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)