June 1891: two men headed north from Grand Junction, following the railroad track, fishing poles in hand. Approaching a substantial tract of timberland, they followed a winding path through giant maples, beech, hemlock, and pines, en route to Lester Lake. Around them were blackened tree trunks, stumps, and other victims of the destructive fires that burned their way through earlier. Entering the heavily timbered grove, the men enjoyed the morning concert by the song birds. Deep into the grove, the older man said, “Let’s stop for a while and enjoy this wonderful music that is being given by these feathered songsters.” Seating himself on a log in the faint light of the early morning, D. S. Warner listened to the concert. Finally, he remarked, “Do you know, Brother Byrum [Noah] , since enjoying this beautiful spot I have been thinking what a wonderful place this would be for a camp-meeting grounds” (The Book of Noah/132).
The following February, a notice appeared in The Gospel Trumpet notifying readers of the purchase of the 60-acres to the south of Lester Lake. Onsite preparation would begin March 1-2. Sunday afternoon–May 29, 1892–saw several workers from the Trumpet Office in Grand Junction hiked out to the lake to view the progress and uncompleted buildings. Joining others who came from the log church over at the Smith-home, they arranged some seats, opened their songbooks and joined in a sing-along. Somebody suggested they pray; then Birdie Fink shared devotional thoughts and that was the first religious service on the campground.
Warner Camp and the Church of God evolved out of the agonies and ecstasies of the American Camp Meeting Movement that prompted Francis Asbury to call such summertime meetings “Methodism’s harvest time.’ The Church of God came to the Bangor area with the revivals of J.C. Fisher of Carson City in 1882. The first camp meeting was held in Bangor, 1883, moving to Lester Lake in 1892. “Nothing” wrote Richard Willowby, “is more Church of God than camp meeting“ (Family Reunion/Warner Press/1986). That first encampment met on the Harris Farm, two miles north of Bangor, as a national rallying of readers of the Gospel Trumpet. Of course, the public was invited. Sebastian Michels, who built most of the earliest buildings, handled dining details in 1883 by offering family style food service for a free will offering. That was the year that Emma Miller of Battle Creek received her sight in a dramatic healing that we still talk about.
A second year–1884–resulted in campers coming hundreds of miles. One man walked 170 miles. Reports from 1885 say there were 220 consecrations in the 1885 meeting. This being a “holiness camp meeting,” reports included 200 people sanctified. Warner had launched The Gospel Trumpet in northern Indiana–1881, relocating to Williamston, MI in 1884, where J. C. Fisher became Managing Editor. In 1886, supporters rallied and relocated the Warner-Fisher ministry to Grand Junction. The July 1, 1886 Gospel Trumpet gave this report by Warner:
“One good and noble work wrought at the Bangor Camp Meeting was not mentioned in our report. The Spirit led us to appropriate the time of one meeting to the consideration to one meeting of the publishing interests. It was what might be termed a business meeting, but about as much unlike a Babylon, money-raising buffoonery, as Heaven differs from the coarse humor of a clown show. It was indeed the most melting service of the whole meeting. Few eyes of the saints were dry, as we all talked freely of the great work God is carrying on in the earth, and of the marvelous blessings His evening light has brought to our souls. The Spirit of God wonderfully presided over the meeting and filled all hearts with increased love to God and the holy saints.
The removal of the Trumpet office to that part of the state, seemed the mind of the Spirit, and of all the saints … a building, commodious and substantial was offered for half its worth, namely $800, in the town of Grand Junction. The place is located at the crossing of the Chicago and West Mich. and the South Haven branch of the Michigan Central Railroads and is surrounded by about four hundred saints, who propose to greatly lighten the expenses of publishing salvation, by giving fuel, provision, etc. And every dollar saved in this way helps to enlarge the circulation of truth. The saints unanimously agreed to purchase the property; $80 were raised to pay moving expenses. The time agreed upon to pay for the building is August 1st. and there were pledged to be ready by that time, $257 by the saints present. Dear Bro. Michaels, and several others, were to procure, for one year, whatever was lacking of the full amount, and a few pledged over $100 to be paid one year hence”
The first camp meeting on this site began June 14, 1892. Pastor A. B. Palmer preached the first sermon from the text, Adam, where art thou?” To accommodate the crowds, it required a tabernacle, a large tent, and two other facilities for conducting simultaneous services. It was during this camp meeting that Noah Byrum met his bride-to-be–Isabelle Coston of Muskegon–and they served the Gospel Trumpet Company for the remainder of their lives. Songwriter, Barney Warren, baptized 9 in Lester Lake that year, a custom still practiced at the end of every camp meeting.
Church of God families have now gathered to sing, worship, pray, preach, and play for 130 years. After years as a 60-acre Camp Meeting Site, Warner Camp transitioned into Year-round programming. Now expanded, with 192 acres, Warner Camp serves as a Church and Family Retreat and Leadership Training Center. It provides Youth Camping for and a center for Interdenominational Church life.
The Story family (Mrs. Story being the sister of F. G. Smith) lived on the Camp Grounds in the farm home–present “the Farm House.” At that time, the Story’s operated a working farm and the kids attended high school with me. All are still active in the church and several are retired out west.
For twelve years of its early life, Warner Camp was the Cradle that rocked the Church of God Reformation Movement. Today, it retains its historic identity in our national church life. Tomorrow promises continuing expansion as a camp with a servant’s heart, providing life-changing experiences to all who come on it’s grounds.