This post is about the history of the Milton Camp, sometimes called Lavinia’s Camp Ground, Lavinia’s Grove camp, or Lavinia’s Wood camp. Because of the camp’s long history and many areas of interest, I am dividing the article into two segments. Part I will look at the history of the camp and the social drivers behind it, and Part II will present some first-hand accounts of camp meetings.
With a few interruptions, the Milton camp meeting – an outdoor “tent revival” in August that ran a week or more in Lavinia’s Woods – lasted at least until 1965. There is nothing I can find in the Delaware newspapers after 1965 to indicate either that the camp meeting continued to take place, or that it was abandoned. There were actually two camp meetings every year at Lavinia’s Woods – one attended by African Americans under the auspices of the local A. M. E. congregation, and one by the Milton Methodist Protestant Church attended by whites. The color line was not a solid barrier, as some members of both races attended each other’s camp meetings from time to time. However, for lack of sufficient resources at my disposal, this post is limited to the white people’s camp meeting.
Before I delve into what is known about the camp meetings, some historical background is necessary to explain this enduring feature of American Protestant religious life.
The Great Awakenings
In the context of religion, the term “Awakening” refers to the end of a long slumber of secularism and religious indifference. Theological historians have defined three periods in the 18th and 19th centuries when evangelism acquired renewed momentum and many new converts were brought into the Methodist and Baptist traditions. The First Great Awakening began in England in the 1730’s and lasted until 1743 after being exported to the American colonies. This first revival was powered by a new style of sermonizing that eschewed the dense theological investigative sermons that ministers read to the congregation, in favor of a style of communication, often extemporaneous, that sought to spiritually energize the audience and attract converts.
The Second Great Awakening began in the United States in the late 18th century and reached its peak in the middle of the 19th. The so-called “fire and brimstone” style of preaching is one example of a new type of theological rhetoric that was not directed at the intellectual elites of society, but rather to the common, less-educated population. It was evidently quite successful. One area of western New York State (bordered by Lakes Erie and Ontario to the north and west, and including much of the Finger Lakes region) was dubbed the “burned-over district” because the sheer number of converts there meant no more “fuel” (potential new converts) to “burn” (convert). The temperance, women’s suffrage, and abolitionist movements of the 19th century had deep roots in the reformist spirit that was part of the religious fervor of the “burned-over district.” The area also spawned Mormonism and several utopian movements.
Western New York State was an underpopulated frontier area in the early 19th century, as were Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. It is in this period that camp meetings led by preachers of various Protestant denominations began to spring up. Presbyterian minister James McGready is generally thought by historians to have originated the first camp meeting in the U. S., in Kentucky, in 1799 – 1801. These camp meetings were described as highly emotional, and participants were susceptible to states of high excitement, rapture, “convulsions,” speaking in tongues, and the like. Attendees literally camped at the meeting, as there were no hotel accommodations to be had in frontier areas.
The sustained excitement stoked by preacher after preacher for hours and days on end, and the congregation of thousands of normally isolated people at these first camp meetings bred all kinds of non-spiritual excesses, including drinking, gambling, and (according to at least one observer) sexual promiscuity and abandon. A common joke at the time maintained that frontier populations spiked about nine months after a camp meeting, and the newborns were called “camp meeting babies.” There is no way to verify the truth of this assertion, facetious or not.
By the 1850’s, camp meeting organizers maintained increased vigilance over attendees’ behavior and the excesses of the earlier years were kept under better control. By the time of the Third Great Awakening in the latter half of the 19th century, Methodist churches in the mid-Atlantic region, including Delaware, operated perennial camp meetings in the summer months in many locations; evangelism advanced on multiple fronts, including missionary work, permanent religious retreats at Rehoboth, DE and Ocean Grove, NJ, and the Y. M. C. A.
The Milton Camp Meeting (Lavinia’s Camp Ground)
The Milton Camp Meeting at Lavinia’s Camp Ground just outside of town, to the best of my knowledge, has its origins in the Third Great Awakening. The earliest newspaper reference to it can be found in the September 6, 1873 issue of the Wilmington News Journal, but I believe this camp meeting, run by the Milton Methodist Protestant Church, would have begun some years before that. A report in the August 3, 1914 issue of the Wilmington Morning Journal asserted that Lavinia’s Camp was about sixty-six years old, which would bring its initial year to 1848, several years before the establishment of the Milton M. P. congregation in 1857. Yet another newspaper article suggests that the camp may have been started by the Methodist Episcopal Church as early as 1835.
The photograph above, found in the Douglas Family folder, is one of only two known photographs of the Milton Camp Meeting. In the background are the “tents,” which were actually small cottages owned or rented by families attending the camp meeting. They are two stories tall, presumably with the bedroom(s) in the upper floor and an open sitting area on the ground floor. Some have ornamentation (the balconies and railings in the two leftmost cottages). These cottages were arranged in a circle around the tabernacle, which is not visible in the photograph but would have been just beyond the benches in the right side of the photograph. The benches themselves are arrayed in a semi-circle in front of the tabernacle.
The table-like structure in the right foreground with the wood pile next to it was the source of light for nighttime activities: four logs with a dirt-filled slab on top of them. A bonfire was built and lit at dusk on top of the dirt.
The photograph above, taken by the same photographer, appears to have been taken on the opposite side of the camp pictured in the first photograph. The evening fire on the raised dirt slab is smoldering at center background. That and the low position of the sun through the trees suggest that the photograph was taken in the morning. Some boys are standing under the awning, to the right of the fire platform; an automobile or truck is partially visible in the far background, to the left of the smoke. The benches facing the tabernacle, at left, are spartan; they have no backs and are just plain wood. Another interesting feature is the “boarding tent” in the center background. Meals were prepared, sold and served in the boarding tent, which was also a permanent structure rather than canvas. The boarding tent as well as several other services provided in the camp were operated by individuals as “privileges” (concessions) that the Milton M. P. Church auctioned off to the highest bidder. The following excerpt from the Milton News letter in the Milford Chronicle of July 11, 1902 provides some insight into the issues surrounding concessions at the camp meeting:
At the sale of the privileges held on Saturday, the boarding tent brought $1; the food pound $9; these were purchased by Prof. W. H. Welch. The confectionery department was bought by John Barker for $5. One of the officers of the church requests the writer to say that the small prices these privileges were sold for was due to the action of the church, which will not allow anything to be sold on Sunday; and the two Sundays that include a part of the camp are the best days the proprietors of these privileges can have. This may be all right from a moral standpoint; but as these meetings are held more for sociality than for spiritual comfort, you had better get all out of them that you can.
At the sale of the privileges for the colored camp at Hazard’s Woods, near the end of Milton Lane, the confectionery stand brought $36; and the boarding tent $12. Witness the contrast, when viewed from a financial standpoint.
The “food” pound Conner referred to may have been the horse pound or stabling area, as this was the age of the horse and buggy. Selling food or confectionery at these camp meetings would not make anyone rich. There was an additional problem: the Milton camp meeting was within easy walking distance to the center of town, and attendees did not have to rent a “tent” or buy food from the camp concessions if they chose not to. Indeed, Milton town residents had always made up the bulk of the attendance at the Milton Camp meeting, and could walk into or out of the camp without difficulty.
There is also another statement in the first paragraph: ..these meetings are held more for sociality than for spiritual comfort. By the early 20th century, the summer camp meeting was seen by many as a social event, and there were few converts made. The value of the Milton Camp meeting as an evangelical tool was called into question for years by the M. P. church, but what led to the end of the church’s involvement with the camp meeting was something entirely different.
The End of the Milton Camp Meeting
In the July 22, 1918 issue, the Wilmington News Journal reported several cases of what was first thought to be chickenpox in one Georgetown family. The diagnosis changed to smallpox as the symptoms became more severe, and a previously unreported outbreak of smallpox in Gumboro came to light. Just two days later, the Wilmington Morning Journal reported that camp meeting season was beginning to ramp up and a full season was planned. But by July 30, organizers of several camp meetings on the Peninsula, including the Milton Camp, were advised by the State Board of Health not to hold planned meetings due to the fear of contagion. The camp meeting did not take place that year, but the decree to close it came after concessionaires and others had already invested money in preparation.
In the August 4, 1919 issue of the Wilmington Morning News, it was reported that the committee organizing that year’s Milton Camp meeting had decided not to hold it. The reasons given in that newspaper were the lack of cooperation among members of the congregation and the inability to find someone to manage the boarding tent. However, David A. Conner, writing in his Milton News letter in the August 4, 1919 issue of the Milford Chronicle, gave a somewhat different view of the abandonment of the Milton camp meeting. He stated that it had for many years been a social event rather than a spiritual one; before the advent of the automobile and the railroad, the camp meeting was eagerly anticipated by country people who were far from a church, were relatively isolated, and needed a respite. Modern transportation had provided all classes with the means to enjoy alternatives to the camp meeting such as beach excursions, which were proving immensely popular.
A New Lease on Life
In September of 1897, in Cincinnati, a group of Methodist Episcopalians founded the International Holiness Union and Prayer League, which was intended to be a fellowship and not a new denomination. By 1900, however, the fellowship had acquired many adherents who were attracted by its principles and its evangelic missionary work overseas. Its name was changed to International Apostolic Holiness Union. By 1905, having grown into a formal church organization in all but name, the group was renamed to International Apostolic Holiness Union and Churches. After a further period of growth and absorption of other religious bodies, the overall organization adopted the name of one of the absorbed churches and became the Pilgrim Holiness Church.
The Pilgrim Holiness Church arrived in Milton in 1926, held their first meeting on Easter Sunday of that year, and dedicated their church building on April 11. This made a total of four Protestant churches attended by whites of the town. In 1927, the newly established church re-opened the Lavinia’s Camp under their auspices. The camp continued in operation until at least 1965.
The two Methodist branches, Episcopalian and Protestant, as the United Methodist Church around 1940, with the result that the Milton Methodist Protestant Church, or Grace Church as it had been renamed, became superfluous to the administrative body of the UMC and disappeared by 1962. The former church building was restored in 2006 and is now the home of the Milton Historical Society and the Lydia B. Cannon Museum.
On June 26, 1968, The Pilgrim Holiness Church and The Wesleyan Methodist Church of America were united to form The Wesleyan Church, which is still a presence in the religious life of the Milton community.
An Account of Lavina’s Camp Meeting, anonymous typewritten manuscript (MHS Collection)
Wilmington News Journal, September 6, 1873
Milton News letter, Milford Chronicle, July 11, 1902
Wilmington Morning Journal, August 3, 1914
Wilmington News Journal, July 22, 1918
Wilmington Morning News, August 4, 1919
Wilmington News Journal, July 3, 1959
Wilmington Morning News, July 10, 1965