Religion in a Victorian Heritage Site
"Understanding Ocean Grove"
For more than 150 years, Ocean Grove has been a place of spiritual rebirth and rejuvenation for American Methodists and many others. Founded by a group of ministers led by Rev. Ellwood Stokes in 1869, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Society bought from the state of New Jersey this one square mile then-secluded plot on the Jersey Shore, built the first of several tabernacles, and held summer tent faith meetings. Over the years, numerous permanent predominantly Victorian houses were built along the ocean front and now it is America's largest grouping of Victorian architecture. The land is owned by the Methodist church and leased to residents on 99-year terms.
Back in my time, Ocean Grove was off limits. Church policy was munincipal policy. Police blocked the three entrances from the main road. On Sunday, wheeled vehicles could not be parked on city streets. Even today, the beach is closed on Sunday AM, the town is dry with no liquor sales, and same-sex marriages are being opposed in court.
But in the 1970's and 1980's, the difficulties in neighboring Asbury Park and several legal setbacks opened the town in part to visitors and a more liberal lifestyle. Today Ocean Grove is thriving - its Victorian hotels lining the beach and extending into town are filled to capacity. The old style main street with its unique architecture is jammed with residents and visitors supporting cute upscale shops and a number of trendy restaurants. Bicycles are still a no-no on the well-maintained boardwalk but joggers and walkers fill the boards on weekends, so unlike Asbury one mile north. The beach is backed by dunes and is pretty spectacular, also superbly maintained. No beer coolers on this beach.
The immaculate town, great beach, and the Great Auditorium ( see tip ) successfully beckon a large population of family-oriented tourists and visitors.
"Small Town - Big Prestige"
Ocean Grove is a magnet for the famous and powerful in all walks of life. Politically potent, numerous presidents have visited, many speaking in the Great Auditorium. These include Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, William S. McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon.
The Great Auditorium is first and foremost the center for the summer revivals, but has attracted world class performers - this year Johnny Mathis is one of the featured visitors. Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale have lectured here. Methodist functions draw top church officials and assorted choirs and acting groups.