Camp meetings and large-scale revivals are not a big part of the history of religion in Wellington County, but they do form a fascinating sidelight to the larger picture of church history.
The original promoters of camp meetings were the Primitive Methodists, a branch of that denomination that shunned conspicuous display and ceremony, and promoted a direct and personal relationship with the deity. Over time, their ideas permeated other branches of Methodism, and influenced other denominations a little.
In the first half of the 19th century especially, the Methodists were aggressive in promoting their denomination. Often three or four ministers would be stationed at one place, and preached on a circuit of small churches in the area. Sometimes they would preach in parlours of houses or barrooms if they could round up a few people to listen.
Officials of the Methodist Church moved ministers every two or three years. Those new to an area would take the challenge upon themselves to recruit converts, working farm to farm and encouraging settlers with no church affiliation to join with the Methodists. Occasionally they would organize week-long camp meetings, featuring several ministers. People who came a distance would stay in wagons that brought them or other temporary shelters for a few days. For many, the camp meeting was a holiday, an escape from dull tedious work of clearing a farm in relative isolation.
Methodists organized several big meetings in the late 1840s and early 1850s on a farm below Elora, now County Road 7. Those gatherings usually attracted several thousand people, who took in at least a portion of a week-long program featuring sermons, singing, Bibles lessons, conversions, and baptisms. Things did not always go as planned. One year ministers were horrified to note an unusual amount of inebriation. At the gate to the farm the owner set up a refreshment stand staffed by his wife and 12-year-old son, who sold glasses of rotgut whiskey to those entering the grounds. Religious enthusiasm sometimes spilled over the secular, resulting in a handful of unexpected births nine months later.
Beginning in 1854, there was another series of Methodist camp meetings near Hollen, in Maryborough Township, similar to those near Elora. The first was a small affair, promoted largely by word-of-mouth. Organizers undertook more publicity the following year, and set the sessions to begin July 12 to attract as many Orangemen as possible. From then on, Orangeism and aggressive white Protestantism became themes of many area camp meetings and revivals.
From the 1860s to the 1880s, itinerant preachers visited towns and villages of the county, particular in the summers, preaching on street corners and organizing larger, more formal meetings. More than a few were imposters and charlatans. The story of one, a 20-year-old revivalist named Hoffman who visited Elora in 1872, was featured in this column a few months ago. He married a widow more than twice his age, prompting one of the more spectacular charivaris in the village’s history. Such incidents were not common, but the activities and characters of many of the itinerant preachers cast a bad light and suspicions on them all.
By far the most significant series of camp meetings were those at Moorefield, spanning a period, with some breaks, from the 1870s to the 1930s. The area now Moorefield Park was the setting for those sessions, providing the revivalists with a more or less permanent home. The park had a large pavilion and other amenities.
The Moorefield camp meetings were normally scheduled from late June into early July, occupying from nine days up to three weeks. Interestingly, the Moorefield camp meetings enjoyed their greatest popularity after 1900, when that form of religious observance was being shunned by the general public in most places as old-fashioned and an anachronism in the new century. By then, the fervor of camp meetings of a half century earlier had tamed down. Presbyterians and Methodists supported the sessions, which drew people from a 25-mile radius and a few beyond that.
The 1903 camp meeting, for example, featured a half-dozen ministers of various stripes, led by Rev. James Livingstone, of London, for series of daily sessions from June 28 to July 13. There were three religious services on each of the Sundays, and additional preaching by a woman revivalist and quite a bit of music featuring a Scottish baritone. Students of Sunday schools in some area churches attended on Rally Day. There was a special Dominion Day program July 1, which proclaimed the Protestant traditions of Canada, and a big rally for Orangemen July 12.
But the earlier emphasis on conversion and baptism had been eclipsed. The goal now was to stir enthusiasm and encourage people to become more active as Christians in their own churches.
The 1906 camp meeting, originally scheduled from to run from June 24 to July 1, was extended by a full week at the last minute to accommodate extra sessions and themes. There were daily lessons for Sunday school students and their leaders at 3pm. The organizing committee, headed by Moorefield businessman Andrew Malcolmson, encouraged people to stay for several days, and had tents available for rent.
Headlining the musical performers that year was the Sherlock Quartette, of Toronto, one of the top acts in Canada. The preachers that year included Rev. Samuel D. Chown, a leading Methodist, who was secretary of his church’s Department of Temperance and Moral reform. He would rise four years later to be general superintendent of the church, and would lead the Methodists into the United Church of Canada in 1925.
With its ability to attract churchmen such as Dr. Chown, the Moorefield camp meetings had become recognized as significant events in Ontario. Contributing to the popularity of the camp meetings was the successful drive to introduce the local option in Peel and Maryborough. Also significant were several local revival programs in individual churches.
Moorefield’s Presbyterian Church held one in February 1908, and other churches followed suit in the following months.
The McCombe Brothers, two renowned Irish Protestant revivalists, had charge of the 1908 program of the Moorefield camp meeting, which stretched over three weeks. With temperance forces in the ascendancy and enthusiasm for religion at a peak, the session that year was the most successful up to that time, and probably set an all time record.
The big day that year was Sunday, July 12, when visiting Orangemen swelled the crowd to over 5,000. The McCombes took turns in preaching, by turns berating and encouraging the audience with a technique that seemed hypnotic. Vocalists from across southern Ontario offered solos and led the huge crowd in hymns.
The preaching that day began in mid morning as people continued to arrive in buggies and wagons. The afternoon service at 2:30 welcomed a large contingent of Orangemen, who marched to the strains of a brass band as they occupied their reserved seats directly in front of the platform. Rev. J.H. McCombe began the service, with piano music by Edna Smith, of Moorefield. C. Jeffrey McCombe, the more eloquent of the brothers, preached the sermon on the theme, The Orangeman’s Place in the Life of the Nation, arguing that the Orange order was the protector of liberty and freedom in Canada. He concluded by leading in the singing of Canada for Christ. There was another big rally in the evening. A smaller crowd gathered a week later for the windup services, which ended with a sermon titled, Real Religion. Camp meetings continued for another 25 years, but that of 1908 was the peak. The municipality purchased the camp grounds from Andrew Malcolmson in 1923 for development as a community park, which it remains to this day. The camp meetings continued until 1933, but on a much reduced scale. That closed the book on old time revivalist camp meetings in Wellington County.