We appreciate the research of Robinson & Associates in preparation of the Updated and Expanded Washington Grove Historic District Nomination; it forms the basis of this month’s overview of the choice of camp meeting locations and their physical arrangements.
While many revivals were located within topographically indistinct clearings or ordinary groves, the landscape became, in effect, a holy ground due to its function as a setting for worship. Some of the earliest camp meetings had a forest setting, where man, devoid of material possessions, could be one with God and nature in a “sacred grove.” Trees provided shade, privacy, fuel, and building material. At night, these forest settings, lit by firelight, were both mysterious and awe-inspiring, creating a sense of otherworldliness. Isolation was an important factor in selecting a camp meeting site because it offered an environment free from disruptions, a place apart from worldly temptations. Wesleyan Grove, founded on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1836, was located in a grove of oaks close to Nantucket Sound on a gentle northwest-facing slope that faced away from the water “in an introspective fashion.”
By midcentury, other factors in selecting a camp meeting site held greater weight than isolation. Selection criteria grew to include a bountiful supply of good water, adequate pasturage, a tree canopy for shade and shelter from the wind, easy access from principal thoroughfares, and a level topography, among other considerations.
The physical arrangements of the earliest camp meetings were not planned. In his book, A Short History of the Methodists in the United States of America, published in 1810, historian Jesse Lee describes a campground arranged in the shape of an “oblong square.” At the center of the camp in a clearing was the assembly area with a preacher’s stand (pulpit) or sometimes two – one at either end of the assembly space. In its simplest form, the preacher’s stand was a raised, wooden platform, although covered variants were common. Benches within the assembly area, if present, were often hand-hewn and backless, arranged in rows, sometimes with a central aisle. Canvas tents or wood “board tents” were set up around the clearing in various configurations.
Three plans were widely used for early nineteenth-century frontier revivals – rectangular, circular, and open horseshoe. The spatial configuration of most campgrounds was the work of anonymous builders and planners. As historian Ellen Weiss has documented, the radial concentric plan at Wesleyan Grove is of particular interest because this plan type was little used in the United States. Its derivative, the wheel plan, however, was featured at a number of campsites across the United States by the 1870s. Campsites arranged in a wheel plan featured a central gathering space and radiating paths or streets arranged like spokes around a hub.
During the initial period of Washington Grove’s development, the spiritual and cultural focus of the Methodist camp was the preacher’s stand and its surrounding assembly area, which were located on a high point within the landscape. A sketch map of Washington Grove created in 1873, the year of the first camp meeting, reveals that the assembly area was originally a square clearing in the woods, and the canvas tents that provided the earliest form of shelter were arranged around it in a grid. This arrangement was soon replaced with a wheel plan, featuring radial paths that met at a circular assembly area, which came to be known as the “Sacred Circle,” or simply the Circle.