Though much of the 1800s and well into the 1900s, “camp meetings” ranked as a summertime joy for families on the Eastern Shore and in Delaware on the level of our beach vacations and downtown block parties.
Sponsored by local churches, these religious revivals were conducted out in forests and fields, mostly in the dog days of August. The preaching and singing and soul-saving stretched across the course of a full week. Many families spent that whole time living in camp “tents,” a word that I have in quotes because the structures were often semi-permanent and made of wood. Still, those tents were bare-bones as could be. No running water or plumbing. Often, the tents didn’t have a full front facade–camp-goers hung blankets at night for sleepy-time privacy.
These full-timers weren’t the only attendees. Camp meetings worked kind of like today’s Firefly music festival–you could “camp” through the whole run of days, or you could pop in at a single-day rate. In the early 1900s, the admission charge for such a day pass ranged between five and fifteen cents.
The preaching happened in a “tabernacle” or “auditorium” located at the center of the camp grounds and surrounded by a broad walkway, or promenade. Most historical accounts of camp meetings focus quite rightly on the religious angle, either in the manner of wistful looks back at better days filled with old-time religion, or in scholarly accounts of religious movements like the “Second Great Awakening,” which rolled like a great spasm through rural American during the 1800s.
The focus here is more social. Whenever I come across old articles and oral histories about Delmarva camp meetings, I find myself drawn less to accounts of sermons and more to anecdotes that reveal what life was like in and around the camps. For this piece, I focused in particular on the old Laurel-Bethel camp meeting that was held most every August between 1882 and 1992 at a site near today’s intersection of the Route 13 highway with Camp Road (Road 470).
This was one of the largest such meetings in Southern Delaware. Laurel-Bethel drew regular daily crowds of 1,500 and Sunday crowds of 5,000. On special occasions, 10,000 people would throng the meeting grounds. The camp drew both locals and tourists, with the lasting coming from as far away as Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Washington, D.C.
Below, you’ll find a few highlights from the scores of old newspaper articles, essays, and other historical resources that I came across in searching out tidbits set in and around this Laurel-Bethel meeting.
OVERVIEW: ‘Courting went on, and horses were raced.’
“Camp meeting time was more than a religious gathering. It was a social event. The camps came at a time without automobiles, television, or computers, and people made their own amusements. The main reason for camp meeting time was, of course, religion, but courting rituals went on, horses were raced, people talked politics, there was a whole lot of gossip, and, occasionally, out of sight, they drank a little liquor.”
–From the blog of the Delmar Historical and Art Society
“Historically there were around forty [camp meetings] on the [Delmarva] peninsula, including at least fifteen in Sussex County, Delaware. [These meetings are where] itinerant preachers hoarsely harangued a sweat-drenched crowd. Illumination was provided by burning “lightwood knots” of heart pine. Food was standard: fried chicken, lima beans, sugar corn, and watermelon. Electric lights soon [came along to] illuminate the camps, and, according to some accounts, young people seemed more interested in flirting than in expressing religious fervor.”
–From SAH Achipedia, the blog of the Society of Architectural Historians
ALL ABOARD! 1908
“Efforts are being put forth by W.F. King, manager of the Laurel-Bethel Camp–reputed to be the finest camp on the Delmarva Peninsula–to have all local trains during the camp season stop at Broad Creek [so] that persons wishing to attend may do so. He will also try and make arrangements with the railroad company to have reduced rates from Delmar and points north.”
—Wilmington Morning News, July 21, 1908
HOME BREWED PROBLEMS, 1905
“State Detective James L. Hawkins today returned from Laurel, where he arrested John and Zolo Games. … The detective had received [a] complaint from the Bethel and Laurel Camp Meeting Association of the men selling liquor. [Det. Hawkins] found they were selling a strange liquor made of strawberries, apples, and grapes, mixed with some kind of ‘dope.’ According to the detective, it was so powerful that two drinks of it would make a man willing to kill his grandmother. The camp meeting people had suffered great annoyance from people drinking the stuff. … The men were each fined $4 and costs …, and John was held under $500 bail for selling liquor without a license.”
—Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 5, 1905
FRESH COAT, 1919
“The grove in which the circle of cottages is situated [has never been] more beautiful, the maple trees … have grown to such a size that they furnish a fine shade from the hot August sun. The cottages have all been given fresh coats of paint. There will be no charge for the storage of automobiles, except on Sundays. Guards will be placed at different parts of the grounds to see that nothing is stolen from the cars.”
—Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 3, 1919
PROMENADE: ‘IF A BOY LIKED A GIRL …’
In a 2015 presentation to the Laurel Historical Society, history buff Kendal Jones described the daily camp-meeting ritual of the “Evening Promenade” this way:
“The grounds would be packed with people. … After supper, the boys and girls would get all dressed up and the girls would promenade around in a circle and the boys would watch them from the outer perimeter. If a boy liked a girl, he would say to her, “This time?” And she’d answer either “this time” or “next time” or “never.”
THE PRIZEFIGHTING PREACHER, 1916
“Something reminiscent of the baseball patter used frequently by Rev. “Billy” Sunday, the ex-ballplayer who is the greatest evangelist in the American field today, is dedicated in the opening address of Rev. “Jack” Cardiff, an ex-prizefighter [from Hazelton, Pa. who] has embarked on the evangelistic platform for himself. Cardiff’s opening date was this week at the Laurel Bethel camp meeting. … He had 2,000 people in attendance when his … revival service opened.
“He said, ‘I am determined to have order. I am only one man, but I am prepared to take care of six others.’
“Those who saw Cardiff in action [as a prizefighter] will agree that Cardiff can do his share. He has a short-arm jab and a straightening uppercut that ought to be effective in fighting the devil.”
—Mount Carmel Item (from Mount Carmel, Pa.), Aug. 9, 1916
THE BIG FRIGHT, 1897
“At 2 o’clock this afternoon the large barn on the farm of William S. Moore, one of the largest fruit growers of the state, about one mile from Laurel, caught fire, and all the outbuildings and the large dwelling were destroyed. … AT the Laurel camp meeting, in a grove about one mile away, when the tenters and others on the counts saw the flames they thought the town of Laurel was on fire. A panic stopped the religious services and several children were hurt in the rush.”
—Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 16. 1897
SOUL STIRRING, 1908
“With a chorus of 200 select voices leading a march around [the camp grounds], the Laurel-Bethel camp meeting closed [today], with 200 conversions to its credit [on] Sunday night [alone].”
—Wilmington Evening Journal, Sept. 1, 1908
WELCOMING THE ‘PATRIARCH OF THE HOBOES,’ 1915
“The [Laurel-Bethel] camp meeting association played host to the patriarch of hoboes yesterday. Hamilton Vincent, aged 74 years, strolled up to the gatekeeper and applied for admission. Being identified by several persons on the grounds, he was given a free ticket … and was allowed to witness the [evening] picture show, after which he was escorted from the grounds. After thanking his hosts for the entertainment he departed for his transient home, an empty boxcar.”
—Wilmington News-Journal, Aug. 24, 1915
LET THERE BE LIGHT, 1901
“[The grove that is home to] the Laurel camp meeting … will be lighted by electricity next season.”
—Wilmington News Journal, Sept. 10, 1901
“Milton Waller, of Washington, D.C., who has been spending the summer with his grandfather, William Waller, a farmer [near Laurel], is under $300 bail, charged with fighting and disorderly conduct on the Laurel-Bethel camp meeting grounds, and $1,000 bail on charges preferred by … a young woman living near the camp grounds. Warrants are out for several other young men [as well].”
—Baltimore Sun, Aug. 25, 1917
DUST TO DUST, 1915
“The number of automobiles at the camp [on] Sunday, according to officer Scott, was 500. Seven states and the District of Columbia were represented, according to the [license] tags. So great was the dust on the roads near the camp on Sunday that the strong headlights on automobiles could cast rays only a short distance, and drivers were obliged to run very slowly.”
—Wilmington News-Journal, Aug. 24, 1915
THE SPEED TRAP, 1916
“The officials of North Laurel became active Sunday in an effort to trap some auto speeders. [With] the Laurel-Bethel camp meeting being in full swing, hundreds of cars from Laurel and points south of here must necessarily pass through … in order to reach the camp. Distances were measured off and guards with stop-watches placed at various points [in order] to time [the passing vehicles] and catch the license numbers of those who were unmindful of the speed limit.
“Some of the guards remained on duty until the early hours of the morning and as the night was unusually cool, they found their task to be a most unpleasant one, as they had failed to provide themselves with overcoats. A long list of names and [tag] numbers were secured but as yet no action to collect the fines has been taken.”
—Wilmington News Journal, Aug. 15, 1916
THE GIRLS OF SUSSEX ARE THE PRETTIEST, 1914
“It’s trite to say that the girls of Sussex [County] are the prettiest … for such is generally conceded. However, if any doubt should arise in the minds of any non-residents, all they have to do is pay a visit to … [Laurel-Bethel], one of the most fashionable and popular camps in lower Delaware.”
—Wilmington Morning News, July 21, 1914
STRETCH LIMO, 1910 MODEL
“Joshua Marvil (the owner of an auto repair shop in Laurel] has purchased a large touring car, capable of carrying 24 persons and convertible into a freight van when designed, which he will use for traffic between Laurel and Laurel-Bethel camp meeting.”
—Wilmington News Journal, Aug. 10, 1910
THE CHIEF JUSTICE, 1905
“Notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, the fact that [Delaware Supreme Court] Chief Justice Charles B. Lore was to fill the pulpit drew a crowd at over 10,000, the largest ever gathered within the enclosure, to the Laurel-Bethel camp meeting ground yesterday. Those who braved a threatening storm were well paid, for the jurist was at his best … [and] the audience was held spell-bound for an hour.
—Wilmington Evening Journal, Sept. 4, 1905
MOVIE NIGHTS, 1915
“Whether motion pictures are conducive to religion is not settled, but the experience of the past week assured the managers of the Laurel-Bethel camp meeting that they at least fill the coffers with hard coin. On “off” days [at the camp] in previous years there was a loss of gate receipts. [But] the moving pictures [being shown on “off” days this year] have brought the gate receipts up even higher than on regular nights, and record-breaking crowds are enjoying the movies. The managers of the camp defend their action by declaring that the motion pictures are high-class and that the added money gained enables them to obtain greater speakers.”
—Wilmington Evening Journal, Aug. 24, 1915
POLITICS AS USUAL, 1916
“Politicians for a distance of thirty miles were at Laurel-Bethel camp meeting Sunday and spent the afternoon and evening buttonholing and in conferences.” The article goes on to name 13 Republicans and 16 Democrats, also referencing “many others.”
—Wilmington News Journal, Aug. 15, 1916
PRETTY BELLES THRONG THE GROUNDS, 1914
“The housewives have to make preparations for the ten days’ stay in the woods by laying in a full supply of food, while the fair maidens have to have their wardrobes filled with new dresses. The young man has to either have a new carriage, runabout, [or] horses of harness, as well as clothing in order to look spick and span so he may attract attention [from] the pretty belles who usually throng the grounds.”
—Wilmington Morning News, July 21, 1914
THE REAL FIRE DEAL, 1899
“The camp meeting settlement at Moore’s Grove, about two miles from [Laurel], was nearly wiped out by fire yesterday. Forty-one of the 50 small cottages … were totally destroyed, with their contents.” (The Laurel Bethel camp meeting would be canceled during the next season during rebuilding.)
—Wilmington Daily Republican, Oct. 2, 1899
THE RUNAWAY, 1917
“While on a drive to Laurel-Bethel camp-meeting Sunday night, a horse became frightened by a passing automobile and ran away. Its course led across a field of tomatoes, corn, and watermelons, doing much damage. A man, woman, and little child were in the carriage, but no one was injured. The owner is not known.”
–Wilmington News Journal, Aug. 21, 1917
STRAW RIDE FUN, 1910
“One of the most enjoyable social affairs of the season was the young peoples’ straw ride from Seaford to the Laurel and Bethel camp meeting. The party went in a peach rack, with straw covering the bottom. They left Seaford at 7 o’clock and returned at 1 o’clock.”
—Wilmington Evening Journal, Aug. 29, 1910
TEMPERANCE DAYS, 1914 and 1911
“Mrs. Hilles [of the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association] returned from Laurel yesterday, where she gave a suffrage address at Laurel-Bethel camp meeting on Thursday afternoon when there was a record-breaking attendance to hear her.”
—Wilmington Morning News, Aug. 29, 1914
“[For] the observance of “Temperance Day” on Tuesday [at the Laurel Bethel camp grounds], the cause of the “white ribboners” was thoroughly set forth and illustrated on the grounds [under the auspices of the Epworth League]. … The Temperance Day decorations upon the grounds surpassed in quantity.”
—Wilmington Evening Journal, Aug. 17, 1911
“No doubt this is the prettiest tented spot to be found. … The cottages are erected in a rectangular shape with avenues of tents branching out at each corner. The grounds are kept in excellent condition, and besides the old fire stands which are used at the other camps and upon which are placed huge pieces of pine roots and wood of other kinds to light the grounds, electric light and kerosene lamps are brought into play. … Sawdust is placed on the three promenading walks about the grounds in order to keep down the dust, and shade trees have been placed with the … circle of the camp.”
–Wilmington Morning News, July 21, 1914
–research and writing by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. Posted in July 2022 All rights reserved.
CLOSING NOTE #1: I came across the photos included here in the Winter 2015 issue of the newsletter of the Laurel Historical Society. Thank you so much for spending a little time with this story and on this site!
SELFISH CLOSING NOTE #2: I have a whole book that’s full of fun stories from Delmarva days gone by. The title is “You Wouldn’t Believe! 44 Strange and Wondrous Delmarva Tales.”
Get it here: