In a grove of trees by the edge of a field, campers gather with their Bibles open. In the corner of the dining room, a small group of campers prepare for the Shabbat celebration. Under a starry canopy of night sky, campers raise their voices in praise to God as the firelight brightens the community of their faces. Is it 1911 or 2011? While much has changed in the long history of religious camping, some traditions are enduring. At faith-based camps, the inspira¬tion of the outdoor experience enriches learning about God and practicing the faith’s tradi¬tions in a temporary community.

Religiously affiliated camps now represent over one-fifth of all ACA-accredited camps. While all camps share a common heritage, religious camps own a special story within the long tradition of the American camp experience. They are designed to intention¬ally form religious faith and encourage a personal connection to God. This article examines the common roots of American camps, and explores the faith-based shoots and branches that sprang from the earliest camp traditions to form the diversity of religious camps today. Religiously af f iliated camps share much of the common ACA history noted in previous articles in this history series. Those common roots are worth tracing and celebrating!

Beginnings of Organized Youth Camps

Organized youth camping began in 1861 when Frederick William Gunn, who operated a school for boys in Connecticut, took his students to Long Island for two weeks of outdoor camping activities. Gunn intended to provide his students with a modified classical education, athletic opportunities, environmental awareness, and moral values (Gunnery, 2011). The boys wanted the chance to live as soldiers, to sleep and eat outside, and to enjoy the camaraderie of such a life. Other organized camps soon developed with a goal of building stamina in boys and to inculcate values such as cooperation and loyalty. Camp Chocorua in New Hampshire was established for wealthy boys in 1881, offering them an outdoor alternative to accompanying their parents to fashionable resorts for the summer (Eells, 1986). The Episcopal founders of Chocorua hoped to reinforce Christian virtues and a spirit of sharing among these privileged boys (Williams, 2003).

At the same time, responding to the rise of industrialization and the dismal summer conditions in urban communities, several social reform agencies brought children from the ghettos to the countryside for “Fresh Air” camps. Many of these Fresh Air camps also had religious motives. In 1892, the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society was incorporated to bring overworked and underfed young women from the New York garment industry for a summer vacation in the Berkshires (Lorge and Zola, 2006).Today’s Isabella Friedman Retreat Center in Connecticut is a descendant of this early American experiment in rest and renewal within a religiously oriented community.

The Salvation Army was also a pioneer in developing Fresh Air camps for urban children and families around the turn of the century. Their stated aim was “to redeem the lives of the poor.” The organization’s best evidence establishes the first offi¬cial Fresh Air camp in twenty tents pitched in Kansas City’s Fairmont Park in 1897. The oldest continuing Salvation Army Camp in the country was first held on donated property at Camp Lake, Wisconsin, in 1904 (McKinley, 1980). The Salvation Army should be credited for another historic “first”: they founded the first American music and band camp in 1920 at North Long Branch, New Jersey (Chesham, 1965).

The first known Bible camp for girls was the Young Women’s Bible Training Movement, later named Camp Pinnacle, founded in 1898 overlooking the Hudson Valley. The camp continued in operation for over a century. Like the camps of the Fresh Air movement, it combined outdoor spiritual enrichment with a respite from city life (Williams, 2003).

By the turn of the century, the Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, YWCA, and YMCA all opened camps which provided experiences for the development and practice of outdoor skills and sports. The majority of these camps had an overtly religious dimension, concerned with char¬acter transformation and “ministering to the whole person.” While the evangelistic zeal within organizations like the YMCA diminished over time, the concern for development of the whole person remains (Williams, 2003).

Many of the originators of the organized camping movement were educators who responded to the perceived need for constructive activities to fill the three-month vacation period created by public schools. They did not attempt to bring the classroom outside but to provide options for learning that were experiential, demo¬cratic, and child-centered. Following the learning theory of John Dewey, camps took education into an environment in which the experience of the learner was central.

During this period, church-related and denominational camps grew at a much slower rate due to the fact that many private and agency camps were led by Christians and had a religious and moral nature. As the twentieth century brought new diversities, including increased religious diversity, to American culture, many reli¬gious institutions began to see the need for inculcating their specific religious values and traditions in young people. This need inspired the development of camps to pro¬vide intentional religious education and to nurture the faith of youth.

Camp Meetings and Conference Assemblies

The advent of these early American religious camps — primarily Christian and denominationally affiliated — was heavily inf luenced by two definitive religious movements: the camp meeting and the religious conference.

During the period of western expansion in this country, many of the religious needs of people were met through camp meet¬ings. These outdoor gatherings provided both social and religious opportunities for people living far from one another. During the course of the meeting, participants lived in tents or covered wagons, ate meals together cooked over a fire, and shared stories of their lives on the frontier.

The single religious purpose of camp meetings was conversion. The structure of the camp meeting moved participants toward commitment to Jesus Christ. Singing, exhortations, testimonials, and preaching were elements of small and large meetings. Often the camp meeting was closed with a love feast, a symbolic shared meal in which all new converts participated (Dickson, 1974).

The first recorded camp meeting is cited in Eleanor Eells’ comprehensive History of Organized Camping as a four-day preaching session held by George Fox, the founder of Quakerism in 1672. The thousand colonists who came to hear him pitched tents on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland (Eells, 1986). Credit for the first formal camp meeting, believed to have convened in 1776, is given to John Waller, a Separate Baptist minister from the Virginia Colony. Waller first recorded camp rules, including “no women on the campgrounds after sundown” (Mattson, 1998). The camp meeting movement waned in the mid-1800s as the frontier became settled and more churches were established. Many Methodist camp meeting grounds were repurposed as youth camps as denominational needs shifted.

Religious conferences formed the next major branch in the development of religious camps. The Chautauqua Conferences were founded by Methodists at Chautauqua Lake in New York as a training institute for Sunday school teachers. They exalted education within the life of the church rather than a singular focus on personal salvation. The conferences included lectures on Sunday school work, teachers’ meetings, praise services, children’s meetings, and sermons (Vincent, 1886). All of these were an expression of the commitment to the education of the total person. While Chautauqua’s social and educational goals have remained at the fore throughout its history, its religious focus has become more ecumenical and secular.

Chautauqua’s summer educational conference model provided a foundation for Dwight L. Moody’s Northfield (Massachusetts) Bible Conference Assembly in 1880. Going with another emphasis, Moody’s Northfield Conferences reflected a commitment to the evangelical voice within the church. The conferences also used a coeducational model that was pioneering for its time. Inspired by the success of Northfield, the Mount Hermon Conferences were soon founded on the West Coast to meet similar needs, inspiring missional leaders to spread the Gospel (Anderson, 1978).

Religious Focus and the Conference Model

In 1914, the International Sunday School Association held a summer program at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Similar summer programs followed, patterned on the adult Bible conference model used at Chautauqua and by Moody. They included large group meetings, some recreation, and some informal group activities.

Early religious camps used the conference–assembly schedule and shared its understanding of how to equip people in passing on their faith. However, in 1938, the International Council of Religious Education became concerned about the inappropriateness of the Bible conference model for children under twelve, who were attending camps in increasing numbers. The council guidelines endorsed a model in which campers would live in small cabin groups for most activities and added an increased stress on group recreation, arts and crafts, and outdoor living skills. Bible study would take place within these small groups.

By the late 1940s, church educators began to define the unique contribution to Christian growth made by camps. Although camps were understood not to be a replacement for Sunday school, the outdoor setting, the twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule, and the opportunity to live in Christian community all made them a valuable supplement to church-based Christian education of children (International Council of Religious Education, 1947). It was during this time that denominational judicatories began to invest in camp property and to train camp leaders.

The common roots of secular camps connect here in the person of L. B. Sharp, a professor at Teacher’s College of Columbia University and strong advocate for the educational theory of John Dewey. The national camp program Sharp began trained public school teachers to use the outdoors in school education programs. In 1950, at the invitation of the Camp and Conference Committee of the National Council of Churches, Sharp spoke to an ecumenical group of camp directors. This speech was the beginning of the small-group, decentralized model for church camping.

John Ensign, long-time director at Camp Hanover, a Presbyterian camp out¬side of Richmond, Virginia, can be called the father of the small group camp move¬ment in Christian denominational camps. It was his enthusiasm for Sharp’s vision that lead to his book, Camping Together as Christians, a religious interpretation of Sharp’s work. At Camp Hanover, Ensign used the small-group, decentralized model developed by Sharp in which campers lived in a single coed small group with a male and a female counselor. Each small group planned its own schedule of activities for their camp experience. The process is intimate, democratic, and fundamentally experiential. Under Ensign’s inf luence, other camp leaders were inspired to try the new model, which proved an amazingly effective tool for personal transformation and contextual, experiential religious education in many Christian denominational camps.

During this same period, consciously Jewish cultural and educational missions also grew and developed. Among the first were Cejwin Camp in Port Jervis, New York, founded in 1919 by an independent Jewish community center, and Camp Boiberik, a Progressive, cultural Yiddish camp near Rhinebeck, New York, begun in 1923 (Zeder, 2006). In 1952, the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, was founded as the first per¬manent Reform Jewish camp in North America. Whereas previously Jewish camps were a part of the Fresh Air movement and served urban and immigrant children, Olin-Sang-Ruby was the first Reform Jewish camp with intentionally religious goals. Its structure was strongly influenced by the Jewish Boy Scouts in Germany and by the American church camp model.

Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) formed the camp “as a place where Jewish children could live and learn about Judaism in a relaxed atmosphere that would cultivate a love for Jewish knowledge” (Jacob Rader, 2000). The camp claims to have developed the concept of primitive camping, “Kibbutz Ha Tzofim,” to apply Judaism to all aspects of life in community.

During the 1940s, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) established several programs to reconnect increasingly secularized Jewish youth with the synagogue and to cultivate American-born Jewish leadership. One of these programs was Camp Ramah, conceived by Moshe Davis and Sylvia Ettenberg of the JTS Teachers’ Institute, which opened in Conover, Wisconsin, in 1947. The program of the Ramah camps, originally devised by the Ettenbergs, includes ad-herence to a Conservative Jewish way of life, use of Hebrew, a formal program of study of Hebrew and Jewish subjects, and other more traditional camp activities (JTS Library). Over the next twenty-five years, Ramah expanded into a network of resident, day, special needs, family, and adventure camps across the country.

In 1961, Marghoob Quraishi, a Muslim immigrant from India (through Pakistan), and his American Muslim wife Renae pioneered the first Muslim camp in the United States. Renae was raised Methodist and had attended YMCA camp in her youth, while Marghoob brought influences from Pakistan’s youth movement and an open-minded sensibility that valued intellectual inquiry. The Quraishis’ camp, now incorporated as “Muslim Youth Camp of California” and known as MYC, employed an academic, conference model to bring together a multicultural mix of American Muslim families for fellowship and com¬munal religious practice. MYC’s core values reveal its commonalities with other religious camps — Ibadat: Worship, Niyyah: Intention, and Jama’ah: Community (Amira Quraishi, personal communica¬tion, September 9, 2011). While many immigrants have trouble distinguishing religion from culture, MYC and other US Islamic camps focus on developing campers’ identity as Muslim-Americans within a camp community inclusive of ethnic and sectarian diversity. The impact of the American camp experience, including outdoor recreation, team-building, campfires, and more, has deepened the sense of joy and community as campers gather with a faith-oriented focus.

Religious Camp Associations

As religious camps spread and involved more and more leaders and campers, the need for formal training and leadership support became evident. Several organizations were formed in response to this growing need.

The Association of Bible Conferences and Camps (ABCC) was initiated by Gordon L. Purdy, director of Camp-of-the-Woods, New York, and Park-of-the-Palms, Florida, when he invited camp directors to gather in 1949 to share mutual concerns. The following year, a similar event took place at Mount Hermon Conference Center in California and led to the founding of the Western Conference and Camp Association (WCCA). The WCCA fostered an umbrella organization in 1961, when Christian Camping International, now Christian Camp and Conference Association, or CCCA, was born (Williams, 2003). These associations provided a nondenominational base for educational conferences, development of best practices, publications, and more, which has continued to strengthen the field of Christian camping through the years.

Protestant denominations put such a value on the educational and transformational experience of camps that they hired camp leaders for their national staffs to direct and guide the work of the judicatory camps. The national camp staff leaders met together under the purview of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) to share concerns, offer mutual support, and to develop resources. The Committee on Outdoor Ministries of NCCC continues to meet, and over the years has produced sev¬eral series of leadership manuals, published a series of annual curriculum, and hosted national leadership conferences.

National denominational camp staff also organized annual meetings for their camp leaders. Over the years as national funds have decreased, many denomina¬tions have developed strong member as¬sociations that seek to serve their camps through national conferences, Web sites, and training opportunities.

In 1970, an effort was begun to create common ground for religious camps to have conversations around an interfaith table. The National Church Camp Committee was established as a Standing Committee of the ACA National Board of Directors to give input about the needs and trends in church camps. In 1978, the Council of Religiously Affiliated Camps (CRAC) was formed and became the Religiously Affiliated Camps Council (RAC) in 1996. The mission of this council remains to “inspire, equip, and support faith-based camp staff to nurture spiritual growth through the camp and retreat experience.” Today RAC provides issue surveys, a lunch at the national conference, gatherings and workshops at regional conferences, and a Web presence (

The Tree Bears More Fruit

Today, religious organized camp thrives in many forms, from conference-style youth assemblies to small-group rustic camps, day camps and travel camps, intergenerational and interfaith experiences, in a dazzling array of denominational and religious traditions. Although religious camps have a long and varied history, they continue to foster positive religious identity; promote religious principles based on tradition and holy scripture; and build a diverse, supportive, temporary community, training youth for leadership roles within their own communities.


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Chesham, S. (1965). Born to battle: The Salvation Army in America. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Eells, E. (1986). History of organized camping: The first 100 years. Martinsville, IN: American Camp Association.

Dickson, B. A., Jr. (1974). And they all sang hallelujah. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Gunnery, The. (2011). School history: Excellence since 1850. Retrieved from  

International Council of Religious Education. (1947). The manual for leaders of church camps for boys and girls.

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Lorge, M.M., and Zola, G.P. (Eds.) (2006). A place of our own: The rise of Reform Jewish camping. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

McKinley, E.H. (1980). Marching to glory: The first hundred years 1880-1980. The history of the Salvation Army in the United States. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Vincent, J.H. (1886). The Chautauqua movement. Boston, MA: Chautauqua Press.

Williams, B. (2003). A study of how the temporary community and the outdoors came to be used for recreation and educational/ ministry initiatives. Cairn Series 102: Survey of Christian Camping. Christian Camping International/USA.

Zeder, Jeri. (2006, December 29) The power of camp. Jewish Daily Forward.

Jen Burch, M.Div., serves as management consultant for ACA–RAC (Religiously Affiliated Camps Council). She has been a United Methodist Camp director in Montana and Wisconsin and is a regular contributor to New Earth: Christian Resources for the Outdoors, an ecumenical curriculum developed by Committee on Outdoor Ministries of the NCCC. Contact the author at

Nancy Ferguson, M.Div, M. A. Ed., is a freelance writer and retired camp consultant. Nancy is the author of resources for Christian camps, many of them available from the ACA Bookstore. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia near Chincoteague Island and has recently developed a day camp program for the Chincoteague YMCA. You can contact the author at

Originally published in the 2011 November/December Camping Magazine.