Martha’s Vineyard today is known as the playground of presidents. But, in the 1800’s, people traveled to this picturesque island off Cape Cod not to fish or to recreate – but to worship.
Last week, my husband and I visited Martha’s Vineyard while celebrating our 25th anniversary. And, we were surprised to find that at the heart of the island’s busiest town sits a huge tabernacle encircled by hundreds of brightly-painted gingerbread cottages. One-hundred-seventy-six years ago, this spot was known as Wesleyan Grove – a Methodist camp meeting where thousands congregated for week-long revival meetings.
Morning till night, preachers exhorted, worshipers sang, and scores committed their lives to Christ. Camp meetings like Wesleyan Grove were instrumental in the Second Great Awakening – a movement, which created millions of new converts and exploded denominations like the Methodists.
So, you can imagine my excitement when I saw a sign at the tabernacle announcing a “community sing” the evening we were visiting. I wondered if perhaps the revivalist spirit might still be alive in this little town. My husband and I returned at the announced time in eager expectation, but found the tabernacle empty.
I’ve since learned the community sings at the tabernacle are held only in July and August, as are Sunday services. But, these bear little resemblance to the camp meetings of old. In fact, not all the songs at the sings are even religious – some are rounds and patriotic tunes. People used to flock to this tabernacle for nearly round-the-clock services. They met God and were forever changed. But now, it seems people are more interested in remembering a “quaint” tradition than encountering a great and awesome God.
In their book, “The Church in America,” sociologists Rodney Starke and Roger Finke say many American denominations have followed the pattern of the Wesleyan Grove camp meeting. At their inception, these groups taught a so-called “high-tension” faith – opposing the culture and calling people to radical repentance. They also maintained minimal structure, often relying on itinerant preachers and lay pastors. However, over time, these unorthodox groups became orthodox. They moved toward wealth and status and became increasingly secular. And, as quickly as these groups once grew, they then shrank.
It’s sobering to ponder. It shows how easily vibrant Christian movements can be reduced to mere history and landmarks. I work for an institution that’s almost as old as Wesleyan Grove. Yet somehow, the Moody Bible Institute has retained its vision and vitality. But, that’s no guarantee for the future. If Moody or any other Christian organization or church wants to remain true to God’s call, it must seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness – not worldly acceptance.