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The religious camp meeting is uniquely American. American Methodism began as a lay movement imported from England in the 1760s. The first outdoor religious revival meeting to be called a “camp meeting” took place in Upstate New York in 1797. But it was an earlier tradition at harvest time for rural Christians to join in building a brush arbor under which they met to pray and sing. If there was a circuit-riding preacher in the area, all the better.

The camp meeting came into its own during the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century. Conversions to Methodism and other protestant sects increased dramatically during this time. Born in a Methodist parsonage in Hillsdale, New York in 1832, William B. Osborn’s conversion and call came in the 1850s. He was to become known as “the father” of the Ocean Grove religious resort, along with a dozen other such resorts and 30 camp meetings worldwide.

In the summer of 1866, Rev. Osborn attended a camp meeting near Red Bank, New Jersey and was inspired to conduct other camp meetings specifically designed around the doctrine of Christian holiness. "I feel that God would have us hold a holiness Camp Meeting!" he told another Methodist minister, John S. Inskip.

Together, Osborn and Inskip organized the National Camp Meeting at Vineland, New Jersey in 1867. The event was so successful that Osborn determined to establish a permanent religious resort devoted to holy life and healthy living, at the New Jersey Shore. In the summer of 1869 the first tents were pitched at a small pine barren in Monmouth County they called Ocean Grove. The two ponds at its north and south borders, Long Pond and Goose Pond, were given the good Methodist names of Wesley Lake and Fletcher Lake.

Early photographs of the tent city show ladies in hoop skirts, bearded gentlemen, and large numbers of children grouped in front of simple tents amid holly, oak, and maple trees. Cooking, eating and washing were done in common areas in the 1870s. By 1875, there were 600 tents. In 1883, a wall tent of 9x9 feet rented for $2.50 a week for four weeks. The largest sized tent, 14x21 feet, rented for $5.50. By then, portable kitchens could be rented for under $10.00. Everything was rented, from bedsteads to wash stands and rocking chairs. The rental income went to support the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.

As time went on, one-room wooden structures were added to the backs of the tent platforms to serve as kitchens. Gradually, striped awnings, garden fences, Japanese lanterns, and even hanging birdcages appeared to decorate the tent lots.

Religious life centered in Church Square, where there was an octagon-shaped preacher’s stand with a cupola and bell. By 1875, a framed shelter was built covered with pine boughs, which could seat 17 ministers and 300 worshippers. In 1877, by now with a wooden roof and called the Auditorium, the open-sided meeting place was enlarged to seat 3,000. The present Great Auditorium building, built in 1894, seats 6,600 for religious gatherings and concerts.

There are 114 tents still existing of the high number of 250 around the turn of the 20th century. The tents consist of a striped canvas-covered porch, a plain canvas-covered sleeping and living area in front, and a wooden structure built behind with kitchen, bath and dining area. In total, the area of one of the tents, including the rear shed, is a little over 300 square feet. The tent structures are dismantled in October and the portable parts and canvas are stored in the shed for the winter. The tent floor is permanent and made of wood.

Families have been spending summers in these tiny structures for over a century. Many of the tent leaseholds are still in the hands of descendants of the original families, who had occupied the more temporary shelters grouped around the Great Auditorium in early days. The present structures were built by the Camp Meeting Association and restructured in 1985 to meet fire codes. Leases run from May to September, but may be renewed indefinitely by the lease-holding family. Currently, there is a five-year waiting list for a tent lease.

Tent dwellers may be temporary residents, but that does not mean they do not contribute to the flowery beauty of the town of Ocean Grove. They happily plant flowers and shrubs in the tiny scraps of land out front and line their small porches with hanging plants. The tents themselves are a sight to see, with their petite and tidy appearance, and the tent dwellers' devotion to beautifying their transient quarters adds much to the charm of the tiny dwellings.