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.