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]