A bell peals calling the faithful to gather under an open-air Tabernacle in front of a stage bedecked with green bunting.
Thick green hymn books are passed out to attendees seated on sturdy wooden benches. Volunteers place lemonade and snacks on long tables.
Every summer for 43 years, this scene has been repeated on Wednesday nights for the hymn sing held at Emory Grove, a private Methodist camp in Glyndon founded in 1868 for religious tent revivals. The verdant, 67-acre religious community is home to 47 wood-frame cottages along with the vintage Emory Grove Hotel used for special occasions.
"We'll sing 18 to 20 hymns in an hour," said Bill DeHaven, 82, of Reisterstown, who opens each hymn sing with a prayer. During the hymn sings — which are open to the public regardless of religion — participants are invited to call out a favorite hymn. A pianist accompanies the singers. "We give special dispensation," joked DeHaven. "They only have to sing the first two verses of the hymn. And if no one knows the words to the hymn you have to sing it solo."
The hymn book, titled "Favorite Hymns of Praise," contains standards like "Abide by Me" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," along with more secular tunes such as the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." On this night, the first hymn sung by the 44 people gathered is "The Sweet By and By."
For Kathy Mellott, president of the Emory Grove Association, summer hymn sings are a part of her childhood. Her grandfather, the Rev. George Lovell, started the hymn sings because he "felt that going from Sunday to Sunday was too long without praising God," said Mellott, a Beltsville resident. Lovell built the gold-painted cross that hangs behind the altar of the tabernacle.
Halfway through the program, Erin Mellott, of Baltimore, president of the Emory Grove Ladies Auxiliary and Kathy Mellott's daughter, plays a solo rendition of "Amazing Grace" on her flute. Overhead fans whir as evening sets in and darkness begins to edge across the trees surrounding the tabernacle, a farmer's market from Hanover, Pa., that was moved to Emory Grove in the 19th century.
"We trace our roots to the 1880s," said Bob Graziosi, of Reisterstown, a veteran of the hymn sings and a "Grover" — the nickname for families who own cottages at Emory Grove.
"My favorite is the last verse of the 'Star-Spangled Banner,'" said Graziosi, a past president of the Emory Grove Association that was named for Methodist Bishop John Emory, who was killed in a buggy accident in 1835 on Reisterstown Road.
Like many, Graziosi said there is something special about worshipping and singing outdoors. "When you sit in the pews and look at the green, you are close to God and God's creation," he said.
No 'bad' voices
In its heyday, thousands of people attended weeklong services at the Emory Grove. In the 1920s, famed preacher Billy Sunday — the Billy Graham of his day — delivered sermons to crowds of more than 5,000 worshippers.
Methodists flocked to Emory Grove by train and trolley from downtown Baltimore until World War II. Today, descendants of some of the same families still own cottages (which have replaced canvas tents) and come from as far as California to spend summers with other Grovers.
Worshippers say that what keeps people coming back to Emory Grove year and after year is the sense of timelessness and tradition that hymn sings evoke. Many attend because they also miss the tradition of group singing and feel that worshippers aren't exposed to traditional hymns.
"Hymns are critical to the identity of the Methodist Church. Each time a new hymnal comes out we lose more traditional hymns and songs that have always been shared," said Dean McIntyre, Ph.D., director of music resources for the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries in Nashville, Tenn.
McIntyre said it's the "element of spontaneity" that comes with not knowing which hymn will be sung that makes hymn sings appealing.
"It doesn't matter is you have a bad voice," Bill DeHaven said. "It will disappear in the crowd."
The final hymn sing of 2017 is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7 p.m. in the historic Emory Grove Hotel. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, go to www.emorygrove.net.