History

"Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle?
Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”

Psalms 15:1

Nestled in a forested wood three miles north of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, on Route 343, there stands a modern semblance of an early tabernacle heralded in young David’s psalm. Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting, built in 1904, was part of the Great Religious Awakening in America that had its beginnings in the early 1800s.     

In 1874 the Heilmandale Campmeeting was founded by local United Brethren in Christ congregations to convert Pennsylvania Germans in the area. When Heilmandale drew its services to a close in 1892, the Campmeeting – and later the tabernacle – at Mt. Lebanon were born.

Gideon Light, who had served on the first board at Heilmandale, offered his wooded acreage three miles north of Lebanon as a possible site for the venture. So it was that the Campmeeting secured a tract of 18 acres and 125 perches of wooded forest with underbrush from Gideon Light. That spring church members set to work preparing for the first big meeting in August.

The Early Meetings

From August 7-15, 1892, the first campmeeting took place in forest so thick that even in daylight one was uncertain as to where to place the next step. By the second year, major changes had occurred.

Central on the grounds was a preacher’s stand brought to Mt. Lebanon from Heilmandale. Local preachers sat in a semi-circle with the lectern at central stage. From this lectern the wrath and love of Almighty God rained down, depending on the mood of the moment. It was not uncommon to have seven services on Big Sunday near the end of the meetings.

Pews consisted of backless planks nailed to posts in the ground. It was not uncommon for sermons to press past the hour mark, urging many a sinner to front and center, if not for relief of the pain, then certainly as reprieve for the soul.  The following year, a large tent was erected over the seating area to protect large crowds from the elements. Prior to 1904, the tent was referred to as the Tabernacle.

Surrounding the tent in the outside circle were smaller 12 x 12 foot tents rented by local families.  By 1900 campers had built 33 cottages and rented more than 100 tents for campmeeting. Fourteen years later, 70 cottages graced the grounds.

Camp goers traveled to the meetings by wagon, on foot, or by horse and buggy. Some engaged open-air hacks with fringed tops pulled by teams of horses. 

In the years after World War I, Milton S. Hershey ran a trolley from Lebanon a mile or so south of the grove.  Its main purpose was to transport workers to his chocolate factory in Hershey, but many made their annual trek to campmeeting via the trolley.

John H. Cilley, Builder

In 1892, the same year that Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting organized, local carpenter and self-taught architect, John H. Cilley, won Mt. Gretna’s competition for the Pennsylvania Chautauqua building. Later, Cilley built the tabernacle for Mt. Gretna Campmeeting, using a similar design.

One can imagine the Mt. Lebanonites’ excitement when they learned that John Cilley of Chautauqua fame had procured the bid to build an auditorium at Mt. Lebanon. Cilley and his crew constructed an edifice that today seats nearly 1,000. The huge rotunda stretched gracefully over the slope.

Perhaps Cilley should have built a larger auditorium for the crowds numbered in the 5,000s. Overflow crowds spilled onto both sides and the back of the grove as well as cottage porches and balconies around the circle. Cottage owners brought their own chairs, leaving tabernacle seating for guests. 

In back of the stage and attached to the tabernacle, a conventionally framed two-story gabled dormitory provided a room for preachers to lodge during the annual meetings. Wheeling and dealing for new church placements took place with bishops who annually came to preach.

Mt. Gretna and Mt. Lebanon campmeetings were established for two different purposes, Mt. Gretna’s to cater to the English-speaking populace, and Mt. Lebanon’s to disseminate “the Light of the Gospel as far as [the German population] can be reached.”  The campmeetings scheduled on consecutive weeks so families could attend both if they so desired.

The Tabernacle 

The Mt. Lebanon tabernacle is an historic structure, not only for its 100 years, but also by design. In October of 2002, Jeff Steckbeck, P.E. of Steckbeck Engineering & Surveying, Inc. in Lebanon assessed Mt. Lebanon’s architectural elements. The tabernacle, Steckbeck says, “... is an interesting study of an ingenious design. None of my textbooks or professional references shows pictures or describes a roof support system, which mirrors that used in the Tabernacle.”

Steckbeck continues, “Comparing the Tabernacle roof with different types of trusses identified in ‘The Wood Truss Handbook,” published by Gang Nail Systems, Inc., in 1981 in consort with Clovis Heimsath, FAIA & Associates, it appears that the Tabernacle roof is a combination of a three hinged arch and a scissors truss. The architect of the Tabernacle replaced the typical wood bottom beam with a steel tension rod. All of the steel tension rods were joined together at the peak of the roof with a steel hoop. The small diameter of the rods allowed for a compact hoop connection, necessary for that tight and compact area at the peak.

“A critical component of this truss design is the connecting hinge where steel rods join wood members. This connection is located approximately at mid-span of the bottom of the truss.”  

In 1989, several years before Mt. Gretna’s Chautauqua playhouse collapsed during the snowstorm of ‘94, Edward Greenbaum authored an article on Mt. Gretna’s auditoriums in Classic Wood Structures. Published by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Greenbaum indicates that the roofs of the Mt. Gretna auditoriums, and Mt. Lebanon’s tabernacle, by extension, are “supported on a radial pattern of inverted timber Fink Trusses spanning from a timber compression ring at the peak to a post set back from the eaves. Metal tie rods from the ‘valley’ of each truss are connected to an iron tension ring suspended below the center of the roof.

The 23 posts bearing the tabernacle roof at Mt. Lebanon consist of 10-foot chestnut logs. Posts vary in height, depending on the slope of the hill. Roof trusses mark Cilley’s genius, for unlike conventional structures, as Greenbaum indicates, the trusses are “through-bolted at connections and splices” and “augmented by a single … member which extends from the upper chord through the lower chord to the posts roughly opposite the eaves strut.” Upper ends are “framed into a heavy, built-up timber compression ring approximately [4 feet] in diameter.” The tension ring, which pulls inward and upward, decreases axial compression and wind shear on the 23 posts and “internally resolves roof load thrust.”

Greenbaum continues, “… these auditoriums possess remarkable aesthetic appeal. The conical shape and exposed timber ceiling creates a sense of warmth and comfort, and the interplay of light and shadow between the radial roof framing and tension ring is exciting to experience.”

John Cilley attained wide recognition for his craftsmanship, constructing similar auditoriums in the Pocono Mountains in Eastern Pennsylvania and his crowning achievement, an auditorium seating 5,000 at Mountain Lake Park Association in Western Maryland. Of his five auditoriums, the only ones remaining are the tabernacles at Mt. Lebanon and Mt. Gretna Campmeetings, with the largest at Mt. Lebanon.  

“The City of Light”

Though the tabernacle’s design is as ingenious as the man who crafted and constructed it, what occurred in this sanctum sanctorum over the last hundred years deserves even more attention.

A century of records at Mt. Lebanon abounds with preachers and testimonies of congregants who “got happy in the Lord.” One story has it that a Rev. Shoop prayed so earnestly and so loudly in the tabernacle that his voice could be heard by people living two miles away. Numerous were the youth on balconies of cottages serenading supplicants below.

The daily regime began at 6:00 a.m. with the sunrise bell. Meetings marched through the day – prayer and praise, Bible study, then preaching followed by dinner. Children’s hour commenced after lunch, more preaching at half past two, then time to visit with friends. A youth service ushered in the evening, followed by an evangelistic meeting. When the final bell rang after dark, few had difficulty sleeping.

The beloved John Adams taught sessions so popular that children numbered one to two hundred. The Rev. Elmer Horst taught parables with puppets, delighting them with cowbells and trumpet music. Youth meetings, crowded out of the tabernacle by the large numbers of children, met in a tent at the top of the hill.

After services, youngsters rummaged for lost pennies in the sawdust floor that replaced the straw of yesteryear. Camp goers knelt for prayer until 1953 when a new amacite floor took its place.

Inverted trusses in the tabernacle ceiling provided a protective home for robins and raccoons. Caretakers removed nests and pests until later years when fire companies hosed them out instead.

The roof was replaced on an average of every twenty-five years. Such undertakings were quite impressive as one could see Cilley’s marvelous handiwork in the skeletal structure against the sky. 

Coal oil lanterns, followed by gasoline lights, provided light for meetings after dark. Torch lighters came into the grove to illuminate torches on trees and coal oil lanterns in the tabernacle. As supplicants retired to their beds, lanterns were snuffed in the auditorium while smaller versions of the same transformed a hundred white tents into a beautiful city of light.

Over the years, amenities filtered into the woods with the most important the addition of electricity in 1924. One night a severe thunderstorm cut off the power during an evening service. Cottage holders felt their way to their cottages, and then lined the sanctuary with lanterns to complete the worship. The minister finished his sermon with a candle.

Programs

Big Sunday services featured bishops of the Eastern Conference. Some preached in Pennsylvania German. For most people, campmeeting was their sole contact with the bishops each year.

Local pastors preached and brought their flocks with them. Evangelists often occupied central stage. More recent decades have found professors from the Evangelical School of Theology in Myerstown gracing the pulpit. Bible Study teachers made a significant impact as did choristers.

Congregational singing has always been a highlight at Mt. Lebanon.  Acoustics in the tabernacle reverberate sound up and around the inside dome of the roof. Accompanists are vital to the mood of the meetings. As early as 1906, records indicate the use of a piano and organ. Many have graced the tabernacle with their musical talents.

For many years Lebanon Valley College supplied speakers. Old timers recalled one professor, a Bible teacher who “prayed around the world.” His knowledge of scripture was so thorough that no one ever won an argument with him.


Nor could one forget stories about the spiritual directors of the campmeetings – Rev. Christian Longenecker tapped on cottages reminding campers of curfew after 10 p.m.  Rev. Phillip Strickler, who served as spiritual director in the 1980s, recalled serenading campers with his teenage friends from a second floor balcony overlooking the grove.  Legion are the figures who emerged in this leadership role. 
 

Through the years, as children attended English-speaking schools, the German-speaking population increased in age. Old Peoples’ Days catered to those with German as their mother tongue. Services in German continued through the 1960s and ‘70s, then were eliminated except for an occasional commemorative service. The last was held during the campmeeting's centennial in 1992.

The Women’s Society of World Service, Women’s Missionary Society, and Otterbein Guild attracted hundreds to campmeeting each year.  Streamers and banners lent splashes of color to the tabernacle. Youth gathered arms full of gladiolus from cottage porches to decorate the platform. Missionaries shared stories of adventure and redemption.

As campmeeting drew to a close, congregants encircled the tabernacle in a Ring Service, singing German choruses in early years and English melodies later. People testified to the power of God in their lives and then shook hands or hugged until each had bid all, in turn, God-speed until another year.

"Fire!"

The most traumatic events in the tabernacle’s history occurred in 1936 and again, in 1956.

On October 20, 1936, transients passing through the area started a fire that quickly got out of control. The Pfeiffer cottage, its porch wrapped so charmingly around a tree, was the first to go. Insatiable flames licked down the hill, devouring the little cottages one by one.

The news spread like lightning through the Lebanon Valley, and volunteers descended on the grove. Men mounted the tabernacle, dousing sparks that landed on the cedar shakes with buckets of water  while others beat flames with shovels on the ground. A cadre sheathed Cottage #33 and pulled it from its foundation, halting the fire’s advance toward the West end of the grove. By 5:00 that evening, the wind providentially changed direction, but not in time to save 24 lovely cottages that lay in ashes with numerous others damaged. Even the trees in the forest had burned. Blackened stumps and scattered foundation blocks reminded one more of a graveyard than a place to rejoice.

Still, by the grace of God, the tabernacle remained unscathed. Encouraged, the board voted to rebuild. Seventeen new cottages were assured that very night. Depression years, however, denied some families the privilege of rebuilding. That following summer, for the first time the board voted to allow several cottage owners to live on the grounds year round as a measure of protection.

Gasoline rationing during World War II prevented Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting from being held one year except for a single day -- Big Sunday. After the war, returning soldiers married and brought their families to campmeeting. When the United Brethren in Christ and Evangelical Churches merged, attendance soared to 5,000 on Big Sundays.

Then it happened again. On November 20, 1956, a second fire started in the Miller cottage down the hill. However, this time extinguishers and hydrants on location helped Mt. Lebanonites to control the flames in time. Though three cottages were destroyed and another two damaged, the tabernacle sustained only minor damage. As an additional measure of assurance, workers dug a pond to assure the safety of their tabernacle.

Finale

Other changes, fortunately less traumatic than the fires, occurred in the tabernacle itself. In the early years, a large clock with pendulum and memorial photographs of old preachers graced the platform, but after the 75th anniversary in 1966, they were not replaced. As the years marched on, the majority of camp goers no longer knew the old preachers except by hearsay.

In the 1950s, Bethany United Methodist Church donated an oil painting, Christ in Gethsemane, that graces the central platform today. Some believe the Bethany donation may have been painted by an itinerant artist who traveled from church to church creating his own version of the well-known Hofmann painting. A restoration of the painting in 1983, unfortunately, lasted less than a decade. 

One night a pastor, Rev. Neville West from Newville, Pa., wielded his artistic talents during a service as his wife played the piano. Then and there, the Kleinfelter family commissioned him to paint a new rendition of the famous canvas hanging in Riverside Church in New York City.  

Through all the years and up to the present day, the altar in the forest at Mt. Lebanon has withstood the trials wrought by history, weathering, and time. This imposing structure, lofty and expansive in physical appearance, continually inspires and lifts one Godward, as Rev. Elmer Horst indicated in his 75-year history:

     “Tents have been exchanged for cottages, kerosene lamps for electric lights, horse and buggies 
     for the modern automobile, and the beard for the ‘clean shave.’ The grove never-the-less
     continues to resound with the voices of God’s servants who proclaim the changeless Gospel of 
     a changeless Saviour.

     “The history of Mt. Lebanon is not so much a history of facts, dates, and statistics, as it is a
     history of spiritual experiences. It is not so many events, but the warming of so many hearts. 
     It is not a location, as much as it is a fellowship . . . . Its ultimate purpose has always been to 
     lift men Godward . . .

                                                  Godward toward the pinnacle
                                                  Connecting earth and heaven."

 For this sacred space, with David, we sing:

“Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? 
Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?”

(Psalms 15:1)

“Singet Hallelujah, Singet hallelujah
Singet Halle … singet Glori …
Singet Hallelujah.”

(from an old Pennsylvania German chorus)

Author: Jeanne Jacoby Smith 
Copyright 2004

 

The complete history of Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting's 
first 100 years can be found in 
An Altar in the Forest: A History of Mt. Lebanon Campmeeting, 1892-1992.  
  This book as well as the 2004 Tabernacle Centennial 
booklet are available in the Mt. Lebanon Gift Shop or from 
David Shenk at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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