Last time we saw that camp meetings had their roots in Presbyterian “communion seasons,” as well as for Methodists, John Wesley’s field preaching and quarterly conferences.
Camp meetings became an especially important feature in 19th century American Methodism, spurred on by the support of Bishop Francis Asbury. We’ll see why Asbury became so enamored of camp meetings in a later post.
Prior to their being promoted by Bishop Asbury, organized camp meetings as such seem to have developed first in Kentucky and Tennessee as early as 1799 or 1800. In the Red River, Muddy Run and Gasper River areas, evangelistic meetings were held in connection with sacramental services — again, note the importance of Holy Communion to early camp meetings — under the leadership of Presbyterian minister James McGready (no doubt, inspired by his experience with “communion seasons”), assisted by the McGee brothers — William, also a Presbyterian, and John, a Methodist.
Rev. McGready states that “thirteen wagons came to transport people and provisions” at the Gasper River gathering and that many “provided for encamping at the meeting house” while others slept outside at the Muddy River sacramental meeting. This seems to have been the first planned camp meeting, to be followed by an increasing number of such events in the months and years following. People came from great distances and lived in their wagons, in rude tents, or in rough huts made from the boughs of forest trees. Great excitement attended the meetings, and the practice spread like wildfire.
Perhaps the most famous of these early meetings was the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting held in Kentucky in 1801. This extended for six days and was attended by an estimated crowd of ten to twenty thousand people, some of whom came from as far away as Ohio. It is believed that there were between one and two thousand conversions during the course of the meeting.
Next time, we’ll look at why the Presbyterians and Baptists basically ceded control of the camp meeting to the Methodists, and why Bishop Asbury became so enamored of them.
[SOURCES: Wikipedia entries on Camp Meetings and Communion Season, and “CAMP MEETINGS AND THE CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA CONFERENCE” by Lester A. Welliver, found at https://www.lycoming.edu/umarch/chronicles/1993/5.%20WELLIVER.pdf]
This coming Sunday, August 2nd, in our sanctuary services, we begin a 3-week season typically called “August Revival.” Our new sermon series is entitled “Reclaimed,” and our worship will be styled after the old camp meetings that were the rocket engine of American Methodist growth in the 19th century.
In light of that upcoming emphasis, and in preparation for our next pre-trip meeting on August 26th, I thought I would write a series of blog posts on Camp Meetings and American Methodism.
What was a camp meeting, and what did it have to do with the spread of Methodism?
The camp meeting was a form of religious service with roots in the 18th century Scottish Presbyterian practice of “communion season.” For American Methodists, for whom camp meetings became an engine of explosive growth, those roots also included John Wesley’s mid-18th century practice of open-air preaching, and the late 18th century American Methodist practice of quarterly conferences.
Originating in America in the late 18th century and becoming a major feature of 19th century religion in America, particularly among Methodists, camp meetings were held for worship, preaching, conversion, moral instruction, fellowship, and Holy Communion on the frontier. Revivals and camp meetings continued to be held by various denominations well into the 20th century, and in some areas of the mid-Atlantic, led to the development of seasonal cottages for meetings such the Ocean Grove, NJ, Camp Meeting Associations which continues on today. In Toronto, Ohio, the Hollow Rock Holiness Camp Meeting Association still runs a camp, and claims that it is the oldest Christian camp meeting in continual existence in the United States.
The late 18th century movement of thousands of American settlers to new western territories without the permanent villages they knew before meant they were without religious communities. Not only were there few authorized houses of worship, there were even fewer ordained ministers to fill the pulpits. The “camp meeting” led by itinerant preachers was an innovative response to this situation. Word of mouth told there was to be a religious meeting at a certain location. Due to the primitive means of transportation, if the meeting was to be more than a few miles’ distance from the homes of those attending, they would need to stay at the revival for its entire duration, or as long as they desired to remain. People generally camped out at or near the revival site, as on the frontier there were usually neither adequate accommodations nor the funds for frontier families to use them. People were attracted to large camp meetings from a wide area. Some came out of sincere religious devotion or interest, others out of curiosity and a desire for a break from the arduous frontier routine; the structure of the situation often resulted in new converts.
The very first camp meetings drew heavily on the traditions of the Scottish Presbyterian “communion season” meetings. They grew popular in frontier areas, where people without regular church buildings or preachers would travel from a large region to a particular site to camp out, listen to itinerant preachers, to pray, sing hymns and share in Holy Communion. Because neighbors and churches were few and far between on the frontier, enjoying true community – including Holy Communion – was an important part of the early camp meetings. In addition to community, camp meetings offered singing and other forms of music, sometimes even Spirit-led dancing, and diversion from work. For these early America pioneers, camp meetings can be thought of as a combination vacation and Sunday worship experience. The practice was a major component of the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement promoted by Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and other preachers in the early 19th century.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Bishop Francis Asbury thought about camp meetings.
 In Scottish Presbyterianism, a “communion season,” sometimes called “a holy fair,” is an annual week-long festival culminating with the celebration of the Lord’s supper. It usually begins with a Thursday fast. On Friday, known as the question day, lay catechists, called “the men”, would give their interpretations of Bible verses chosen by the minister. They would occasionally emerge as charismatic leaders of local revivals. A day of preparation would be held on Saturday. The climax was the Sabbath day celebration of Holy Communion, often outdoors in a natural amphitheater. A thanksgiving service would be held on Monday.
The practice developed in the eighteenth century as a result of hostility toward episcopacy, poverty, and lack of ministers. Where ministers refused or neglected parish Communion, large assemblies were carried out in the open air, often combining several parishes. These large gatherings were discouraged by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but continued. They could become mixed with secular activities and were commemorated as such by Robert Burns in the poem Holy Fair. In the Highlands communicants travelled great distances and lodged with friends and family. (Wikipedia entry for “Communion season”)
[SOURCES: Wikipedia entries on Camp Meetings and Communion Season, and “CAMP MEETINGS AND THE CENTRAL PENNSYLVANIA CONFERENCE” by Lester A. Welliver, found at https://www.lycoming.edu/umarch/chronicles/1993/5.%20WELLIVER.pdf)
Seems like an appropriate read for the 4th of July: John Wesley’s letter to the Methodist ‘Brethren’ in America, following the conclusion of the American Revolution and the need for the American Methodists to become an independent body. Note the primary reason for Wesley’s sending of Coke and Asbury: the need for the sacraments, despite his own discomfort with breaking Church of England order. Also notice how odd he thinks it is that there is no national church. Fascinating stuff. Courtesy of The Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University.
To ‘Our Brethren in America’
BRISTOL, September 10, 1784.
By a very uncommon train of providences many of the’ Provinces of North America are totally disjoined from their Mother Country and erected into independent States. The English Government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical, any more than over the States of Holland. A civil authority is exercised over them, partly by the Congress, partly by the Provincial Assemblies. But no one either exercises or claims any ecclesiastical authority at all. In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these States desire my advice; and in compliance with their desire I have drawn up a little sketch.
Lord King’s Account of the Primitive Church [See heading to letter of Dec. 30, 1745, to Westley Hall.] convinced me many years ago that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain. For many years I have been importuned from time to time to exercise this right by ordaining part of our traveling preachers. But I have still refused, not only for peace’ sake, but because I was determined as little as possible to violate the established order of the National Church to which I belonged.
But the case is widely different between England and North America. Here there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: in America there are none, neither any parish ministers. So that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man’s right by appointing and sending laborers into the harvest.
I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury to be Joint Superintendents over our brethren in North America; as also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey to act as elders among them, by baptizing and administering the Lord’s Supper. And I have prepared a Liturgy little differing from that of the Church of England (I think, the best constituted National Church in the world), which I advise all the traveling preachers to use on the Lord’s Day in all the congregations, reading the Litany only on Wednesdays and Fridays and praying extempore on all other days. I also advise the elders to administer the Supper of the Lord on every Lord’s Day.
If any one will point out a more rational and scriptural way of feeding and guiding those poor sheep in the wilderness, I will gladly embrace it. At present I cannot see any better method than that I have taken.
It has, indeed, been proposed to desire the English bishops to ordain part of our preachers for America. But to this I object; (1) I desired the Bishop of London to ordain only one, but could not prevail. [See letter of Aug. 10, 1780.] (2) If they consented, we know the slowness of their proceedings; but the matter admits of no delay. (3) If they would ordain them now, they would likewise expect to govern them. And how grievously would this entangle us! (4) As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.