The Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting is significant in the areas of religion and architecture for the period 1884-1943. One of the oldest continually operating camp meetings in Pennsylvania, it became a summertime destination of middle class Methodists from Wilmington, DE to West Chester, PA in the late nineteenth century and throughout much of the twentieth.
It is a prime example of the American Methodist Camp Meeting Movement, a movement made popular in the decades following the Civil War. Its layout and architecture, featuring gabled cottages along avenues surrounding a central square containing a tabernacle, typifies the general design of camp meetings at that time.
The Camp Meetings Movement
Brandywine Summit was founded as part of a movement to establish Methodist camp meetings across the United States after the Civil War. The post-war era was a time of political and spiritual healing. An extensive and affordable railroad system, as well as the horse and carriage, enabled more individuals to travel—particularly the rising middle class. Camp meetings were an alternative to expensive resorts, both of which provided an escape from the hot industrial cities of that time.
While the roots of camp meetings may be traced to summer outdoor gatherings of Scottish Presbyterians, it was the dynamic preaching style of Methodists that made the movement take off in the mid-1800’s. Francis Asbury himself, the founder of American Methodism, supported camp meetings as a means of spreading the Methodist doctrine.
Camp meetings are considered an American tradition; one that merges spiritual renewal hand-in-hand with family renewal.There are over 2000 camp meeting sites throughout the world, almost all in North America. Pennsylvania has 174 known sites; however, only 15 of them survive across south eastern and south central Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey regions. These camp meetings largely are run by association boards and committees, who manage camp property, collect ground rents, and oversee finances, building, religious services, and program events.
Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting lies in Concord Township, just north of the Delaware state line. The wooded landscape was once part of the William Johnson farm, and the specific thirteen acres which comprise the district was once known as Johnson’s Woods. The Johnson farmhouse still stands on Route 202, substantially renovated, and houses the Brandywine Conference and Visitors Bureau.
The beginnings of our camp meeting came in July 1865, when local preacher Samuel Hance from Siloam Methodist Church held a prayer meeting in Johnson’s Woods. Eight churches from the Wilmington Methodist Conference were invited to join the worship in the following year.
One Sunday afternoon in July 1867, members of the Asbury, Grace, St. Paul’s, and Union churches from Wilmington met with members of the Siloam, Ebenezer, Zion, and Bethel Methodist churches of Pennsylvania at the Johnson’s Woods site. This expanded in the following week when John Wise, a lumber merchant, hauled canvas tents to the site from Wilmington. Issac McKaig and Albert Thatcher, the latter a ship builder, exporter, and class leader at St. Paul’s Church, pitched the tents. A large canvas was stretched over a rude pulpit and mourner’s bench, with four mounds of earth supports pots of pitch and resin for illumination. With this, Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting was begun and remains today as one of the oldest camp meetings in continuous service in the United States.
After the Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting season ended, local people pitched a tent at the nearby Johnson Corners to continue having meetings. This led to founding of the Elam Methodist church in 1882, located just east of Route 202 on Smithbridge Road. This church is still in use today and a street in Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting is named “Elam” for it. This practice of a local church spin-off from a camp meeting site occurred through the country and is an important but often overlooked outgrowth of the camp meeting movement.
Many who preached at Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting were well known as powerful speakers in the Methodist church, including bishops and presiding elders. Among the more well known visitors in the early 1900’s were Bishops Simpson, Mallilieu Taylor, and Thoburn; Dr. Stephen Baldwin of China; Dr. Bartine of New Jersey; Rev. E. T. Kinney; Alfred Cookman; John Curtis; Enoch Stubbs; Charles Hill; W. L. S. Murray; E. L. Hubbard; Dr. Francis H. Green; and C. Irving Carpenter. The well known gospel tune No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus was composed here in the 1930’s by then resident preacher and gospel writer Charles Weigle.
Members of the camp meeting formed an association in 1884 and a charter was granted by the court of Delaware County. In 1943, the association purchased the 13 acre site property from the Johnson family. The camp meeting has survived several major fires, including ones in 1953 and 1955, which resulted in the loss of some cottages but no lives.
We continue to practice many of the earlier camp meeting traditions today. These include Christian Fellowship Weekends during the middle of the summer. Such “long weekends”, as they are historically known, form the backbone of our religious program with guest speakers/musicians, bible study, worship services, and lots of opportunities for fellowship. Another beloved tradition is a concert on closing night of the camp program season, followed by the “Walk Around” in which trustees lead the congregation as they walk along the camp avenues singing hymns.
Located within the hub of the camp meeting’s central “Circle” area is the Tabernacle. This was built in 1884 as a 75’ x 50’ open sided building, Renovated several times over the years, it remains the center and spiritual home of the site.
Various avenues branch out from the Tabernacle area and are named for the founding churches of the camp meeting: Siloam, Elam, Lebanon, Summit, Union, Brandywine, Asbury, Scott, and St. Paul’s. These avenues once were filled with tents on wooden platforms. Soon, though, the tents gave way to simple cottages as members started to make things more permanent and comfortable.
There are roughly 66 cottages on site at present. Our records show that a rule was made requiring all cottages to be only one-story high. This was so that no cottage owner could “look down” upon another. A number of cottages were given unique names by their owners which continue in use today.
Our charter prohibits us from cutting trees in our site. As such, many cottages were built to accommodate the trees—or, in some cases, literally around them!
The cottages have changed their appearances over time, some more drastically than others. Many now have kitchens and full bathrooms. Front porches still remain a treasured location where cottagers sit, visit, and enjoy God’s creations.
The camp meeting site has a number of public buildings and facilities including: 4 rental cottages, public hall with meeting/dining facilities, administrative building, museum, corner store, prayer gazebo, pavilion with picnic tables, laundromat, RV site, primitive camping area, and an in-ground swimming pool. In earlier times, stables dotted the camp perimeter along with temporary stores selling groceries, milk, ice cream, fish, and even a barber shop.
Formal operation of Brandywine Summit Camp Meeting is governed by a board of nine trustees, elected by the cottage owners. The board is responsible for setting the rules and regulations, as well as legal and financial oversight of the camp meeting.
Specific activities are largely handled through several committees, such as Grounds, Finance, and Program, which are made up of cottage owners and are accountable to the board. The Ladies Auxiliary, formed in 1909, provides significant assistance to the camp meeting and its day-to-day operations through both financial contributions and service work.