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 www.oceangrove.org. 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.

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