John Wesley and a Methodist movement into Nature

The waters nourishing modern camp and retreat ministry run deep within the United Methodist heritage.  They sprang forth in the 1730’s when John Wesley made a fundamental decision that would launch the Methodist movement into the mainstream of an historic “spiritual awakening” that flowed across the British Isles and then rolled into North America.  With colleagues, he boldly chose to move preaching and faith formation into the “open air” where the people would have new access and avenues to hear and respond.

Religious folks in 18th-century England deemed the idea dangerously radical.  Moving central activities typically reserved to sanctuary buildings to the outdoors struck many as a vile profanity – a desecration of the holy.  At first, even Wesley wrestled internally about the appropriateness of what he was doing.  He wrote in his journal, on Saturday, March 31, 1731: In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr Whitefield there.  I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church.  

During a reading of the “Sermon on the Mount,” a realization eased at Wesley’s heart and mind. If Jesus often taught outdoors and trained his disciples there, then how could it be wrong?  Christ himself also set the example of regular retreats into nature for prayer, discernment, and renewal. On top of this biblical recognition were the practical results.  Masses of new people responded, and profound changes in their lives gave undeniable evidence that the Spirit was moving.  Nurturing faith in the outdoors and “field preaching” was an amazing asset to the church.  It is one key factor behind the expansion of the methodist movement.  Poor, rich, “rough necks”, outcasts, and church folks alike gathered in crowds sometimes burgeoning over 3,000.  This gathering of relative strangers and persons of very diverse backgrounds, many not used to attending church, would have been difficult to pull off in the highly structured services of England at the time.

Throughout his fifty years of ministry, Wesley partnered with other leaders who joined the endeavor.  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, drew closer to God and adopted lifestyles based on Christ’s way of love.  Initial experiences of faith formation outdoors and decisions to follow Christ were followed by systematic encouragement to continue to grow as disciples through connections with small groups and local congregations.  This continues to be a crucial dimension of the best partnership between Christian camp and retreat centers and local congregations, even today.

As he traveled constantly, it is estimated that John taught and delivered nearly 40,000 sermons in his lifetime, often in natural settings – under shade trees, in the fields and forest clearings, on town commons, atop boulders, amidst downpours and snow showers, encircled by natural amphitheaters, and even standing on how father’s grave.  Building on Wesley’s foundation the United Methodists have one of the largest networks of camp and retreat centers among denominations in the United States. 

Following the Chautauqua and Camp Meeting eras of the 1800’s and early 1900’s, camp, retreat, and conference centers as we know them today began to appear from the grass roots, both Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren circles.  Now more than 250 centers in the United States and still others abroad serve to meet poignant needs of society and congregations.  The United Methodist Church and its leaders intentionally established these centers in natural settings to continue to help fulfill the church’s mission in unique and effective ways.  Camp and retreat ministries were not developed to operate in isolation as separate institutions from conferences and local churches, but as integral extension of the mission and vision of local churches and conferences. United Methodist camp and retreat ministries create environments of intentional Christian hospitality and learning within natural settings designed specifically to help persons and groups:

  • Affirm and expand their faith in God
  • Learn and practice Christian discipleship
  • Grow in wisdom and in healthy self-esteem
  • Establish relationships and lifestyles of loving interdependence with one another and all creation
  • Develop as skilled spiritual leaders who move out to inspire faith communities and society at large to “seek God and to do justice.”
  • Find renewal, encouragement, and support as leaders and participants from a host of religiously affiliated and non-profit organizations, so they might more effectively fulfill their purposes of bettering the world and transforming countless lives.

Cedar Glen a Julian grass roots beginning….

In November of 1920 when H. V. Mather became secretary and Director of Religious Education and  Mrs. Mather joined the staff as Director of Social and Recreational Life First United Methodist Church an idea was conceived to have a Methodist Camp for young people and the various adult groups, for weekend outings and religious meetings.  At that time land was being leased on Mt. Laguna from the government for this purpose.  Spearheading this process Mr. Mather naturally became the Director of the first camp club house for the next several years.  Sometime later, however, this building was crushed by a heavy snow and had to be rebuilt.  Charles W. Worcester was among the many who rallied to help and had charge of rebuilding.  He and Alfred Wahrenbrock looked after the place for a time.  This was a perfect match since the two men owned a cabin nearby and they kindly made it available to the church to provide added room.  Earl P. Robertson was also instrumental in the development of this program during the early years.

Around 1947, Dr. George Warmer, who was the Pastor of First Church at the time, made arrangements to sell the Laguna Clubhouse for about $5,000, when he learned that the church could buy the ranch of Dr. Cornell, northeast of Julian, for about $13,000.  Soon after the Mt. Laguna property was sold, the Cornell Ranch was purchased.  Much work and many years of volunteer service was required to make the property usable.  The old ranch house was used as sleeping quarters; several cabins were set up; and eventually a fine hall and dining room, with a large fireplace and kitchen, was built.  Later a craft shop and swimming pool were added.  After all these changes had been made, the whole camp, named Cedar Glen, was given as a gift to the Southern California Conference so that any of the Methodist churches in the Conference could use it.