Community of Christ Reunions: A Very Brief History

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?

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15 comments on “Community of Christ Reunions: A Very Brief History

  1. Kevin Bryant says:

    David,
    I love the idea of reunions. Recently I’ve been able to make fewer and fewer of them as time has passed. I grew up going to the Brush Creek (Illinois) campground every year, and in leaving there after high school one thing that jumped out at me with other reunions was the cost.

    In many cases, I have no clue how some families can even afford to go. At Camp Doniphan (Missouri)in 2004 it cost just under $135 for me to go for 4.5 days, and I was teaching a class at it too! Using a very rough estimate thats pushing $500+ for a family of four, without transportation there and back.

    I see (I think) the logic behind these moves, and I imagine its elsewhere as well. I’ve heard of very few places with free-will reunions, though some do. I just wonder how many people this completely removes the reunion experience from. For such an important event, one which I think many CofC would list as one of the more important religious events of their year, this cuts out a tremendous swath of the available attendees. I don’t quite have an answer, but it does bother me.

    • truthiana says:

      I agree, Kevin–I think that cost was a limiting factor for my family in attending reunions as I was growing up. I don’t remember going to reunions, although I’ve heard many fond memories of these events from my mother and other family members. They definitely talk positively about reunions and gatherings in Kirtland, in particular.

      I have some fond memories of my own, but most of these come from camps.

      How can we make reunions more accessible?

  2. I began attending reunion in 1961 and went with friends to my first reunion at Wilburton, Oklahoma. After that our reunions were held at the Ozark Campgrounds near Racine, Missouri. We attended every year as a family of five. In the beginning we stayed in tents, though finally the Tulsa Stake, which also met there until they got their own reunion grounds built, helped by financing small cabins which cost $30 each to build…with volunteer labor.

    We could take our family of five for $100 in those days. Now it costs $125 each. There are only Bob and me now but I have taken grandchildren over the years and even paid the way for my son, Scott.

    I will not be attending for the week this year. We will go over for Sunday only. We have our son’s dog now as well as our cat. For several years my sister has taken care of feeding them and watering them but now she is on a walker and also has Alzheimer’s Disease so we will forego reunion this year.

    Our reunion grounds are sacred space to us. We have so many fond memories there.

  3. TH says:

    Our reunion in the chesapeake bay mission center is a little different. It’s done at a church (so most of the meetings are indoors, although people do gather on the church lawns and there is a swimming pool near by), and it is Thursday evening through Sunday noon. This makes it more comfortable for some people who are older or who have allergies or other outdoor issues to attend; the shorter format also requires less of a cost from families because they don’t have to take a full week off of work.

    • Kevin Bryant says:

      Margie,
      I do agree that I think reunion grounds are sacred space for the majority of CofC people. Moreso than a congregational building or historic site, many testimonies people share about life altering events or spiritual experiences seem to have the backdrop of a reunion going on. Its a chance to break away from the world for many and just sit back and relax a little in a unique atmosphere.
      TH, that reunion concept sounds very interesting. Does the Mission Center do multiple reunions or just that one?

      • We do two. Number One, in June and going on next week, is really slanted toward the children with lots of fun stuff as well as activities for adults.I had originally intended to attend this one and take my five year old great granddaughter but my grandson is being married that week and I must be there for that.

        The second one, in July is longer by a day or two and is designed more for adults.

      • TH says:

        That is the only one that the mission center does. The mission center to our north does a more traditional reunion at the Deer Park campgrounds. A few from our mission center also go to that one.

  4. dhowlett says:

    Thanks to all for their reflections. Kevin and Truthiana, it is interesting to think of a formerly “primitive camping” activity like a reunion become so pricey that families can no longer attend. I know this is related to how reunion grounds can somehow pay for themselves and not be burdened with debt. It seems like a double jeopardy situation for the future of reunion grounds, though. If they can not break even or make a small profit that can be reinvested in the grounds, they are not viable. On the other hand, make them too expensive and they go out of the reach of most folks. KB and Trutiana, you both give very interesting reflections by raising this problem.

    Margie and TH–Very interesting reflections on reunion experiences and their variations in the U.S. alone! I have heard of weekend reunion experiences and “in-town” reunions among Restorationists (with whom I once worshiped as a teenager and college student). I’m curious as to how widespread the weekend or “in-town” reunion experience is an how people may feel that it approximates the same experience as being at separate campgrounds “in nature.” (I’m not trying to provoke a discussion about what we mean by “nature”–just observing that people use this in everyday discourse to mean not in a city.)

    I am curious about how reunion experiences in the U.S. are different from reunion experiences in Tahiti or the U.K. Any ideas?

  5. Rick Collins says:

    Having never been to a US or Canada reunion, I couldnt tell you how different they are. Maybe I can report on that after I attend Maine Reunion this July.

    One thing I can say about Australian Reunions is that it has always closely followed Christmas (that being our summer vacation season). Reunion starts on 26 December and goes through to New Years day.

    Camps here are also quite different depending on the campground. For example Kallara Reunion (our campgrounds in Victoria) is in the country, has very simple dorm rooms and a large hall used for meals and group activities/worship. Kallara Reunion tends to be one of forming a very tight-knit community. People attend most everything on the schedule. As it is in the middle of nowhere, there are not a lot of distractions and we can focus on each other.
    I have not been to reunions at Tiona, but I am told they are quite different. Tiona is the campgrounds used by the church in New South Wales. It is located on a thin strip of land between a lake and the pacific ocean. As a result, it being summer, I am told the beach can be quite a distraction. As a result it can be more difficult to get all of the people to all of the activities.
    From what I’ve been told Tiona reunion also has a lot of people who attend who grew up in the church, but no longer attend. Often its their family Christmas holiday where they all gather at Tiona to relax for a week and go to the beach (a popular activity here over Christmas holidays). As a result most of those people don’t attend much church stuff.
    From all the testimonies though, people have told me they have had many sacred experiences at Tiona Reunion. Having been to the campgrounds as a leader at a youth camp, the Green Cathedral is perhaps the star attraction of the Tiona reunion, with the worship space being in the open air facing the west, over the lake (particularly pretty at sunset).
    We also have a reunion in Queensland. Queensland being far away, I’ve never been.

  6. Christopher says:

    David, you know of my own interest in what you get at in your last paragraph—RLDS reunions as camp meetings. I’m looking forward to the follow-up post, especially any discussion of the reunion grounds as sacred space. Thanks

  7. dhowlett says:

    Thanks Rick and Christopher for your comments. Rick, those are interesting observations about the different kinds of reunion experiences based on location and the structures of the facilities. I think this can be the same for reunions in the U.S. and Canada, too. Reunion experiences are very different in say Onset, Massachusetts where there are houses owned by families than say in Temple Grove, PA with a much more traditional summer camp setting.

    Thanks for reading and posting, Christopher! I did have your arguments in mind when I posted about reunions as the continuation of camp meetings. I have nothing too profound to share in these regards beyond what we have shared in person already, but I would love to see your work on KT dedication as a camp meeting in print sometime! I’ll do my follow-up post in a few days.

  8. Russel Lane says:

    As a 52 yr old ex-LDS who’s been following the RLDS/CoC since I was 10, this is a fascinating blog. Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa permitted me and my family to be exposed and interact with RLDS there. I had a classmate in jr. and sr. high; my brother’s counselor and 2 coworkers of my mother were all RLDS.

    The two most enjoyable and memorable events were attending the 1976 conference at the Auditorium and going to the 1975 reunioon at Cedar Valley Grove. Besides all the activities during the week, it gave me a great opportunity to really get to know people who’d I met on previous occasions visiting the local branch.

    I got to know the branch president and his wife quite well. They had a lot of questions about how things were down in the LDS Church and I had a number for them. We all found it interesting to compare the similarities and differences on doctrine, procedures and attitudes all in a non-combative style.

    As word got around there was a Mormon in the camp, I had some more positive interactions, including the traveling Herald House book steward who had set up a great book store that I browsed heavily. I was even given a couple of thoughtful gifts by other campers.
    This experience was so enjoyable that I ended going to the following April conference in Independence.

    Our local ward did have a camp out once a couple of years before that to celebrate Pioneer Day (July 24th) that was well attended. The wife of the elder’s quorum president caused quite a stir by lounging around in her 2 piece bathing suit. She got plenty of googles from a number of the brothers. That was the first and last time for that camping.

    When I lived in San Jose, California in the 1980’s, the 7 or 8 area stakes owned a large campground complete with a big lodge built on the mountainside in the Sierra foothills. Although they didn’t have reunions per say, they had camps with similar programs that were well attended.

  9. dhowlett says:

    Thanks, Russell, for your comments. I did not know about any LDS stakes owning campgrounds. Is this common or just something these California stakes had done?

  10. Rick Collins says:

    Having recently attended the Maine reunion, a difference I’d like to mention is that at Australian reunions we sing grace, rather than have someone say it.

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