(and a lot of cash)
The Oak Bluffs Wesleyan Campground looks like a neighborhood built entirely by very handy ten-year-old girls. The cottages are tiny, more like playhouses than actual houses. Homeowners sit on porches just a couple inches off the ground and a couple inches away from the next porch over. They’re pastel, lined with lacy trim, and emblazoned with names like the ‘The Angel Cottage’ and the ‘Pink House.’ Some run with a decorative theme, covered in wooden hearts or silhouettes of carousel horses. It’s like a My Little Pony apartment complex designed by a fairy princess Barbie architect. I mean this in the best way possible.
My boyfriend and I make a trip to the Vineyard every year before the on-season begins, playing preppy millionaires before the island gets swamped by actual preppy millionaires (he took the lovely pictures above!). Except for a visit to Sharky’s Cantina, the nation’s premiere shark-wearing-a-sombrero-themed bar, our stroll through the Campground is my favorite part of the trip. It’s not hard to see that the complex was once, and to some degree remains to be, a Methodist community. The cottages are arranged around a huge open-air church, called the tabernacle, and it’s 19th century Methodist roots are plastered all over the oldey-timey signage. What’s never been clear to me is how a swanky resort town grew up around an evangelical camp, or why that camp is so darn cute. “Religious compound” brings to mind Waco and Warren Jeffs, not Vineyard Vines and lobster rolls. So what’s the story?
The Campground was born out the Second Great Awakening, a period spanning from about 1790 to 1840 in which the US was caught up in a religious revival. The movement was driven by the concept of ‘post millenialism,’ an interpretation of the Book of Revelation which purports that Christ will return to earth after 1,000 years (or, more vaguely, a ‘long period’) of peace on earth. If you are related to me, engaged to me, or are or otherwise socially obligated to read this blog with any regularity, you may remember the ol’ SGA from this post- it was a crazy time. Methodist and Baptist preachers took it upon themselves to spread the good word of oncoming apocalypse, taking to the road like travelling rockstars.
Itinerant revivalists spread out across the country. Some headed to sparsely settled parts of the American west, their sermons drawing pioneers from miles around. Since the worshippers had to travel a long way, they’d pitch tents and stay for several days. Preachers would do their thing in makeshift open-air churches, providing the campground with fire and brimstoney entertainment for hours on end. While these meetings may sound really boring, please remember how difficult it was to score SXSW tickets in 19th century America.
The camp meetings were a practical necessity out on the thinly populated frontier, but were apparently such a good time that they also flourished in plenty of more established communities. East coast meetings drew a crowd of both devout believers and curious looky-loos. The crowds were often racially diverse, and the meetings were sometimes even conducted in other languages, particularly Swedish. Häftigt!
The Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs bought into the craze in a big way. The local economy might help explain why the Awakening was such a hit with the islanders. The area survived on the whaling industry, so most families regularly saw their their husbands, fathers, and sons leave on voyages that could last months or years. Many didn’t come back. The revival’s promise of an everlasting reunion on the horizon was probably rather comforting to a town so used to anxiety and heartache. Or maybe they just liked hymnals. What do I know?
In any case, the Wesleyan Campground kicked off in 1835 with a semi-circle of nine tents set up in a shady grove. The 5-8 day summer meetings were pretty godly at the start. The Rev. H. Vincent, who chronicled the campground’s activities over the years, described the atmosphere at the 1845 meeting as so pious that the ungodly were kept away by the overwhelming “spirit of reverence and fear.” The daily activities included a 2 am singing processional, praying outside during a thunderstorm, and the saving of 50 souls. “Heaven and earth seemed to meet together,” Vincent sighed.
Maybe because of all that angelic atmosphere, or maybe because Martha’s Vineyard is as close as New England gets to an island paradise, worshippers started shipping in from all over the east coast weeks in advance of the meeting. By the mid-1850s, the campground was drawing thousands of visitors, and temporary tents were no longer cutting it. Those adorable “Carpenter Gothic” cottages were built to provide more permanent and posh lodgings to a group of lodgers growingly intent on summer leisure. The style took advantage of newly popular steam powered scroll saws which allowed for the gingerbread trim and intricate detailing. The distinctive pointed doors were designed to resemble the drawn flaps of a tent, and the interiors of the cabins had all the amenities of proper parlors. The nicest homes were built for around $700, or something like 20k today. Things were getting fancy.
The main draw was increasingly non-religious, with one Brooklyn visitor writing home that the Vineyard boasted “excellent fishing, delightful bathing, [and] splendid sailing.” Hotels had sprung up with room for hundreds of guests, and croquet was all the rage. “If there is a spot on God’s green earth where a man may take solid comfort,” the New Yorker concluded, “it is at Martha’s Vineyard Camp Ground.”
Campgrounds had always battled rumors that the worshippers were, as they would say on the Bachelorette, "there for the wrong reasons:" to socialize or even sin. These remarks had always been rebuffed with examples of the camp's piety, but as the years went on, the summer focus really did begin to shift. This is not to say that the campground ceased to be religious at all. It was still a place for scripture, but it also became a place for socializing.
As this change occurred, Rev. Vincent’s accounts of the meetings start getting awful defensive. “It does not follow that because we do not live all together in the large tents, and sleep in the straw, that therefore our religion has died out," he wrote. "Having somewhat more of conveniences for the comfort of our bodies may not render our gratitude to the great Giver any the less, certainly.” Besides, he argued, ocean swimming was good for ones health, and everyone deserves a vacation, and maybe if the non-religious hung around the campground they would get religious. Right?!
Despite his protestations, by 1867 even Rev. Vincent was forced to acknowledge the evolution of what had once been a few tents plopped under some trees. “When, on the Friday preceding the meeting, the author had become quartered in a comfortable habitation,” he wrote, “he looked out upon the grounds, the beautiful dwellings, the costly arrangements, and the business accompaniments so necessary to the comfort of the sojourner, and asked himself, Is it a reality? Am I really in the old Wesleyan Grove? or am I in some fairy-land? It must be the same place; but, O, how changed!”
How changed, indeed! Renting one of those cottages today will set you back something like $2,000 a week- although, admittedly, modern value is increased by proximity to Sharky’s. The campground may no longer provoke the feelings of religious connectivity its founders intended, but it’s hard not to feel the history in that pretty circle of pastel cottages. So if you need me, I’ll be polishing my croquet mallet, thinking up a cute nickname for my house, and saying my prayers for the second coming of 19th century property pricing.
Gorham, Rev. B.W. Camp Meeting Manual: a Practical Book in Two Parts. Boston: HV Degen, 1854.
Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield. American Methodist Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Vincent, Rev. H. A History of the Wesleyan Grove, Martha’s Vineyard, Camp Meeting. Boston: Press of Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1865
Vincent, EH, History of the Camp-Meeting and Grounds at Wesleyan Grove, Martha's Vineyard, for the eleven years ending with the meeting of 1869, with glances at earlier years. Boston, 1870.http://archive.org/stream/06380142.emory.edu/06380142_djvu.txt