With 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. Similar, but probably not as extreme, manifestations became the exception rather than the rule in Methodist-run camp meetings.
The 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.”
Next time, we’ll look at what the early Methodists valued in their camp meetings.