Methodist Spirituality: In Camp Meetings and the Home

Camp meeting hymn book
Camp meeting hymn book

I apologize that it’s been so long since I posted in this blog. You may or may not know that my daughter, Lauren, gave birth to our first grandchild – Ella Rose – on May 16th. That SAME DAY, my wife’s mother, Sarah Rosella (catch the similarity in name with my granddaughter) Kindle Hunsberger passed away. In fact, my daughter was in the car on the way to the hospital to deliver Ella when she got word about her grandmother’s passing. Real “circle of life” stuff.

Then, we had Annual Conference, during which we had a “little bit” of rain here in Houston – 12 inches in four hours worth of little!! Fortunately, I didn’t get that much at my house, but I drove through it for the scariest ride home of my life.

So bottom line is we’ve been a little preoccupied lately. But we’re back now to complete our history of early American Methodism blog.

I think everyone has heard somewhere along the way how important camp meetings were to the growth of religion in America generally, and Methodism specifically. The origins and authorship of the camp meeting movement have been and will remain contested, in part because similar multi-day preaching, sacramental, and revivalistic events— including the Methodist quarterly conferences and Pennsylvania German large meetings— had long occurred in Western Christianity.

William McKendree
William McKendree

Camp meeting definition emerged with the well-reported Presbyterian-initiated, multi-denominational encampments in the summers of 1800 and 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Rev. William McKendree, then presiding elder of the Kentucky district but in 1808 elected as the first native-born bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church, recognized immediately the value of the camp meeting. So did Bishop Asbury who, along with a number of Methodist leaders, communicated the revivalistic import of camp meetings to Bishop Coke and through the (British) Methodist Magazine to the wider Methodist world.

By late 1802, Asbury had turned from observer and reporter to promoter. He directed Methodist leaders to establish camp meetings in connection with annual conferences. More typically, Methodists structured camp meetings in relation not to annual conferences but to the staple of local Methodist religious life, quarterly meetings.

Literally exploding across the North American landscape, camp meetings became a hugely successful engine of Methodist growth and a highly familiar signature of its organizational life. Preachers and presiding elders spent a considerable portion of their time, particularly in the summer, in going to or conducting camp meetings.

Camp meetings blossomed as much in the East where they put increasingly urbanized Methodism in touch with its fervid past as in the frontier where they served well to command the attention and to create the community around the Methodist message and program requisite for individual transformation and corporate formation.

Methodist preachers ran conferences and camp meetings. But Methodism as a whole ran predominantly in the home and as a movement of and for women whose spiritual agency was pervasive, if not always prominent. Indeed, as American Methodism grew in numbers and stabilized itself, as early as the 1790s in New York, a decade later elsewhere, women lost places in the offices of the church, offices to which Wesley had admitted them, most notably as class leaders. A number of women found ways to evade the restrictive conventions and to exercise leadership, even preaching roles. So, for instance, Fanny Newell experienced a call to preach.

The major legislative battles for women’s official leadership lay decades ahead. In early nineteenth-century Methodism, the primary modality of Methodist witness, overall and for women, was through lives that testified to gospel order and to steady progress toward loving, compassionate holiness.

Methodism functioned day to day, in women’s spheres: in homes, on a domestic level. Classes met in homes and shops, even in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia where Methodism boasted church buildings that accommodated some of the meetings. Outside these cities, Methodist buildings and preaching places were the houses of their adherents and friends. And membership effectively also had a domestic character in that members belonged through their classes. Their good standing, still registered by ticket from the class leader and often meeting in homes, opened up participation on larger levels.

Even the predominantly male preachers were, in a sense, domesticated. As they traveled around the circuit, they stayed with families or widows, such preacher homes a centerpiece of the itinerant plan in established circuits and a project to be worked on in frontier areas.

Domesticity, spontaneity, and informality proved the rule in early Methodist spirituality and worship. One casualty of such informal piety were the liturgies and other formal worship provisions sent over in 1784 by Wesley (i.e., The Sunday Service).

Next time we’ll look at racializing the church, and then wrap up our pre-trip look at early American Methodist history.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

One thought on “Methodist Spirituality: In Camp Meetings and the Home

  1. Bob – Your writings on American Methodism’s early history are just exceptional – I never cease to be amazed at the range of your giftedness. I just hope John Stephens really understands that! I also mentioned your XP “coacing” skills to Doug Baker when I visited with him at AC and gave him your contact info, so you may have already heard from him. If you did, you know that his former XP, Marty Duncan, is moving to Houston John Wesley, and he’s “promoted” one his lay leaders to that position, and it sounds like both of them might benefit from some Bob Johnson Solomonic XP wisdom. But before you get to heady with all this praise, remember your baptism, and give thanks for the grace of God that has saved two sinners like you and me!

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