Periodically bringing The Faithful together for an extended time of devotion (and not incidentally, recreation) is not a uniquely Seventh-day Adventist custom. The practice can be traced back to the Jewish feasts of the Old Testament and perhaps even to Moses’ request of Pharaoh that the Israelites be allowed to go into the wilderness for three days to worship God.(1) In Medieval Europe, noble and commoner frequently came together at the nearest cathedral or monastery city for the local fair (which not only served commercial interests but, since it was often tied to the festival of a patron saint, met the people’s spiritual and recreational needs).(2) On the American frontier, this historical phenomenon was continued in the form of the camp meeting, which replaced any commercial emphasis with an intense spiritual revival.(3)
Millerites and their Seventh-day Adventist successors found it easy to adapt the camp meeting to their new movement.(4) Being convinced of the need to warn the world of the immediacy of Christ’s Second Coming, Adventists added an evangelistic thrust to their camp meetings, taking seriously the admonition of Ellen G. White (generally considered by Seventh-day Adventists to have been given a unique prophetic gift to benefit the church) that camp “meetings must be managed that the public interest may be maintained”.(5)
The camp meeting played an important role in proclaiming the Adventist message as it came to California . . . but not right away. When Merrit G. Kellogg (the less-renowned brother John Harvey Kellogg and Will Kellogg) arrived in San Francisco with his wife and two children in September, 1859, they were nearly the only Adventists in the new state. Kellogg soon had a company of people worshiping with them in San Francisco but his meetings there, urban as they were, could scarcely be called camp meetings. By 1864, Kellogg was pleading with the Executive Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Battle Creek, Michigan to send a minister to California. It was not until 1867 that John Loughborough and Daniel Bourdeau volunteered to work in the California mission field. Almost immediately upon their arrival, they began a series of evangelistically-oriented camp meetings at various locations north and east of San Francisco. By the time the California Conference was organized in February, 1873, at a camp meeting in Bloomfield (a temporary organization having been formed in about 1869), Loughborough could proclaim to the assembled delegates, “None of us, it seems to me, can doubt the utility and practicability of good camp-meetings. They are almost indispensable to the work of our cause.”(6)
Camp meetings having proved so successful in the past, the California Adventists organized another statewide camp meeting for the fall of the same year. This camp meeting was a one week affair held
in a shady grove at the confluence of Conn Creek and the Napa River about a mile northeast of Yountville. Sixty-three tents were neatly arranged around the thoroughfares — Present Truth Street, Law and Order Street, etc. On Sunday nearly 1,500 people pushed in and out of the big evangelistic tent, and afterwards 29 were baptized in the river.(7)
Significantly for Central California, one of those baptized at that camp meeting was Moses J. Church. Church had previously lived in Napa but in 1868 emigrated to what would later become Fresno to join a wheat-growing venture. Church’s role was to dig an irrigation canal from the Kings River, about twenty miles away, to the wheat field. This proved so successful that Church was soon in great demand to provide irrigation canals to other agricultural capitalists. In 1873, Church returned to Napa to visit relatives and accompanied them to the Yountville camp meeting. He was so impressed by what he heard that he rose and gave the following testimony, “I am engaged in constructing an irrigation canal from the Kings River and I have 40 men in my employ. But from this time, that work shall all stop on the Lord’s Sabbath.” Upon his return to Fresno, Church energetically began encouraging his neighbors to join him in his marvelous, new-found faith and soon had about 25 of them holding weekly Sabbath services with him(8)
At the same time, Adventists began moving their evangelistic meetings into Central California but it is not clear whether these were camp meetings where those attending stayed overnight on the camp ground. By 1871, a Sabbath school had been organized in Soquel. In the fall of 1873, D. M. Canright, who had moved from the East Coast to the Pajaro Valley due to health reasons, began preaching and soon had a nucleus of worshipers meeting in Watsonville. In October, 1874, Canright, Loughborough, and G. I. Butler (who had given up his duties as president of the General Conference to go as a missionary to California) set up an evangelistic tent in San Francisco. During the summer and fall of 1875, Canright and J. H. Waggoner (and later, Loughborough) held successful meetings in Gilroy and Hollister. In October, 1876, J. L. Wood conducted meetings in Kingsburg. He was then joined in Fresno by William Healey; they began a series of tent meetings in Courthouse Park which resulted in several baptisms in Dry Creek, the only accessible body of water deep enough for immersion. Wood stayed in Fresno to minister to the congregation there while Healey ventured on to Visalia where he was joined by Loughborough (due to Healey contracting malaria) for a series of meetings; Loughborough reported that “attendance at the tent is greater than the combined audiences of all the [local] churches, and yet we call our audiences small.” The big evangelistic tent was then moved to Pacheco where Andrew Bronson and J. D. Rice held a series of meetings.(9)
The first definitely documented camp meeting in Central California occurred in 1877 between Lemoore and Armona. People came from as far away as San Diego to attend and it was reported that “the whole countryside” seemed to have turned out for the baptism of 29 converts in the Kings River.(10)
The camp meeting was so successful that another was held the following year. Loughborough’s description of his efforts in connection with this second Lemoore camp meeting illustrates the energy which he and the other California missionaries expended. Loughborough states that after attending the 1878 Yountville camp meeting.
I went immediately to Oakland, and spent the 5th and 6th [of September] shipping tents, books, et cetera, to the Lemoore campground. I took a night passage to Goshen, arriving there at 2:30 a.m., the 7th, then by carriage made the trip to Lemoore, arriving there in time to preach at 11 a.m. Sabbath. In the afternoon, we went to the camp ground . . . . As a result of almost constant labor and traveling, I found myself much wearied, so much so that on the forenoon of September 11, when I had talked about 25 minutes, I fainted dead away in the pulpit. Elder Healey completed the discourse while the brethren carried me to my tent to recuperate. I was able the next day to resume labors. I spoke twice that day. On Sabbath the 14th there were 25 candidates baptized in the irrigating canal not far from the camp.
On the evening of Sunday, September 15, I gave the closing discourse of the camp meeting and then Bro. Seth Bond took me by carriage to Goshen, where I arrived in time to take the 1:45 a.m. train the 16th for Oakland, at which place I arrived at noon of that day.(11)
In late summer, 1879, a camp meeting was held in Fresno. Nearly 300 people attended the meetings with 239 of these staying in 42 tents on the grounds. Those leading out included Waggoner, Healey, Edson White, and Stephen Haskell. Magazine promotion was a major emphasis at the camp meeting, over 100 subscriptions (primarily for The Review & Herald and Good Health(12)) being obtained. Edson White’s Sabbath school seminar was also noteworthy. On Sabbath he conducted a “model Sabbath-school consisting of sixteen classes.” Haskell, in his report on the camp meeting, commented on the interest which Sabbath schools “have aroused among those not of our faith by inviting the children to unite in their exercises”. Temperance was also an important feature. “A goodly number signed the teetotal pledge, thus severing their connection with tea, coffee, and tobacco.” Given John Loughborough’s enthusiastic endorsement of camp meetings as an evangelistic tool in 1873, it is surprising to read Haskell’s statement that “[a]s is frequently the case at such meetings, not much time was devoted to missionary work.” But, at least he could add that “a willingness was manifested by all the brethren to advance on all points of truth.” Although disappointed with the size of the attendance at the close of the camp meeting, Haskell took comfort in the quality of the 16 people baptized in a canal constructed by Moses Church through the middle of town to serve his latest commercial venture, a flour mill. (Because the Adventists did not yet have a church building of their own, Church had built an open-air baptistry, complete with wooden steps and platform, into the canal just above his mill.)(13)
Haskell was as stunned by the San Joaquin Valley in late summer, as he was with its contrasting, irrigation-induced agricultural bounty:
A large portion of this country for hundreds of miles presents, at this season of the year, the appearance of a barren desert, with scarcely vegetation enough, one would think, to keep alive the horned toads, rattlesnakes, and other creatures of like character which thrive there. Where the land is irrigated, grapes, peaches, pears, and all kinds of fruit grow in abundance and cannot be excelled in deliciousness”(14)
The next camp meetings of which I have been able to find any record occurred in 1888 in Selma and, possibly, Fresno. (It seems unlikely that there was a six-year hiatus of camp meetings in Central California at this time. In fact there is at least one indirect record of a camp meeting occurring in Central California in 1887(17))
The 1888 Selma camp meeting was held from Thursday, March 22 through Monday, April 2. About 200 people camped on the grounds, most of these traveling south from Fresno.(18) The camp meeting was given extensive coverage by the local newspaper, the Selma Irrigator. The newspaper’s articles are worth quoting at length because of their detailed picture of a late-19th Century Adventist camp meeting and their revealing insight into how the local non-Adventist community saw their Adventist neighbors.
The encampment in our midst still flourishes and meetings are in full progress with a programme which occupies most of the time from 6 a.m. till 9 in the evening. There are 46 tents pitched and the meetings are held in a 60 foot pavillion which is usually well filled, especially during the evening services when there is quite a large attendance of town people.
Sunday [March 25] large congregations were in attendance and the utmost quiet and order prevailed. The forenoon’s discourse was by G. C. Tenney, who spoke from the words of Jesus, “I and My Father are One”. . . . The discourse was attentively listened to especially as it is commonly reported that this people repudiate or question the divinity of Christ.
A large number of people were out to hear Mrs. White in the afternoon. Her theme was “The Triumphant Entry of Christ into Jerusalem” as recorded by Luke. . . . . [Christ’s] earthly experience was beautifully illustrated and dwelt upon; and the different graces which adorned His life were strongly recommended to all who profess to be His followers. The discourse was closely listened to and made a good impression.
. . . . [Elder E. P.] Daniels [who spoke in the evening] is an attractive speaker and held the closest attention of his hearers to the close. He taught that the day of God’s wrath was a real event and that the scripture which speak of it are not of a figurative nature but that they mean just what they say. . . . The speaker believed [the event] to be very near. Special reference was made to skeptics and scoffers and those who laugh at sacred things. The Elder evidently had full confidence in his theory and the way in which it was presented made an impression on many minds.
[Sunday], a few left for their homes and others arrived, and there is and will be a continued increase in the size of the meeting throughout the week. The services of the day [on Monday] took about the usual form, the same speakers occupying the desk as the day before and in the same order. . . . Mrs. White’s discourse in the afternoon was of a very practical nature, showing what the life of the Christian should be at home and abroad. . . . This lady is one of the most impressive speakers that has ever visited this community. Her language is simple and the ideas pointed and enforced with evident sincerity. . . . The weather is very favorable for the meetings, except the cool mornings and evenings, but there is no great inconvenience since the camp is well supplied with stoves.
[Tuesday] was a fine day at the camp and the meetings were successfully carried forward with good attendance and interest. A visitor to the grounds at any hour will be impressed with the degree of order and quiet which prevails. The preaching is of a candid nature appealing to the judgment rather than the emotions and although there is a deep undercurrent of feeling and devotion it is not very demonstrative, even the Amen corner is quite reticent except once in a while a very faint response from an isolated deacon or elder. In fact, it would seem a little more appropriate to the circumstances to see ebulitions of enthusiasm manifested in a good healthy Amen.
G. C. Tenney led the early meeting [Tuesday] morning. These 6 o’clock meetings are one of the most interesting features of the meeting. Generally a large portion of the congregation take part in the testimonies. Mrs. White is usually present and her talks are intensely practical and impressive. At 9 o’clock a Bible reading on the subject of home religion was conducted by N. C. McClure which was full of interest and good sensible thoughts. The proper organization of churches and qualifications of officers was the subject considered in the meeting at 10:30 o’clock.
The subject of the restaurant coming up in one of the meetings, a vote of thanks was given as expressive of satisfaction with the efficient management, and it was voted to provide but two meals per day. This leads to some inquiry in reference to the dietetic customs of the Seventh-day Adventists. Their temperance principles are made to cover habits of eating as well as drinking. The two meal system is not generally adopted although practiced by many. The use of pork is almost wholly discarded for hygienic consideration and because it was anciently forbidden on the same ground. Tea and coffee are also generally discarded as useless or hurtful stimulants. Tobacco is not fellowshipped in their churches being harmful, expensive, and unchristian. In the support of their ministers they have generally adopted the tithing system, by which each member pays one tenth of his income to this purpose. This is not compulsory upon any, but is recommended as being taught and practiced in the Bible and Bible times. . . .
[The report continues with the events of Thursday, March 29.] Among recent arrivals at the camp grounds . . . is E. M. Morrison, agent of the Pacific Press Publishing House of Oakland, who brings a good assortment of the literary products of the institution. . . .
Mrs. White spoke at 2:30 p.m., from the words of God spoken of Abraham, “For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him and they will keep the way of the Lord”. . . . It is not possible to give in a brief outline any adequate idea of the many weighty truths which were uttered, but they were such that should be considered by all parents as well as children. . . .
Children and youth meetings are held each day at 5 o’clock under the charge of Mrs. Daniels and they are seasons of much interest to the young people and little folk.
The evening was pleasant and quite a good many of the citizens turned out with the camp composed of a large congregation which listened to a discourse by Elder Daniels on the Eastern question in prophecy. . . . [T]he speaker . . . brought the course of events down through [Daniel 11] to the present complication in European matters, and predicted on the last verse of the chapter the speedy removal of the Turkish power from Europe to its associate’s territory and then of its overthrow. And the next event after these were fulfilled which he stated would be the coming of Christ and the resurrection. The discourse created quite an impression and the theory appeared to be well established from the speaker’s standpoint at least.
The early meeting [on Friday, March 30,] was conducted by Elder McClure. While the leader was making some introductory remarks the programme was varied by the sharp report of a rifle and directly a stray bullet whizzed through the tent just over the heads of the people, and quite close to the speaker, who by the way is an old war veteran and showed his military training by dodging slightly after the ball had closed its visit. It was the result of an accident and did no great harm.
The S.D.A.’s are a people of vigorous and aggressive faith. They are composed almost universally of a respectable class, a good average intelligence and standing. But in many points of their doctrines are such as to characterize them as a peculiar people. They are fully imbued with a sense of importance in the work they are prosecuting, believing it to be a special work or message which God has given them to give to the world as premonitory to the second coming of Christ. The unpopularity of some features of their faith and the inconvenience which attends their religious practice make the lead they are endeavoring to carry one before which many less devoted hearts would grow faint; especially as they believe it must be carried to the world, but it would be a rare thing to find one of this people who does not believe that the work will succeed at last. . . .
[Saturday] was the Sabbath according to their Bible and was given wholly to devotion of meetings of an interesting nature. A social meeting at 6 o’clock introduced the meetings of the day. . . . A Sabbath School convened at 9 A.M. conducted by J.N. Loughborough. The school embraced the entire camp, old and young, and was thoroughly classified by the use of cards given out before hand and it was a pleasant sight to witness so many engaged for the hour in their lessons and Bible-classes. At 11:30 A.M. Elder McClure spoke from the words “Be ye therefore followers of God as dear children”. . . .
In the afternoon Mrs. E. G. White addressed a large, attentive audience from Rom. 13:11, “And knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep.” At the close of the discourse an opportunity was given for those who wished to start in the Christian life to “come forward”. Quite a large number of the audience responded and the meeting which continued for most of the afternoon was attended with much feeling. The services of the day concluded with an excellent practical discourse by Elder E. P. Daniels which was also listened to attentively by a large congregation. . . .
There is an entire absence of disorder or confusion in the meetings and upon the grounds. Those scenes and actions which, in other days have brought camp meetings into disrepute are entirely discarded, and quietness and candor prevail rather than any form of excitement.
[A]s the close [of the camp meeting] approaches the interest and attendance is on the increase. The beautiful weather which we now enjoy is a favorable adjunct to a successful campmeeting. The evening meetings especially are well attended.(19)
The newspaper’s mention of a “restaurant” was a reference to a new feature for Adventist camp meetings in Central California: having a restaurant at which nearly the entire camp took their meals. The restaurant was a “co-op” with those who wished to do so contributing provisions and/or labor. This enabled women, who would otherwise have had to labor over meals every day, to attend more of the meetings.(20)
Whether a camp meeting was held in Fresno in 1888 is open to more question. There is a well circulated photograph of an apparent camp meeting in what is clearly Fresno around 1890. It shows nearly sixty individual tents arranged in a square around a large “pavillion” tent. One copy of this photograph is inscribed, “Taken by A. A. Smith in the spring of 1888 from top of Adventist Church. . . .” The angle of the photograph is consistent with that location and the photograph does show a portion of what may be scaffolding or framing in the foreground. But the Fresno Adventists had only voted to construct the church in March of that year, just prior to the Selma camp meeting. (The church was dedicated in October, 1889).(21) Even without the burden of a City Building Department, could construction on the church have progressed that far before the summer? And would the Fresno Adventists, having made up the bulk of the Selma camp meeting campers, have been very interested in a camp meeting in Fresno just before or just after the Selma gathering? Most troublesome for the spring 1888 date, Ellen White spent the entire spring and summer of 1888 in and around Fresno. She wrote frequent reports of her activities to The Review and Herald which published them. Yet, she made no reference to a camp meeting in Fresno. On the other hand, the photograph was brought to the attention of the Central California Conference 50 years later, in 1938. At a camp meeting in Fresno that year, the photograph was displayed and the audience was asked if any attended that 1888 camp meeting–nearly 15 people raised their hands. That is fairly compelling testimony for believing that the photograph does indeed show an 1888 camp meeting in Fresno, although it could easily have been later in the year. At any rate, the photograph is the only known pictorial record of an Adventist camp meeting in Central California during the late 19th Century.
While I have not had access to information on camp meetings in Central California during the 1890’s, it is clear these occurred, although perhaps not on the scale of the Selma camp meeting. The Review and Herald reported camp meetings in Central California in 1891 and 1892.(22) There was also possibly a camp meeting at Mayfair in Tulare County in 1895.(23) The 1890’s were a time of internal turmoil for the Adventists in Fresno(24) and the decade saw a severe economic depression in the San Joaquin Valley.(25) Since by far the largest concentration of Adventists in the region was in Fresno,(26) this tends to explain the slowdown in camp meetings during this period.
By the start of the 20th Century, things were looking up. In 1902, a California state camp meeting was held in Fresno on the corner of Blackstone and Belmont Avenues from September 30 to October 12. (The meeting was also the thirty-first annual session of the California Conference.) Tents were available for rental at the following rates: a standard sized tent cost $2.50 with an additional 50¢ each for a fly and burlap floor cover; a larger tent rented for $3.50 with a fly and burlap costing an additional 75¢ each. If a camper wanted to rent a bed, a double wire-spring cot rented for 75¢ and a three-quarter wire-spring cot for only 60¢.(27)
Transportation has always been a driving force on how and when camp meetings have been held in Central California and the Pacific Union Recorder’s(28) directions to the camp meeting illustrate the point:
All who come from the north by way of Stockton with teams will find better roads if they come from Stockton by Oakdale and then to Merced by Hopeton Bridge. From Merced to Fresno the road is good, but along the Southern Pacific Railroad, between Merced and Modesto, the road is quite sandy much of the way, and though it is the most direct route, loaded teams especially will find the Oakdale road preferable.
On nearing Fresno, all teams from the north will keep the wagon road east, after crossing the Southern Pacific Railroad, till they reach the camp, which is in the northern part of Fresno.(29)
Special arrangements had been made with the Southern Pacific Railway for reduced fares for persons coming to this camp meeting.
On reaching Fresno by rail, take the street-cars for the camp-ground. Those coming over the Southern Pacific will find the street-car service is the most direct to the camp-ground. We hope the electric cars will be in operating before the meeting closes, but at present only horse cars are used. . . . [In fact, the electric trolleys began running on October 19, one week after the camp meeting ended.(30)]
Baggage will be transferred by our people who are in the business here. Give your checks to those only who have the word, “Camp-ground” on their hats. We are sure of quick and Christian service in handling the baggage. All the principal trains of the day will be met, and night trains if notice is given in advance.(31)
The Recorder noted that Ellen White “spoke several times during the meeting with a power that brought conviction of sin and duty to many hearts; especially during the times of great perplexity did the Lord speak through her in no uncertain terms to the people.” The magazine left its readers to guess as to the cause or nature of the “great perplexity” mentioned. Perhaps it was the attendance, which was lower-than-expected. This was attributed to the fact that “many were compelled to remain at home and look after their harvest of fruit” and to the churches in Northern California sending only a small delegation (which is understandable considering inconvenience involved in traveling from Northern California, as revealed in the directions in the Recorder). This does not mean the camp meeting was considered a failure. The Recorder concluded, “The general sentiment seemed to be that this was the best camp-meeting that ever was held in California. There was no perceptible excitement prevailing among either the workers or the people, but the decisions that were made were arrived at in a deliberate, prayerful mood.”(32)
The next camp meeting in what is now the Central California Conference, appears to have been held in the summer of 1905 in San Jose–apparently one of the first, and the last for many years, in that area.(33)
On September 3, 1908, the Recorder reported, “An urgent request has been made by the brethren in the central part of the state that a camp-meeting be held at Fresno. The request has been granted and the time fixed for September 17–27, 1908.”(34)The article did not explain the nature of the urgency but it probably had to do with the belief that a camp meeting would prove a valuable evangelistic tool. In a report to the Recorder in August, evangelist J. H. Behrens (who three years later would become the first president of the newly formed Central California Conference) reported on a successful seven-week evangelistic series he had completed in Fresno in June; he stated,
It has been thought good by the Conference Committee to hold a camp-meeting in Fresno in September, and we fully hope and look for many souls to be gathered in. There is a great field for labor for the Fresno church within her own borders, and also among the many nationalities there.(35)
(That statement is not as blatantly chauvinistic or racist as it may seem at first. There were large groups of German and “Scandinavian” Adventists in and around Fresno at that time. These immigrants often preferred services in their own language, which resulted in the formation of their own congregations.(36))
The Fresno camp meeting was actually the fourth camp meeting held in California that late summer and early fall. Stephen Haskell pronounced it the best of the lot for several reasons, among them his observation that “the camp ground was as level as a floor.” About 800 people attended on week-ends with about 150 coming forward for prayers the first Sabbath. On the second Sabbath, “nearly all the congregation dedicated themselves to the Lord.” The last Sabbath afternoon was devoted to “a social meeting, closing with a revival service.” The Women’s Christian Temperance Union presented the program on Sunday afternoon. The day after the camp meeting ended, a special business session of the California Conference was held to discuss the Conference’s plan for opening and operating a school.(37)
In 1910, a camp meeting was held in Visalia, from September 29 to October 30, at the corner of Garden Street and Mineral King Avenue–just a few blocks from both the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific depots and “less than two blocks from the main street of the town.” As usual, the railroads gave favorable “convention” rates to attendees who assured their discounts by asking the agent for a receipt for the fare paid at the time of purchasing a ticket. That receipt, when signed at the camp ground by the “secretary of the meeting,” was a certificate entitling the bearer to purchase a return ticket for one-third the normal fare. The camp meeting was designed to serve the interests of Adventists in the “southern part” of the California Conference. Due to the large German community in the vicinity, meetings were also held in German each day. Sixteen persons were baptized at the end of the camp meeting with the promise that “[s]everal others will receive the rite at their home churches.”(38)
After the camp meeting, a tent was pitched in central Visalia and thirteen people spent the next few months evangelizing the city–mostly by “canvassing” (selling denominational books and tracts door to door). Men in the group who owned bicycles were “able to work the country for more than twenty miles around.” Their efforts were so successful, and the new converts so generous, that they were able to purchase a lot and build a church.(39)
The Central California Conference Camp Meeting Searches for a Home
By February, 1911, Adventist membership in California had grown so large that it became necessary to split the state into smaller conferences, the Central California Conference among them. The new Conference consisted of Fresno, Kern (north and west of the Tehachapi Mountains), Kings, Madera, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, and Tulare Counties.(40) (San Francisco, the South Bay and other areas would not join the Conference until 1932.(41)) The new Conference immediately located its headquarters in a building behind the Adventist church in Fresno.(42)
The Conference held its first camp meeting in Tulare from May 18 to 28 later that same year. (The event had originally been scheduled for earlier in the month but was moved back to accommodate students at the Adventist school in Armona who were planning to work as canvassers during the summer.)(43) Conference President J. H. Behrens’ description of the camp meeting site reflected the increasing urbanization of the West:
The building is fitted with electric lights and gas, and is large enough to seat comfortably a thousand persons. The grounds were planted with trees some years ago, which are large enough to afford shade, and we believe we can promise a shade-tree for every family that desires to attend our camp-meeting. The grounds are only two blocks from the depot, and are in every way convenient to the city. We believe the accommodations are all that could be asked for. We hope to see a very large gathering of our people from the Central California Conference, to this, our first annual gathering.(44)
The grounds included a “dining tent . . . conducted on the cafeteria plan.” Among the speakers was J. N. Loughborough, now back from England. One of the most significant events at the camp meeting was the adoption of a resolution: recommending that the Conference accept the offer of the operators of the Central California Intermediate School in Armona to turn operation of the school over to the Conference; to rename the school “The Armona Academy”; and to upgrade the school from 10 to 12 grades. (The recommendation was accepted at the first annual business session of the Conference in Feburary, 1912.(45)) The camp meeting was designed to promote revival among the attendees (about 234 the first Sabbath and 340 the second) and ten baptisms were the result. All of this cost the Conference $213.09. Ten individuals signed up as canvassers and remained in Tulare after the camp meeting’s close.(46)
The Conference camp meeting immediately became an annual event. In 1912, the camp meeting was held in Reedley from May 30 to June 9 “east of the grammar school, and one block west of the Southern Pacific station, and two blocks west of the Santa Fe.” President Behrens, prior to the meetings, encouraged all members of the Conference to arrive the day before the meetings started, to attend as many meetings as possible, to labor for others, to work for their spiritual welfare, and to be sociable and courteous while on the camp ground (especially to visitors), to “[a]void the spirit of pleasure seeking” while in Reedley, and to carry their fire and enthusiasm home with them. A large sign reading “Seventh-Day Adventist Camp-Meeting” was placed at the edge of the camp ground where it could be seen by passing train passengers. The camp meeting also saw regular services in German for the nearly 75 German immigrants staying on the grounds. A total of about 350 persons camped on the grounds in “intense heat.” For some reason, Conference leadership considered the number attending to be lower than hoped but was pleased by the extensive coverage of the meetings in the Fresno, Visalia, and Hanford newspapers.(47)
As had been done so successfully in Visalia two years earlier, an evangelistic tent series was held in Reedley following the camp meeting. Average attendance at the start of the evening meetings was only about 30, and most of these were Adventists from Dinuba. The evangelists decided their tent was too far from the center of town and moved it to what they hoped would be a better location. Their strategy worked because 8 persons were baptized in the Kings River at the end of the meetings and plans were made to organize a church in Reedley.(48)
While the Conference’s previous camp meetings had been held in the spring, the 1913 event was moved to October 30–November 9 due to a General Conference session and other meetings scheduled for that year. The chosen site was the Laton picnic grounds, use of which “was given free by the citizens” of Laton. Travelers were told exactly where Laton was (“10 miles north of Hanford”) and were instructed on how to change from the Southern Pacific train to the Santa Fe train in Fresno or Hanford. Travelers coming from the south could see the camp on their right as they came into Laton; those coming from the north were simply to look ahead and to the left after leaving the train. Campers were also encouraged to “[b]e sure to bring plenty of bedding.” Attendees were served by four larger tents for services and a permanent clubhouse used as a cafeteria. One of the amenities which was especially noted was “good pipe water.”(49)
Fearing that holding a camp meeting in the fall might have a negative effect on attendance, the Conference Executive Committee recommended that all Adventist schools in the Conference close during camp meeting. The efforts to promote attendance were successful. Between 400 and 500 stayed on the parklike grounds during “the greater part of the meeting” in 110 family tents, with about 800 attending on the last Sabbath (although only 552 of these were accounted for in Sabbath school report). To put the attendance figures in perspective, the entire membership of the Conference at that time was only about 1,200.(50) But attendance apparently came at a high cost to members; during a special business session of the Conference held just after the camp meeting, the following resolutions were passed (the first with one dissenting vote and the second unanimously):
Whereas the Fall of the year is unfavorable for the holding of our annual meeting as it is the most favorable time of year for field work, therefore
Resolved that we hold our camp-meeting at a time when it will not interfer [sic] with the field work, preferably the latter part of April or the first part of May.
Whereas experience and observation have proved that the annual conference may very profitably be held in connection with our camp-meeting, it being a great saving of both time and money to our people, therefore
Resolved that our annual conference be held in connection with the Spring camp-meeting, the entire meeting to occupy 14 days and the first 3 days to be devoted to the business of the conference.(51)
Once again, organizers of the camp meeting saw it as a means of bringing about revival.
Considerable instruction and exhortation were given by various laborers in view of the many snares which Satan has set for the destruction of this generation more than any other, particularly as relates to the prevailing fashions in dress and adornment, evil associations, unwholesome reading, desire for worldly gain, and unfaithfulness in the home life.(52)
On the last Sabbath, a consecration service was held during the church service.
Many among the children and youth made their first start in a Christian service, backsliders were reclaimed, and strangers in the camp decided to cast their lot with God’s people. Fourteen on the grounds were baptized, while others preferred to be baptized in the churches where they lived.(53)
The camp meeting was declared to be the best ever.(54)
The 1914 camp meeting was held at Fresno’s Recreation Park from April 28 to May 10. The rental price of the park–$150.00–included the use of a large assembly hall in the center of the ground and other wooden structures used as a kitchen, dining room and store; the grounds were equipped with water, electric lights, etc. All of this, noted the Recorder, “should make the expense in conducting this camp-meeting reasonable.”(55) As voted the previous year, the camp meeting started off with a business session and most of the reporting of the camp meeting was devoted to the business session. However, it was noted that special meetings were held for young people, Germans, and “Scandinavians” and that a highlight of the camp meeting was a “grand temperance rally” featuring a local Presbyterian minister, the superintendent of the California “Dry” Federation for the Fresno District, and the president of the California Christian Endeavorers. At the end of the camp meeting, 23 were baptized.(56)
The camp meeting was apparently considered enough of a success that “[a]fter careful and prayerful consideration”, the Conference decided to return to Recreation Park for the 1915 camp meeting. The decision was based on several factors. Fresno was “a railroad center”, being “easy of access to all parts of the conference.” Recreation Park was considered a beautiful location which suited the Conference’s needs. (Although located outside the city, it was accessible by “good street car service.”) Finally, Fresno held the largest concentration of Adventists in the Conference. The choice paid off; in addition to the 100 or so tents normally used at the Conference camp meeting, 25 more tents had to be ordered from the Northern California Conference to accommodate additional last minute arrivals. By 1915, the Recorder was more confident in admitting that the assembly hall where sacred services were being held was, in fact, a “large dancing pavilion.” The custom of devoting some camp meeting time to instructing church officers had apparently fallen into disuse as the revival of this practice was seen as a significant development. Unlike Stephen Haskell’s earlier Fresno camp meeting experience, the weather for the start of this gathering was “cold and damp” and the camping was admittedly “somewhat unpleasant.” But spirits were reported to have remained high and 20 people were baptized.(57)
In spite of the fact that the second Fresno camp meeting had been so successful, other towns could not be denied. The growth experienced by Adventist congregations where camp meetings had been held was not lost on the various local congregations within the Conference. The Executive Committee, “[a]fter carefully considering different places and conditions, as well as the requests that [had] come to [it], . . . finally decided to hold the  camp meeting at Hanford” from May 25 to June 4. Again, railroad access was a major factor in selecting Hanford; the selected camp ground site was just a few blocks from the two train depots. Significantly, the Conference also arranged for an evangelistic series to be held in Hanford just before the camp meeting.(58)
Campers were encouraged “to bring bed-ticks along” as the Conference was having difficulty finding sufficient springs and mattresses; campers were promised that there would be an ample supply of straw on hand to fill the ticks and were told that “it seems to us that bed-ticks filled with straw are preferable to second-hand mattresses and springs.” As a long-term solution, Conference church members were asked to consider buying their own cots which they could bring to camp meeting each year. In spite of the fact that the Recorder had gone out of its way to claim that not a single word of complaint or criticism had been heard the previous year in Fresno, campers were warned, “[W]e must remember that we cannot expect all the conveniences of home when camping out.” (It is not surprising that as homes were growing increasingly convenient, comfortable, and sanitary, the contrast to the camp meeting experience was becoming more of an issue.) The ever-increasing camp meeting attendance continued at Hanford that year with an additional 30 tents having to be rented. The evangelistic series preceding the camp meeting had created interest in Adventism so that there was “a good attendance from the outside” and 21 people were baptized. Conference administrators noted with pleasure that “our people were quite prompt in being present at the beginning of the services, and with few exceptions would remain until the close.”(59)
As early as 1913, the Conference’s main meeting tent had been showing the effects of long use and the Sabbaths of March 22 and 29, 1913, were dedicated to offerings to purchase a new 60′ X 80′ tent for about $400.00.(60) The rain during the 1915 camp meeting in Fresno had disclosed rather pointedly similar deficiencies in the children’s tent. In a masterful fund raising strategy, the Conference appointed a boy and a girl in each church to head up fund raising efforts among the children in their congregation. The youngsters “gathered acorns, made candy, made binders for paper files, sewed, made tatting, and many other things for sale to help the fund grow.” They also solicited the adults in their church. Who could resist? Their efforts resulted in the purchase of a new 32′ X 52′ tent for $140.00. The tent was dedicated at the 1916 Hanford camp meeting and was used between camp meetings for evangelistic meetings.(61)
The pressure exerted on the Conference by local churches for a camp meeting to be held in their respective areas continued. The Conference Executive Committee considered five factors in looking for additional camp meeting sites: 1) suitable grounds; 2) the potential for evangelism in the local community; 3) accessability from all parts of the Conference; 4) cost; and 5) the opinion of church members in the Conference. But after all of that, and after having “carefully considered” the various requests of local congregations, visiting some potential sites, and having “sought the Lord earnestly that the proper location might be selected,” the Executive Committee decided that the 1917 Conference camp meeting should be held once again in Fresno’s Recreation Park from May 24 to June 3.(62) As the date for the meeting approached Conference church members were warned that
[o]wing to a scarcity of straw this year, it may be difficult for us to secure enough to supply the camp with the amount desired for use in bed ticks. We would therefore suggest that our people bring an extra supply of bedding with them to the camp-meeting. We will be able to secure quite a large number of springs but probably not enough to supply the whole camp.(63)
From an attendance standpoint, it was hard to argue with the Committee’s decision to return to Fresno. Audiences had outgrown the permanent dancing pavilion and the Conference’s large meeting tent–augmented by an additional splice–was put up on the site instead. Overflow crowds–including non-Adventist residents of Fresno–listened to the evening meetings featuring General Conference President A. G. Daniels who presented “a steriopticon talk on . . . denominational progress in the Far East” from where he had just returned and sermons on “The World War, Its Cause and Meaning” and “Which Day is the Sabbath?” The Recorder estimated total attendance on each Sabbath at “nearly 2,000” with “several hundred” being forced to sit outside the tent in the shade. That early camp meeting trooper J. N. Loughborough, now 85, was unable to attend–only due to age, not sickness, he was quick to point out–but sent his greetings to the campers. Thirty-eight were baptized, with 20 others indicating an interest in baptism.(64)
The 1918 camp meeting was soon scheduled for May 29 to June 9. But where? Once again the Executive Committee took pains to declare that “[w]hile the advantages and disadvantages of other places were carefully and prayerfully considered, it was finally decided to hold this annual gathering at Fresno again this year.”(65)
As camp meeting attendance continued to grow each year, maintaining sufficient equipment and supplies was becoming a problem. Those attending the 1918 camp meeting were advised that in addition to bringing their own bed-ticking (the straw shortage having been limited to 1917 apparently), there was a shortage of burlap so campers should “as far as possible bring the necessary old carpets or rugs for their floors.” Tent flys were deemed not a problem “since there is good shade in the park and it is quite probable that we will have pleasant weather at this time of the year.” Overflow attendance on Sabbaths also marked this camp meeting which featured such timely topics as W. A. Spicer’s report on the effects of the war in Europe. “About sixty persons gave in their names for baptism. Fifteen of these were baptized during the camp-meeting, and arrangements are being made for the others to be baptized at their home churches.”(66) (These would be the last reported baptisms at a Conference camp meeting until 1931.)
Probably feeling pressure from other towns which wanted to host a camp meeting, the Executive Committee chose to hold the 1919 camp meeting just outside Visalia in Tulare County Park, formerly known as (and in the future to again be named) Mooney’s Grove, from May 29 to June 8. One factor contributing to the selection of this site was that, like Recreation Park, it had “an abundance of shade”. Bed springs, tables and chairs could be rented and straw would be abundant, but mattresses would not be available, “[o]wing to the difficulty of transportation”. In addition to a cafeteria, this camp meeting would boast a grocery and a new 24′ X 36′ book tent.(67)
Members of Conference churches were urged to come to this camp meeting as it might be one of their last opportunities to do so.
Conditions are gathering about us which prove that the liberties we have so long enjoyed are fast drawing to a close. Certainly, we can see signs that this generation is rapidly nearing a crisis. Those who have long expected to see the Master coming, will have their hopes soon realized, and the trials they have been passing through will only make heaven sweeter when Jesus comes. . . . We know you are interested in the finishing of this great work and will not allow yourselves to be kept away from this means which God has ordained for the help and blessing of His people.(68)
The railroads, probably due to declining use for passenger traffic, refused to give a special convention rate for the first time in memory. Because the camp ground was some distance from train stations, campers were instructed to
look for men wearing badges which read “S.D.A. Reception.” These men will bring you to the camp-ground, which is four miles south of Visalia, for 15 cents per passenger and 10 cents extra for each suitcase. These men will haul your trunks for 50 cents each.(69)
However, such instructions were becoming irrelevant. The 1919 camp meeting witnessed a phenomenon which would prove to have great significance for future camp meetings. When the meeting was over, the Recorder noted that “on Sabbath and Sundays hundreds of automobiles were parked upon the grounds.”(70) The advent of the automobile as a means of practical transportation available to virtually everyone was significant in two contradictory ways. First, it tended to expand the list of potential camp meeting sites since railroad access was no longer critical.
By Grant Mitchell