Sing Sing Camp-Meeting

Sing-Sing Camp Meeting, 1838. Painted by Joseph B. Smith, Litho by Endicott. Published circa 1839-1840. From the Prints and Photographs Department of the Library of Congress.

On August 24, 1874, the New-York Daily Tribune published an article looking back on the history of the Sing Sing Camp Meeting, which had been founded more than 40 years earlier to provide “a short season of out-door worship during the sultriest portion of the year.” Here are excerpts of that article, illustrated with sections of an exquisitely detailed lithograph, based on an 1838 painting by Joseph B. Smith.

“It was more than half a century ago the little company of men and women, ardent disciples of John Wesley, conceived the idea of a short season of out-door worship during the sultriest portion of the year. They lived near the banks of the Hudson River, and soon after the first mention of such a project were engaging in prospecting for desirable place for such a gathering in their immediate vicinity. A quiet grove near Croton was at length discovered simple to the demands of the little company of worshipers. They held a series of out-door meetings, meager in numbers but powerful in the influence, and this circumstance added to the charm of camp life and at once made the meetings a permanent institution. The little company met again the next year and was this time joined by number of friends and neighbors. So the meetings went on from year to year in the numbers being roof reinforced by persons of different villages, it was thought desirable to change the location occasionally that all might be accommodated. Pleasantville and Croton were the points most frequently visited, however. In a few years from the time of the first of these meetings was held, an association was formed called the “Mount Pleasant Camp-Meeting Association.” In 1832 was found that the groves hitherto frequented were not exactly suited to the needs of the community now brought together, and search was it once begun for some central point which should be well adapted to the needs of all who might wish to unite in this novel mode of worship. After some time had been spent in a survey of the groves along the Hudson, a plot of land was discovered at Sing Sing, the natural advantages of which were seen at a glance. A purchase was made, tents were erected and the camp-meeting of 1832 was held at this place. Thus originated the first of the large important Methodist camp-meetings in America. Since this first gathering at Sing Sing, 42 years ago, the August camp-meeting has been held there was hardly an interruption. Once the ravages of the cholera prevented the meeting; once the company met at Croton and once or twice at other points, but nearly 40 meetings have been held at Sing Sing. . . .

The present attendance at Sing Sing camp-meeting is chiefly made up of the New York City churches and those of the Hudson River counties. A few come from Western New York and New England sends an occasional representative. The annual attendance averages about 3,000 though the number rises to 8,000 and 10,000 on the days of the principal meetings.

The Sing Sing camp-meeting his witness no such wondrous growth as Ocean Grove and others more recent origin. Its progress has been slow but constant. The grove was chosen exclusively for the holding of religious meetings in August of each year. It had none of the advantages of a summer resort which are so marked at Martha’s Vineyard and Ocean Grove, by reason of which 300 cottages have sprung up at the latter point in less than five years. There is only an occasional cottage on the Sing Sing ground, and as soon as the camp-meeting is finished the little community strikes its tents and scatters for year.

The natural advantages of the Sing Sing camp-ground are, however, inferior to none. The Grove is composed chiefly of grand old oak trees of the century’s growth. Their wide stretching arms, thickly covered with foliage, afford the best protection to the worshipers beneath, since the fiercest rays of an August sun can scarcely penetrate the depths, and the Raindrops seldom find their way through. Chestnut trees are also scattered here and there among the oaks, and an occasional elm is to be found. . . . Breezes from the Hudson come drifting through the trees, and one can catch an occasional glimpse of the majestic river, 400 feet below. The encampment is neatly laid out in avenues, and the tents, about 150 in number, are ranged among the pathways. A never-failing spring on the northern border of the grounds furnishes the clearest and coolest water to the entire encampment. In the center of the ground, on its northern side, is a large stand, where the regular services are held. The clergymen occupy the platform in the rear of the speaker. The congregation gathers in front, the’ settees being arranged in semicircular form. A slight slope of the land toward the speaker’s stand gives the auditorium almost the advantage of an amphitheater. . . .

The camp-ground has received very extensive improvement during the past three years, and it possesses many advantages that it knew not year ago. It has recently been thoroughly drained and graded, and no less than $12,000 been expended in the improvements of the last two or three years. The spring water is raised to a large reservoir at a central point, and this is always well supplied. The facilities for lighting the grounds have been much extended . . . Considerable territory has been added to the original purchase, and it is now nearly twice its former size. . . .

The camp-meeting now in progress differs little from those which preceded it. It is the same company of devoted Christians which with each returning summer have sought the oak grove in the heights beyond Sing Sing, for a score or more of years. . . .”

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