In August 1892, a small group of United Brethren in Christ members held a week of outdoor religious services in a grove of woods just north of Lebanon.
Accounts of that first gathering estimated at least 60 tents – no size given – were occupied, and the attendance was ‘very large’ – no size given.
By the second year, newspaper reports noted camp goers now had benches to sit on, preachers spoke from a large stand or altar, and a large tent was erected so worshippers were protected from inclement weather.
“This is quite a large assembly,” according to the July 21, 1897 edition of the Lebanon Courier and Semi-Weekly Report on the Mount Lebanon Campmeeting of that year. “Eminent divines from near and far will preach and the other services will be intensely interesting.”
Camp meetings like Mount Lebanon’s date back to 1799 when several itinerant preachers stopped in a small Kentucky settlement and held services that drew thousands. Word of the outdoor religious gatherings spread, and their popularity grew as people sought spiritual renewal and commitment—and religious conversion.
Over time, the outdoor gatherings gave way to camp meetings that were held annually – typically in July or August – and in permanent locales like Mount Lebanon, where the meetings could run anywhere from five days to two weeks or longer. Accommodations were simple: Camp goers slept and prepared meals in tents that they rented or owned.
By the first decade of the 20th century, wooden cottages of only one or two rooms were constructed for camp goers. Dining halls provided community meals. A tabernacle or covered worship space for the various services was built; and hand-pumped water and outhouses were provided.
A typical day at Mount Lebanon would start at 6 a.m. with morning prayers, then breakfast, after which Bible study and preaching, according to the Campmeeting’s centennial history. After a noon meal, there would be more preaching, followed by free time before supper and an evening program of preaching.
The popularity of camp meetings began to decline in the mid-20th century with changes in society, such as more mobility, more affluence, and new opportunities for entertainment, said David Shenk, historian of Mount Lebanon Campmeeting.
Recently, however, attendance at Mount Lebanon has picked up, Shenk said.
“It may be nostalgia for a different time, or it may be that people who came here as children are coming back,” he added.
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