recording? Ocean Grove was the spiritual if not the actual heart of the evangelistic movement of the late Victorian era in America. This is where the major hymn writers and composers repaired for their summer nourishment and joined in several weeks’ worth of song and celebration. This is where Dwight Moody, Ira D. Sankey, Fanny Crosby, John R. Sweney and their cohort camped out and produced the type of sermons and gospel songs that were the face of Christian recording activity throughout the infant decades of the talking machine industry. Ocean Grove is in a way the place where modern evangelism began, and as we will show in our compilation, Waxing the Gospel: Mass Evangelism and the Phonograph, 1890-1900, it is definitely the place to where it all came back in a very special, historically significant way.
Photographs by Carolyn Devecka and Meagan Hennessey. Ocean Grove postcard from the Archeophone Records Collection. Pie by Meagan.