A Frontier Tabernacle

Sunday schoolers and Raiders of the Lost Ark fans know that the presence of God was once associated with the Tabernacle. According to the biblical text, this frame and fabric structure was constructed in a special moment in time. Israel was moving to a new frontier.* As the people packed or pitched their tents, so too, their God. The tabernacle was a symbolic reminder of God’s leadership and the importance of His ethical demands. 

The tabernacle complex was simple and portable. It consisted of a tent pitched in the midst of an open courtyard. The Ark of the Covenant rested inside the tent. Outside, sacrifices were performed by priests. The camp of the people circled the complex like an army surrounding a king. Image from here.

The tabernacle complex was simple and portable. It consisted of a tent pitched in the midst of an open courtyard. The Ark of the Covenant rested inside the tent. Outside, sacrifices were performed by priests. The camp of the people circled the complex like an army surrounding a king. Image from here.

I am visiting my parents in the small town of Turner, Oregon. Out the window I can smell the evergreens and hear the babble of water over rock. The watercourse is Mill Creek, a tributary of the Willamette River and an artery of local history. More than a century ago, the Willamette Valley was a target for Oregon Trail travelers. The brave pioneers who settled here brought many tools for life on the frontier. Some fit into their wagons; others were stowed more deeply.

The town is named after Henry L. Turner (1810-1871).** He was a pioneer of 1852 who bought property and built a flour mill along the creek just outside my window. In 1871 the railroad provided yet another conduit. Turner Station was established along the line between Portland and San Francisco. A community developed around an economy of lumber, flax, and dairy.

A freight train rumbles through town. I stop typing on my laptop and listen. While some things have changed dramatically since those days, other things have not.

View to Turner, 1878. Image from here.

View to Turner, 1878. Image from here.

One cannot think holistically about the 19th century American frontier without taking religious impulses into account. Protestantism, primitivism, and enthusiastic camp revivals were a legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and members of the Stone-Campbell Movement pressed these concerns regionally. The mill town of Turner, Oregon--so remote from the more churchified Midwest--also felt these forces.

In 1878, the Turner family donated six acres of land on the edge of town to be used as ground for an annual camp meeting. Records show that such a meeting was held in 1885. Attendees came by wagon, horse, and rail. Six years later, in 1891, an enormous wooden structure was completed at a cost of about $5,000. That building still stands today, albeit in modified form. Across its face many words are written. One catches my eye: TABERNACLE.

Above the main entrance (now blocked) is a description: Turner Memorial Tabernacle, 1891.

Above the main entrance (now blocked) is a description: Turner Memorial Tabernacle, 1891.

The building is just a short walk from where I sleep. I walk to the place and stand in the grass before it. There is nothing equivocal here. About half the size of a football field (110 x 160 feet), it is starkly cast in black and white. Walls are at least twenty feet tall and rest on boulders imported by rail. The roofline flies upward beyond my ability to judge. Under steep pitches is room enough to seat 2,000 people. It is a barn-like spectacle, a statement of pioneering faith, a megalith from a pre-megachurch world. 

While modifications such as electric outlets, fluorescent lights, overhead heaters, and a carpeted floor (the original "floor" was beaten earth and sawdust) give the interior a more contemporary feel, it is fumbly and awkward. More elegant is the woodwork overhead. Here the craftsmanship of another time is truly revealed. A post-and-beam skeleton of old growth timbers span incredible distances and are secured by nothing more than notches and wooden pegs. The artistry of this is even more marvelous when one considers the technology of hoisting such trusses skyward was simply ropes, pulleys, human muscle, and teams of horses. 

Functional demands of the original building were simple. People needed places to sit or stand. Preachers without microphones needed a broad platform. No baptistry for immersion was necessary as Mill Creek meanders nearby.

The extravagance of the place--if you can call it that--comes by way of two towers that originally flanked the tabernacle facade. On the top of each was a metal globe (see image below). According to multiple reports, these globes represented the two hemispheres of the earth. Between them sprawled the command of Mark 16:15. It is written in letters the size of a man's arm: "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." The evangelical imperative is the keynote of the design.

A picturesque moment in the early life of the Turner Memorial Tabernacle. Image from here.

A picturesque moment in the early life of the Turner Memorial Tabernacle. Image from here.

Unfortunately, vandal gunfire in the following century brought the globes down. A storm in 1962 destroyed one of the two towers. Other signs of wear and tear in the clapboard siding are visible. Despite these setbacks, the building stands and continues be administered by the Oregon Christian Convention to this day. See their website here.

The tabernacle today. It wears a fresh coat of white paint and black trim. Note the missing tower on the left.

The tabernacle today. It wears a fresh coat of white paint and black trim. Note the missing tower on the left.

I walk out the doors and stand once again beneath entry facade. I look up and contemplate the words. Why tabernacle? It seems like such an odd term. Is it my generation? Am I missing something?

My mother, who attended a camp meeting here as a child in the early 1940s (the heyday of attendance, I'm told), has memories of the place. She vividly remembers the dirt floors. She also remembers sleeping in one of several buildings that dot the edges of the campground. She suggests many more people parked and camped in the fields surrounding the tabernacle. As her voice trails off I try to picture a congregation of two thousand people gathered in the open fields around this enormous wooden structure. I listen for their laughter, their prayers, the bellow of a preacher. I smell the smoke of campfires and savor the cooking food. An idea begins to congeal.

Like the People of God from another age, revivalists gathered here to celebrate God's leadership and the importance of His ethical demands. The encampment circled the complex like an army surrounding their king.

Other aspects of this imagery borrowed from Israel's Exodus experience do not work well, but certainly the idea of men, women and children on a frontier journey with an indwelling God is a short step.

*The Biblical account of the tabernacle's origin is found in the Torah of the Hebrew Bible. See the description in chapters 25-31 of the book of Exodus.

**See the compilation of Stephenie Flora,"Emigrants to Oregon in 1852" (2009). See website here.

***More information on these matters may be found in Gary Tiffin's The History of Turner Retirement Homes. Turner Retirement homes, 2008. Also helpful is a paper of mysterious origin entitled "How Firm a Foundation," authored by Doug Dornhecker and shared with me by Frank Musgrave. Still more information is available on the website "Pioneer History: Churches of Christ & Christian Churches in the Pacific Northwest" found