Since the fall of 1883, Community of Christ members have gathered annually to attend reunions, or family camp gatherings, in their local areas. Listen to this 1911 description by Elbert A. Smith (a grandson of Joseph Smith, Jr) of a reunion that occurred on the grounds of Kirtland Temple.
I reached Kirtland the second day of the reunion and found that I had been elected to preside . . . Some 25 or 30 tents were on the ground just back of the temple, and a great many people had taken rooms in the hotel and private houses. . . . Our meeting passed off very pleasantly and profitably. The meetings were spiritual and the solemn and sacred atmosphere of the temple seemed to influence the minds of those who were present. A great many outsiders were present and there were in all ten baptisms. Some forty or fifty of the Canadian Saints were there and enjoyed themselves immensely.” [Elbert A. Smith, Letter to Joseph Smith, September 7, 1911, Lynn Smiths’ Papers, Elbert and Clara Smith Collection, P78-2, f158, Community of Christ Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri.]
While Kirtland Temple was already hallowed ground for these Community of Christ members, the annual reunions held there added a new dimension to the evolving Community of Christ sense of sacred space. There’s a lot to reflect on here–such as how meeting in particular places can enact our understandings of things sacred. However, such reflection gets way ahead of ourselves. Let’s first think about the specific history of reunions before considering their social, theological, or wider historical relationship to Christianity in the United States America (reflections which I will post in a follow-up entry).
Community of Christ members started reunions in 1883 in response to the desire of many members to meet more than once a year (at the time, what we would call “world conference” met once a year). The first RLDS reunion met in a rural setting near Council Bluffs, Iowa, for a week long gathering. Families slept in tents and cooked for themselves. Firewood was provided along with hay for horses. Preaching and prayer meetings lasted all day, from nine a.m. to nine p.m. Attendance astounded even the most optimistic. After this first “reunion” experience, church members wanted to meet again the next year. Soon, reunions spread from coast to coast among RLDS members. Early meetings were often referred to as “grove meetings” as well as the more familiar term, “reunion.” (I think the term “grove meetings” refers to the location of the events, not a reference to Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” though it is tempting to try to make some connection.) Organized at a local level, reunions featured guest ministry provided by missionaries or traveling elders and apostles. By the 1890s, permanent reunion grounds were being bought in places like Maine, California, and Iowa.
If any of this sounds a lot like a nineteenth-century camp meeting familiar to so many Americans, it’s because reunions in many ways form our counterpart to this venerable Evangelical institution. My next post will reflect on the reunion as sacred space and compare it to evangelical camp meetings and later Protestant church camps and communities. For now, though, I’d like feedback on what you have experienced at reunions. What has changed over the years? What differences have you noted from one reunion to the next? Why are reunions important to you?