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The camp meeting is a form of Protestant Christian religious service originating in England and Scotland as an evangelical event in association with the communion season. It was held for worship, preaching and communion on the frontier during the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Revivals and camp meetings continued to be held by various denominations, and in some areas of the mid-Atlantic, led to the development of seasonal cottages for meetings.
Originally camp meetings were held in frontier areas, where people without regular preachers would travel on occasion from a large region to a particular site to camp out, listen to itinerant preachers, pray, sing hymns and take communion. This suited the frontier lifestyle well, as such areas were often too sparsely populated to support church buildings and full-time ministers. Camp meetings offered community, often singing and other music, sometimes dancing, and diversion from work. The practice was a major component of the Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement promoted by Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and other preachers in the early 19th century. Certain denominations took the lead in different geographic areas.
The camp meeting is a phenomenon of American frontier Christianity, but with strong roots in traditional practices of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and the United States. Scots and Scots-Irish predominated in many parts of the frontier at this time, and had brought their familiar Presbyterian "communion season" practices with them. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, two leading ministers of the later Restoration Movement of the 1830s, had each been ordained as Presbyterian ministers and served for several years in that role, leading preaching at numerous meetings.
The movement of thousands of settlers to new territories without permanent villages of the types they knew meant they were without religious communities. Not only were there few authorized houses of worship, there were fewer ordained ministers to fill the pulpits. The "camp meeting" led by itinerant preachers was an innovative response to this situation. Word of mouth told there was to be a religious meeting at a certain location. Due to the primitive means of transportation, if the meeting was to be more than a few miles' distance from the homes of those attending, they would need to stay at the revival for its entire duration, or as long as they desired to remain. People generally camped out at or near the revival site, as on the frontier there were usually neither adequate accommodations nor the funds for frontier families to use them. People were attracted to large camp meetings from a wide area. Some came out of sincere religious devotion or interest, others out of curiosity and a desire for a break from the arduous frontier routine; the structure of the situation often resulted in new converts.
Freed from daily routines for the duration of the meeting, participants could take part in almost continuous services, which resulted in high emotions; once one speaker was finished (often after several hours), another would often rise to take his place.
"Several ministers, sometimes from different denominations, provided virtually nonstop preaching and hymn singing during the day, in the evening, and late into the night. Attenders anticipated and had emotional conversion experiences, with crying, trances, and exaltation".
Lee Sandlin gave an overview of the typical camp meeting in frontier America:
A typical meeting began in a low-key, almost solemn way. A preacher gave a sermon of welcome and led a prayer for peace and community. This was followed by the singing of several hymns. Then there would be more sermons . . .
The next day, and the day following, the sermons grew increasingly sensational and impassioned, and the excited response of the crowd grew more prolonged. By the second or third day, people were crying out during the sermons, and shouting prayers, and bursting into loud lamentations; they began grabbing at their neighbors and desperately pleading with them to repent; they sobbed uncontrollably and ran in terror through the crowd, shoving aside everybody in their path. . . .As the preachers ranted without letup, the crowd was driven into a kind of collective ecstasy. In the night, as the torches and bonfires flared around the meeting ground and the darkness of the trackless forests closed in, people behaved as if possessed by something new and unfathomable. As Finley wrote: "A strange supernatural power seemed to pervade the entire mass of mind there collected." . . .
Sandlin describes several ecstatic practices common at camp meetings, including
In the pervasive atmosphere of extreme excitement, people weren't all that careful to make a distinction between religious ecstasy and sexual hunger. The campgrounds were notoriously good places for prostitutes to do business; among the tents of the hawkers and peddlers around the margins of the camp would often be full-service brothels. But at the height of their religious transports, many campgoers would simply go off into the woods together, day or night, in complicated and impromptu combinations. According to one scandalized report from a vigilance committee, a woman at one camp meeting invited six men to meet with her in the woods at the same time. It was a standard joke that the local population invariably spiked nine months after any meeting. Those children were known throughout the river valley as camp meeting babies.
The rumors of what went on around the margins of the grounds were what eventually led to the taming of the camp meeting tradition. Toward midcentury, vigilance committees began to police their local meetings; gradually the events became more staid and tedious. Preachers were still expected to be wildly dramatic—it was often said that a preacher who didn't end a sermon by falling to the ground and rolling around in a fit was simply being lazy. But more and more, the congregations tended to listen with polite attention and only gave in to the falls and the other exercises at controlled and ritualized intervals. The religious authorities that dominated American churches later in the century regarded the boredom of the new camp meetings as one of their greatest moral triumphs.
"Camp-meeting religion reinforced older themes of revivalism, including a sense of cooperation among the denominations, all of which confronted individual sinners with the necessity of making a decision to be converted."
Revivalism had been a significant force in religion since the 1740s and the First Great Awakening, but in the days of the camp meeting, "revivalism became the dominant religious culture." These sorts of meetings contributed greatly to what became known as the Second Great Awakening. A particularly large and successful revival was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, led by some ministers later active in what became the Restoration Movement. Some scholars suggest that this was the pioneering event in the history of frontier camp meetings in America. What made camp meetings successful and multiply quite rapidly "were their emphases upon revivalism and morality, de-emphasis upon formal theology, clergy sharing the worldview of the frontier dwellers, and respect for common people.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, such evangelical camp meetings gained wide 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, has been called the "Queen of the Victorian Methodist Camp Meetings." Similar areas include Cape May Point, New Jersey, with others in Maryland and New York. At the end of the nineteenth century, believers in Spiritualism also established camp meetings throughout the United States.
In 1816 in what is now Toronto, Ohio, the Rev. J. M. Bray, pastor of the Sugar Grove Methodist Episcopal Church, began an annual camp meeting. By 1875, the meeting became interdenominational by its purchase of the present-day Hollow Rock Holiness Camp Meeting Association. The association, which still runs the camp, claims that it is the oldest Christian camp meeting in continual existence in the United States.
Another camp gathering area, known now as the Campgrounds, was located in present-day Merrick, New York. Parishioners arrived by wagon, parking them in two concentric circles. Eventually some started building small seasonal cottages, which offered more comfort than the wagons for repeated use. A chapel and a house for the minister were also built. In the 1920s, with new areas open to those with cars, people stopped using the campground. The cottages and church buildings were adapted as local, permanent residences, and most survive today. The two roads, Wesley and Fletcher avenues, encompass the area of the original paths which the wagons would encircle. The area is also known as Tiny Town because of the small size of the original cottages.
Camp meetings in the United States continued to be conducted on a wide scale for many years . Some are still held in the 21st century, primarily by Pentecostal and Wesleyan holiness groups, as well as other Protestants and Spiritualists. Some scholars consider the revival meeting a form that arose to recreate the spirit of the frontier camp meeting.
The Balls Creek Campground camp meeting was established in 1853 and is believed to be one of the largest religious campgrounds in the southern United States. Other sites of Methodist camp meetings in North Carolina are the Chapel Hill Church Tabernacle and Center Arbor.
On Sunday 31 May 1807 the first Camp Meeting was held in England at Mow Cop. The Wesleyan Methodists disapproved and subsequently expelled Hugh Bourne "because you have a tendency to set up other than the ordinary worship." He eventually formed the Primitive Methodist Church.
Lorenzo Dow brought reports of Camp Meetings from North America during his visits to England. Hugh Bourne, William Clowes and Daniel Shoebotham saw this as an answer to complaints from members of the Harriseahead Methodists that their weeknight prayer meeting was too short. Bourne also saw these as an antidote to the general debauchery of the Wakes in that part of the Potteries, one of the reasons why he continued organising Camp Meetings in spite of the opposition from the Wesleyan authorities.
The pattern of the Primitive Methodist Camp Meeting was as a time of prayer and preaching from the Bible. In the first Camp Meeting, four separate "preaching stations" had been set up by the afternoon, each with an audience, while in between others spent the time praying. Their emphasis on the Bible is a clear distinction from the spiritualist strand of American camp meetings.
From May 1807 to the establishing of Primitive Methodism as a denomination in 1811, a series of 17 Camp Meetings was held. There were a number of different venues beyond Mow Cop, including Norton-in-the-Moors during the Wakes in 1807 (Hugh Bourne's target venue), and Ramsor in 1808.
After Hugh Bourne and a significant number of his colleagues, including the Standley Methodist Society, had been put out of membership of the Burslem Wesleyan Circuit, they formed a group known as the Camp Meeting Methodists until 1811. That year they joined with the followers of William Clowes, known as the "Clowesites".
Camp Meetings were a regular feature of Primitive Methodist life throughout the 19th century, and still survive in other forms today. The annual late May Bank Holiday weekend meetings at Cliff College are one example. A number of tents are set up around the site, each featuring a different preacher.
The camp meeting tradition fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements.
Collections of camp meeting hymns were 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; or, A choice collection of spiritual songs (1828), The Camp-meeting Chorister (1830)  and The Golden Harp (1857)
The 20th-century American composer Charles Ives used the camp meeting phenomenon as a metaphysical basis for his Symphony No. 3 (Ives). He incorporated hymn tunes and American Civil War-era popular songs (which are closely related to camp meeting songs) as part of the symphony's musical material. The piece was not premiered until 1946, almost 40 years after its composition, and the symphony was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.
Brown, Kenneth O. Holy Ground, Too: The Camp Meeting Family Tree. Enlarged and rev. ed. Hazelton PA: Holiness Archives, 1997.
Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain-Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800-1845. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974.
Huttar, Charles A., and Joy Culbertson Huttar. Island Grove Camp Meeting: A Centennial History. Occasional Papers Ser. no. 5. Mifflintown PA: Juniata County Historical Society, 1999.
Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion's Harvest Time. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955.
Weiss, Ellen. City in the Woods: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha's Vineyard. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.