As I have been researching for my next book, I have had the opportunity to investigate and learn about all sorts of interesting things. One of the latest things I have learned about is the nineteenth century custom of holding extended revival services in “camp meetings.” People would gather at campgrounds in the woods and hold religious services from daylight until dark for weeks on end. It’s a little-known aspect of American history that you probably won’t be reading about in any history book approved for use in a public school. Here is what I have learned:
By the end of the eighteenth century, Christianity in the United States had fallen upon hard times. The Great Awakening’s tide of revival, which had peaked during the 1740’s, had begun to ebb. Deism, transcendentalism, universalism, and downright apostasy had so eaten away at church membership that by 1795 one traveler through Kentucky complained that “the universalists, joining with the Deists, had given Christianity a deadly stab hereabouts.” Indeed, during the six years leading up to 1800, the Methodist Church had lost over 6,000 members nationwide. Although the year 1800 may have marked the nadir of early American Christianity, the seeds of its renaissance had been planted the year before. In 1799 two brothers set out from their homes in Western Tennessee and went through Kentucky as they traveled to Ohio. Both brothers had taken the cloth as preachers, but John McGee served as a Methodist minister, while his brother William had entered the ministry as a Presbyterian. They stopped at a settlement on the Red River where a Reverend McGready was holding an open-air “sacramental meeting.” Upon being invited to preach at the meeting, John McGee and his brother William held forth so eloquently that the meeting was extended for several days. The locals, hearing that the Spirit was moving at the services, flocked to the scene in large numbers. The McGee brothers, being greatly pleased by the enthusiastic response, organized another “sacramental meeting” at a place called Muddy River. When that meeting met with the same resounding success as the first, they held another at the Ridge. At the Ridge some of the attendees cried for mercy, others shouted praises, and others retired to the woods to fall on their knees in prayer. It was an exhilarating experience where people enthusiastically followed the injunction of Ephesians 5:18 to “be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” No fewer than 100 worshipers made professions of faith.
The McGee’s held their next meeting on Desha’s Creek, near the Cumberland River, and thousands came out to hear them. One participant reported that “the people fell under the power of the word ‘like corn before a storm of wind,’ and that many who were thus slain, ‘arose from the dust with divine glory beaming upon their countenances,’ and then praised God in such strains of heartfelt gratitude as caused the hearts of sinners to tremble within them. But no sooner did this first feeling of ecstasy subside than those young converts began to exhort their relatives and neighbors to turn to God and live.”
There was singing, there were impassioned sermons, there were gesticulations of worshipers in the throes of religious ecstasy, there were all sorts of things going on at these meetings. In a world without television or the cinema, it was the best show in town. Similar meetings sprang up all over the Kentucky, and from these seeds the Second Great Awakening began to grow. Within two years, the embers sparked by the McGee brothers burst out in full flame at the largest sacramental meeting yet held. One contemporary described the event as follows:
“Somewhere between 1800 and 1801, in the upper part of Kentucky, at a memorable place called ‘Cane Ridge,’ there was appointed a sacramental meeting by some of the Presbyterian ministers, at which meeting, seemingly unexpected by ministers or people, the mighty power of God was displayed in a very extraordinary manner; many were moved to tears, and bitter and loud crying for mercy. The meeting was protracted for weeks. Ministers of almost all denominations flocked in from far and near. The meeting was kept up by night and day. Thousands heard of the mighty work, and came on foot, on horseback, in carriages and wagons. It was supposed that there were in attendance at times during the meeting from twelve to twenty-five thousand people. Hundreds fell prostrate under the mighty power of God, as men slain in battle. Stands were erected in the woods from which preachers of different Churches proclaimed repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was supposed, by eye and ear witnesses, that between one and two thousand souls were happily and powerfully converted to God during the meeting.”
Such meetings sprang up almost everywhere across the Midwest, and they soon became known as “camp meetings.” Within fifteen years the number of Methodists in the United States mushroomed from a little over 60,000 to 200,000. The demand for clergymen in the Midwest soon far outstripped the supply, causing the Methodist Church to set up a system of circuit riding ministers. In order to qualify as a circuit rider, a candidate had to satisfy the church that: (1) He was truly converted. (2) He knew and kept the laws of the church. (3) He could preach acceptably. (4) He had a horse. In addition to riding from place to place in to preach in their assigned circuit, these clergymen organized and held periodic camp meetings.
Because such a tremendous amount of planning and preparation went into camp meetings, all the circuit riders in a district would collaborate on each individual camp meeting. They made sure that the event received good publicity and that the campground met certain strategic specifications. They strove to set up their campgrounds in shaded areas near an adequate supply of water and good pasture. They liked campgrounds near a main road close to the center of the district. The campgrounds had to be approximately one acre in size on level ground to accommodate the hundreds of families attending. They would build a speaker’s platform and an altar and row upon row of bench seating which would be segregated with men on one side and women on the other. When the attendees arrived, they would circle their wagons and tents around the perimeter, and the camp would be ready for services. Hucksters would camp nearby to peddle food and other essentials to the attendees. Some of the Hucksters fulfilled spiritual needs of the attendees which would not be satisfied by worship services. The law of Illinois required that these “whiskey camps” to be set up no closer than a mile from the campsite.
Consumption of alcohol was by no means the only problem confronted by the organizers of a camp meeting. Worshipers repaired to the woods outside the campground to pray, but they did so for other reasons as well. One wag observed that more souls were conceived than saved at camp meetings. A more serious problem was presented by people who came to the camp meeting with no intention of worshipping. These men would congregate at the whiskey camp to drink, gamble, fight, and engage in other types of mischief. This usually took the form of disrupting the services with catcalls, tearing down tents, and otherwise harassing the worship services. One manual for the organization of camp meetings recommended a police presence with one or more sworn law enforcement officers to maintain peace. One famous circuit riding preacher, Peter Cartwright, would occasionally come down from the pulpit and personally thrash rowdies in the congregation. Cartwright was not only able to maintain order at his meetings, he preached a fiery message of repentance and baptized some 12,000 souls into the faith during his career. He also ran for public office against Abraham Lincoln, defeating Lincoln once and losing to him once.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the camp meeting had declined in popularity, being replaced by tent revivals and evangelical crusades. We have almost completely forgotten the camp meeting, but it played an integral part in the growth of Christianity in America.
1. Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1857), which can be read online at: http://archive.org/details/autobiographype01cartgoog.
2. R.W. Gorham, Camp Meeting Manual: A Practical Book for the Campground in Two Parts (Boston: H.V. Degen, 1854), which can be read online at http://archive.org/details/campmeetingmanu00gorhgoog.
3. Daniel W. Stowell, "Murder at a Methodist Camp Meeting: The Origins of Abraham Lincoln's Most Famous Trial." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1998-) 101, no. 3/4 (2008): 219-234.
4. Mark Galli, “Revival at Cane Ridge,” Christian History and Biography, No. 45 (January 1, 1995), which can be read online at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1995/issue45/4509.html.