The Magazine

The Town FEMA Turned Down

The tide goes out on religious liberty

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Ocean Grove, N.J.
When Sandy swept across the Jersey shore in October 2012, the coastal town of Ocean Grove was spared the worst. Sure, half the town’s boardwalk was destroyed and its pier was swept out to sea. And yes, sand, trees, and concrete benches were carried two blocks inland, while entire buildings were picked up and moved across town. But Ocean Grove’s crown jewel, an ornate and beautiful 6,250-seat auditorium, built in 1894, survived. It only had a third of its roof torn off. The auditorium’s foundation was intact and, most important, its 11,561-pipe organ was unscathed by the wind and rain.

CORBIS/ AP Wayne Parry / NEWSCOM

CORBIS/ AP Wayne Parry / NEWSCOM

So despite everything, the residents of Ocean Grove counted themselves lucky. That is, until they had to deal with the federal government. Ocean Grove has been denied rebuilding funds from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In one sense, this denial is part of the Obama administration’s quiet campaign against religion in the public square. Yet the story of FEMA’s conflict with Ocean Grove is about more than just Barack Obama. It’s the story of modern America’s rebellion against its religious foundations, rendered in miniature.

In the late 1860s, a Methodist preacher named William Osborn assembled a small group of pastors from around Philadelphia to purchase a patch of land at the shore in central New Jersey. On July 31, 1869, they christened their one square mile of paradise “Ocean Grove.”  

At first, it was just a campsite—the preachers and their flocks pitched tents during the summer in order to get away from the bustle of the city. That December they organized a government for the nascent community, setting up the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In the Northeast of the 1860s, this was a commonplace: Camp meeting associations stemming from the Second Great Awakening were formed in Martha’s Vineyard, Willimantic, Conn., Merrick, N.Y., and elsewhere.

Ocean Grove’s camp meeting was particularly successful. In 1870 the New Jersey state legislature granted the Camp Meeting Association a charter, giving them the power to hold and maintain their property, establish infrastructure, and even create a police force—all in the name of setting their land aside for “the perpetual worship of Jesus Christ.” It was, as they say, a different time.

Moving beyond simple campsites, the association set about building a town. They mapped a network of streets and plots of land. They dug wells and eventually ran electric lines. In 1894, the Great Auditorium, a grand Victorian building at the center of town, was erected in just 92 days. Throughout this period, Ocean Grove thrived. Before he was elected president, James Garfield summered there. Later, Ulysses Grant would be a frequent visitor, often popping in to see his sister, who lived in town.

One of the peculiar laws the town established was a prohibition against the presence of horses (and later cars) anywhere on the streets, parked or moving, from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday. This ban was absolute. One Sunday in 1875, President Grant arrived by carriage and, upon reaching the gates at the town limits, tethered his horses and walked the remaining half mile to his sister’s house. (Grant was so fond of Ocean Grove that his final public appearance took place at the Great Auditorium, during a reunion of Civil War Army chaplains. As Wayne Bell recounts in his history of the town, Grant was introduced to speak by one Dr. A. J. Palmer, who concluded his remarks by declaring that “no combination of Wall Street sharpers shall tarnish the luster of my old commander’s fame for me.” Bell reports, “Grant was too overcome with emotion to acknowledge the thunderous ovation and retired without a word.”)

In 1879, the state created a new township, called Neptune, and placed Ocean Grove within its boundaries. But while Ocean Grove paid some taxes to Neptune, they continued to provide their own city services and retained independent authority over local laws.

Yet eventually, Ocean Grove was caught in the church-state tensions that were building between elected officials and the judiciary. In 1920, the state legislature incorporated Ocean Grove as a fully independent borough. But a year later, the state court of appeals held that this was unconstitutional because of Ocean Grove’s religiously based ordinances. The municipality was dissolved, and Ocean Grove reverted to being a semi-autonomous part of Neptune township, with the Camp Meeting Association still in charge of governance.

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