Camp Meetings and Music

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Early Methodist Camp Meeting Hymnbook

The camp meeting tradition famously fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements. Since most participants could not read, and even if they could, printed hymn books were expensive, at first hymns and songs were taught and learned by rote. A spontaneous and improvisatory element was prized. Both tunes and words were created, changed, and adapted – often on the spot — in true folk music fashion:

Specialists in nineteenth-century American religious history describe camp meeting music as the creative product of participants who, when seized by the spirit of a particular sermon or prayer, would take lines from a preacher’s text as a point of departure for a short, simple melody. The melody was either borrowed from a preexisting tune or made up on the spot. The line would be sung repeatedly, changing slightly each time, and shaped gradually into a stanza that could be learned easily by others and memorized quickly.

Spontaneous song became a marked characteristic of the camp meetings. Rough and irregular couplets or stanzas were concocted out of Scripture phrases and every-day speech, with liberal interspersing of Hallelujahs and refrains. Such ejaculatory hymns were frequently started by an excited auditor during the preaching, and taken up by the throng, until the meeting dissolved into a “singing-ecstasy” culminating in general hand-shaking. Sometimes they were given forth by a preacher, who had a sense of rhythm, under the excitement of his preaching and the agitation of his audience. Hymns were also composed more deliberately out of the meeting, and taught to the people or lined out from the pulpit.

Collections of camp meeting hymns were eventually published, which served both to propagate tunes and texts that were commonly used, and to document the most commonly sung tunes and texts. Example hymnals include The Pilgrams’ Songster (sic); or, A Choice Collection of Spiritual Songs (1828), The Camp-meeting Chorister (1830) and The Golden Harp (1857).

Camp Meetings Resisted by English Methodists

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Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Church

Ironically, in England, despite the importance of field preaching in the development of early Wesleyan Methodism, after John Wesley’s death in 1791, the Wesleyan Methodists became settled and “proper” enough to oppose outdoor preaching such as that done at camp meetings.

On Sunday, May 31, 1807, the first camp meeting was held in England at Mow Cop by Methodist preacher, Hugh Bourne. Because the Wesleyan Methodists disapproved of camp meetings, they subsequently expelled Bourne from the British Methodist connection. Their reason? “Because you have a tendency to set up other than the ordinary worship,” which was exactly the same thing John Wesley had done and which the American Methodists were successfully doing.

Me preaching at Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Church in 2011
Me preaching at Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Church in 2011

Hugh Bourne, having been kicked out by the Wesleyan Methodists, eventually formed the Primitive Methodist Church. It still continues to this day, is still centered in Mow Cop, and still holds annual camp meetings.

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Ian, a modern camp meeting convert

During a 2011 visit to Mow Cop, during which I had the privilege of preaching at the Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Church, I met an Irishman named Ian, who walked six miles to church each week. An Irish Catholic, Ian describes himself as having been converted at a camp meeting in Mow Cop a few years earlier.

The Camp Meeting Movement Matures

ocean grove 3By 1830, the camp meeting movement had matured with more permanent preaching facilities taking the place of the temporary brush arbor, and more permanent cottages taking the place of the covered wagon and tent accommodations. The raucous behavior of earlier decades had been largely tamed. (Many early camp meeting facilities actually had a jail to house the misbehaving!)

After the Civil War, the now mature movement was still going strong leading to the construction of more permanent facilities, some of which are still in operation today. A slew of well-know preachers and bishops were highly sought after as speakers. All this was in sharp contrast to the open-air or tent accommodations and the often uneducated itinerant preachers of the early days.

Tents move upscale

But in spite of its seeming success and its widespread popularity, the post Civil War camp meeting was not without its problems. The work of local churches near the camp — and even those at a distance — was seriously hindered by the exodus of much of their leadership to the camp meeting. Excursion trains that ran to the camp sites on Sundays brought all types of people, many of whom came only for a day’s outing and had no sincere interest in the meeting or Christian faith. Such persons typically did not bother to attend the services, but instead promenaded over the grounds — often disturbing the meetings by their laughter and loud conversation. In short, they made it a holiday rather than a day of worship.

Commercial interests were quick to take advantage of the opportunity for profit and erected stands at the borders of the camp grounds to sell various kinds of merchandise and refreshments. Conditions became so bad that the 1878 Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law prohibiting the erection of booths or stands for the sale of merchandise of any kind within one mile of a camp meeting without consent of the trustees of the sponsoring association.[1]

Inside the pavilion at Ocean Grove, NJ
Inside the pavilion at Ocean Grove, NJ

During the closing years of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, the trend was away from a serious evangelistic emphasis to that of a series of preaching services to which people came for worship and social contact (much as places like Ocean Grove, NJ, are today). As Sunday School Conventions, and later Epworth League Institutes (early name for Methodist youth work), assumed greater importance over the years, they indirectly detracted from the camp meeting.

The camp meeting having served its purpose well, most associations eventually disbanded and the services were discontinued. A few still remain today, however, only as a vestige of that unique institution which probably did more than any other single aspect of the life of the church to give impetus to the expansion of Methodism in the developing years of our nation.[2]

[1], p. 53

[2], p. 55

Camp Meetings As the Engine of Methodist Growth

kentucky-early-1800sIn the aftermath of the American Civil War, camp meetings gained even wider recognition and a substantial increase in popularity as a result of the first holiness movement camp meeting in Vineland, New Jersey in 1867. In the mid-Atlantic states, the Methodist Church led many of these camp meetings and established semi-permanent sites for summer seasons. Ocean Grove, New Jersey, founded in 1869 by two Methodist pastors, has been called the “Queen of the Victorian Methodist Camp Meetings.” Not only does it still exist, it still successfully operates today. (See Rev. Steve Wende, from Houston’s First UMC preached there on August 2nd!) Similar areas include Cape May Point, New Jersey, with others in Maryland and New York. There’s even a camp meeting on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts!

What were the values of these early camp meetings? As we’ve seen, Francis Asbury saw them as the means of tremendous growth for the church on the frontier, which indeed they were. The rich harvest of the camp meeting is reflected in the amazing growth of Methodism during this period. In a letter to Dr. Thomas Coke in 1811, Asbury noted that in 1771 there were only 500 Methodists in America and that forty years later (1811) they numbered 185,000. The fact is that during the first half of the nineteenth century, the percentage growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church exceeded that of the nation in every decade but one. An outstanding example of this was the decade 1800-1810, during which the growth of the population was 36.45% while that of the denomination was 169%.

So, believing camp meetings to be a powerful engine for growth for Methodists, “a new work of God,” for 1810, Asbury set a goal of 600 camp meetings and one thousand conversions. He wrote to Jacob Gruber in 1811, “I rejoice that camp meetings still prevail more or less in all states, provinces of Upper Canada, Tennessee, New York, Jersey and Pennsylvania.” The same letter continues with the startling statement that “Doubtless, if the states and provinces hold 12 million, we congregate annually 3 if not 4 million in camp meetings.” According to historian Warren W. Sweet, by 1820 there were nearly 1,000 annual Methodist encampments. Asbury, it seemed, was getting his wish.

In addition to numerical growth, camp meetings valued spiritual growth of the individual participants. Following each Methodist camp meeting, converts were assigned to classes and new societies were organized in the surrounding circuits. While the previously documented phenomenal growth of Methodism during this period is ample evidence of the effectiveness of camp meetings, their value extended far beyond this increase in church membership. The camp meeting lifted the level of morality and brought a measure of refinement to the rough frontier life. It also provided a means of fellowship and social contact for the lonely and isolated settlers. It turned the attention of these pioneers, almost entirely consumed with providing the physical necessities of their existence, to the invisible and spiritual values of life. It was the effective instrument that enabled evangelical Christianity to spread to all parts of the nation.

Next time, we’ll look at how the camp meeting movement changed after 1830 as a result of its success.

What Went On at a Camp Meeting

IMG_9434With Bishop Francis Asbury urging all his Methodist preachers to conduct camp meetings, and with camp meetings consequently leading to explosive growth in the Methodist church, what went on during an early American Methodist camp meeting?

The program of the camp meeting was carefully planned and carried out. For months prior to its beginning, an atmosphere of expectancy was developed in the churches of the circuit and the surrounding area. Special efforts were made to secure attendance at the meeting by those not committed to the Christian life. Rules were drawn up for the operation of the camp, posted and strictly enforced. The Presiding Elder (what we call today a district superintendent) was usually in charge, assisted by ordained and local preachers and by exhorters.

While they were definitely moving experiences, most such camp meetings, especially in the later periods, did not involve the emotional excesses often associated with the early trans-Allegheny gatherings. Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright, for example, describes meetings involving trances, the “jerks,” rolling on the ground, barking like dogs, and such shouting that the noise carried for miles.[1] Similar, but probably not as extreme, manifestations became the exception rather than the rule in Methodist-run camp meetings.

IMG_9411 copyThe sermons of the camp meeting preacher were aptly described as “loud and vigorous, crude but effective.” They were loud and vigorous because they gave expression to a profound conviction of the truth which the preacher felt must be proclaimed to needy souls. They were crude because they came from the lips of men who lacked the refinement and polish of expression derived from formal education. But they were effective because they were in the language easily understood by their hearers, expressed in local idiom, and interspersed with illustrations out of the everyday experiences of those who listened. As Cartwright once noted, “It is true we could not, many of us, conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the king’s English almost every lick. But,” he continued, “there was a divine unction [that] attended the word preached and thousands fell under the power of God, and thus the Methodist Episcopal Church was planted firmly in this western wilderness.”[2]

Next time, we’ll look at what the early Methodists valued in their camp meetings.

[1], p. 44

[2] Ibid

Camp Meetings Ceded to Methodists

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

While Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists joined in the earliest of the camp meetings, the former two groups gradually abandoned the practice due to two factors:

  • a division of opinion within those denominations as to the propriety of such meetings (Early camp meetings gained a reputation for raucous behavior, both on the part of religious participants and those secular people who came to watch. There came to be such a thing as a “camp meeting baby” for reasons that need no explanation!)
  • a lack of leadership and regional organization to administer them.

By 1805 the field was left largely to the Methodists, who, spurred on by Bishop Francis Asbury, were eager to take full advantage of their opportunity. Asbury urged his preachers to make use of these meetings and to organize them in the East as well on the western frontier. As noted earlier, writing in his journal on August 2, 1809, he wrote, “We must attend to camp meetings; they make our harvest times.” As early as 1807, writing to Elijah Hedding, Asbury observed, “from what I have collected, camp meetings are as common now as quarter(ly) meetings were 20 years back, in many districts.” (Quarterly meetings were Methodist meetings held quarterly of all the Methodists on a given circuit. They were led by the Presiding Elder, and in addition to conducting business, they were times of fervent worship and fellowship. Because there was no building large enough to hold them all, these meetings were usually held outdoors and often became quite celebratory.)

Asbury wrote in his Journal for December 30, 1814, just two years before his death, “… Little River camp meeting the number which attended were thought to be three thousand, the converts about thirty. At Appalachee, number attending two thousand five hundred, the converts twenty five. At Grove camp-meeting, thousand attended, the converts might be twenty. At Louisville camp-meeting there were scarcely more than one-thousand, there might be ten converts. At the Warren two thousand five hundred persons to hear, and but few converts: each camp meeting continued four days.” Bishop Asbury believed that roughly 10% of the attendees at a camp meeting became converted to Christ.

Next time, we’ll look at what actually went on at a camp meeting.