My Camp Meeting Experience
by Dennis Kinlaw, Ph.D.
It was in the depths of the Depression, in 1933, that my father unexpectedly found himself in Georgia in Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting. One of the preachers—he was my father’s favorite—was Henry Clay Morrison, the president of Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary. My father died before I was able to hear from his own lips what that experience was like, but it evidently influenced him significantly. When he returned to his home and family in North Carolina, he said to my mother, “Sally, we have to take the family.”
The next summer he took my mother and my older sister with him and they went to Indian Springs. It was in that session that Christ found my sister and she was converted. I was only twelve, but it was obvious to me that she was changed and, from my perspective, it was for the better. The next year she came to Asbury College as a student, met the one who was to become her husband, and they spent their life together in ministry in the Methodist Church in Michigan.
A new pattern was established that year in our family. The camp meeting at Indian Springs became the anchor point around which our family arranged its schedule. Our family bank had failed and we never afterwards had the money for a family vacation, but my father found the finances to take us all to camp meeting for the ten days that it met in August.
It was in 1935, when I was thirteen, that I found myself headed, not too happily, to a religious event that meant five religious sessions for me every day for ten days. My attitude during the trip home was completely different from my attitude on the way down. I was not only in a different mood. I was in a different world. I had met One that actually changed my life. And his name was JESUS!
I had heard about him before, but now I had actually met Him. And the center of my existence had radically changed. Instead of being centered in myself, He was now not only with me, He had captured the central spot in my inner being. Instead of a deep and rather terrifying existential dread at the thought of ever actually confronting God, I found myself in an intense and joyous love affair with Him and his Father and even the Holy Spirit. And for the first time that I could remember, I felt clean—real clean—inside.
I was in a different world.
One’s world is pretty small and fragile when you are only thirteen and you alone, in loneliness, reign in the center of your own little kingdom. What a difference when you find yourself filled with the Presence of that One who is larger than the whole world of which you are a part. At thirteen, you may not know much about the extent of that kingdom, but somehow your borders are gone and you sense something that later you will call infinite and eternal. And, inexplicable as it all is, you know that this is where you belong and you are suddenly willing to give your life and even yourself so that others may find such as their own, too.
It was not that I had never heard about Christ before. The third pew from the front on the left in our Methodist Church was the Kinlaw pew and nobody else ever sat there. Everyone in the church knew that it belonged to the Kinlaw clan. And I knew as I grew up that after Sunday School in the morning and Epworth League in the evening, I was to be with the rest of my family in that pew. But it was all in the third person. It was about Another whom I had never really met. But now that world had changed, too. I knew not only what it was all about, I knew who it was all about. And He was not only real to me now, He was a permanent part of my inner person, the central part, the friend of all friends, the key to everything. I wanted to share the glory of it all, so I told my pastor. I was sure he would rejoice with me and tell me how glad he was that I had finally caught on to what it was all about. I was caught off guard when I sensed that he was a bit apprehensive about this thirteen year old. His comment was, “Well, Dennis, you don’t think that this has to happen to everybody, do you?”
Years later, in a moment of mutuality, I shared all this with a Jesuit friend. He responded, “Dennis, that is beautiful, but, you know, we don’t think that such is for everybody.” In both cases, my thoughts took me back to Indian Springs, for it was there that I came to know that God loved His world so much that He gave His one eternal Son on Calvary so that the emptiness of a thirteen year old’s heart could be filled with the very life that that Son sacrificed on that cross outside the city of Jerusalem. Somehow, I knew it had to be for everyone.
During those high school years, it was almost impossible to find anyone who understood what had happened to me in my world. Years later, at Princeton in a course with the philosophy professor, Dr. Emile Cailliet, in which he asked us to tell the story of our spiritual journey, I shared. His response was simply, “Beautiful! Now can you intellectualize this?”
During those next lonely years in high school I certainly would not have been able to intellectualize it. There were some things, though, that I knew. The One who had found me was the One who made the whole world. He loves the whole world. His offer of Himself has to be for the whole world. That love precludes any other possibility. He, being who He is and loving with the love with which He loves, is not in the exclusion business. And now because He was in my heart that same universal love was flowing there. I did not know the promise in Rev. 21:25 about the Holy City, the eternal Bride of Christ, that its gates will never be shut, nor Frederick Weatherly’s conclusion that the gates of that city are never shut so “that all who would might enter and no one was denied.”
A thirteen year old has a massive amount yet to be experienced and learned, but I suspect a thirteen year old may be as smart as he is ever going to be. A decade later, for three years following my seminary education and before I was ordained, I travelled from church to church in evangelistic meetings around the country offering the Good News that I had discovered in Christ to any who would listen. The force that drove me during those years was the same as that which I found stirring in my heart on that trip home from my first year at Indian Springs.
There was a wisdom in Henry Clay Morrison and those who were leaders in the camp meeting movement that I have understood better and appreciated more with the passing of the years. I had no comprehension of it then. It was never mentioned by them. It seems that they just assumed it as if it were to be taken for granted. They seemed to feel that a certain fullness of grace is as available for a thirteen year old as for a veteran saint. The sermon that was preached by Morrison for the most determinative evening of my life was on what he called entire sanctification, or “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” All of the theological terminology was new to me, but that did not keep a profound message from coming through to me. I was a three-day-old Christian. My sense of the forgiveness of my sins, His acceptance of me, and the fact of His presence with me was all very real. But the word that came through to me that night was that He now wanted me to tell Him He could have all that I knew of my heart. But beyond that He also wanted me to give Him the key to my heart so that He could claim for Himself even that which I did not yet know about myself. I was told that if I gave Him that key, He would take me, possess me for Himself, and then fill me to the full with His Spirit. Somehow I knew, unwittingly I think, that it was not so much me giving myself to Him as my permitting Him to take, to possess, me fully for Himself.
It was only later that I realized that this put me in the Wesleyan tradition. It was only later that I would understand that time and human discipline are not necessary additions to the sacrifice on Calvary and for the realization of the promise that is implicit in Pentecost. It is that filling that will enable one to learn much more about Him and His ways and a whole lot more about oneself. Those around may not perceive what is on occasion happening in the thirteen year old in a good camp meeting but, apparently, heaven does and likes it. I do, too.