by David Wise
The camp meetings that we know today have their origin in the last few hundred years, but the idea behind them goes back to the times of ancient Israel. The concept of the Lord’s people gathering together in corporate worship is found in the Feast of Tabernacles of Old Testament Israel. The nation put aside all secular business and traveled to Jerusalem to pray, praise, and seek the face of God. They were to remember the goodness of God in preserving them a nation and to be thankful for the blessings He continually bestowed upon them. Their sense of unity was strengthened through fellowship with other Israelite families while their spiritual focus and devotion was intensified by an atmosphere where Jehovah was pleased to reward His obedient people with a manifestation of His Glory.
This unusual week of the year was meant to be a boost to the spiritual lives of His covenant people as they learned the lesson that earnest seeking for the Lord would be rewarded with a renewed awareness of His Presence. In simple terms, a large number of people gathered to draw close to God would “move the hand of God” in such a way that could not normally happen for families or individuals during the course of ordinary life. What they received during this week would help them through the rest of the year. This concept holds true to the present day.
Birth of the Modern Camp Meeting
There were no camp meetings in the days of Wesley or Whitefield, but their “field preaching” to thousands of onlookers was setting the stage for what was to come in the nineteenth century. In August of 1801, thousands of souls gathered in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, for the purpose of holding a “sacramental meeting.” Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians gathered in the great outdoors to not only take communion, but to hear fiery preaching and to participate in fervent singing.
The idea of corporate, outdoor gatherings for the purpose of seeking God spread like wildfire all over the nation.
The power of God was poured out on this vast assembly, and the idea of corporate, outdoor gatherings for the purpose of seeking God spread like wildfire all over the nation. Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist bishops appointed by Wesley in America, made the statement, “Methodists are all for camp meetings.” It is no wonder that he felt this way when one considers that, by 1804, rural Fayette County, Pennsylvania was host to a camp meeting where 10,000 gathered for Lord’s Day services. This became rather common as camp meetings sprang up all over the country. Bishop Asbury encouraged his people to make the summer quarterly conferences into camp meetings.
These modern “Feast of Tabernacles” became the means of explosive growth for the Methodists. With this growth came much opposition as rowdy antagonists tried to break up the meetings, but rugged Methodist prophets like Peter Cartwright “battled for the Lord” by preaching away and helping to run the bad guys off the grounds.
Even with elements of fanaticism and false fire, the camp meetings had become a means of awakening a sleeping nation and ushering in the Second Great Awakening. Thousands of souls, many of them unchurched people from the nation’s frontier regions, had been brought into the kingdom of God through the means of fervent preaching at an outdoor camp meeting. With such success, Asbury vowed that the Methodists would never give up their camp meetings.
Camp meetings became a means of awakening a sleeping nation and ushered in the Second Great Awakening.
The Camp Meeting Movement
In 1807, an American Methodist Evangelist by the name of Lorenzo Dow traveled to England and began to speak of the glories of the American camp meetings. Two English Methodists, William Clowes and Hugh Bourne, were so blessed by what they heard that they called for a camp meeting in May of that year. It was a glorious time as many found the Lord in saving and sanctifying grace.
Regrettably, the Methodist leaders were not thrilled with the unorthodox methods. Hugh Bourne, William Clowes, and their converts were booted from the Methodist church for doing what John Wesley had done: preaching the Gospel in the open air for all to hear. These fervent Wesleyans formed their own church and became known as the Primitive Methodists. They experienced explosive growth over the next few decades as they reached classes of people that the now “mainstream Methodists” were no longer reaching. Sadly, the “cooling off” of Methodism took place in America during the middle years of the nineteenth century and the tragedy of the Civil War deeply wounded the churches of this land. Yet the Spirit of God was at work raising up men who would once again make the camp meeting a vehicle for the forward movement of the kingdom of God.
The National Holiness Association was begun in the days following the Civil War as men such as John Inskip, William McDonald, J. A. Wood, Alfred Cookman, and many others felt like there was a definite need for camp meetings to be held for the primary purpose of preaching the doctrine of entire sanctification and seeing people receive the deeper experience in God's grace. The first one was held in 1867 in Vineland, New Jersey, and the movement took off from there.
There is something unique and precious about a place where people set everything else aside to seek the Lord for days at a time.
Through the remaining decades of the nineteenth century, camp meetings received new life as the doctrine of heart purity received a new emphasis inside and outside of Methodism. Just like at Cane Ridge, folks came from various denominational backgrounds to seek the Lord, and many received a clean heart. The preachers who became the backbone of this movement are some of the greatest Holiness preachers the world has ever seen. Carradine, Watson, Smith, Reid, Bresee, and many others graced the pulpits at these meetings, and their names and influence are carried down to the present day.
Camp Meetings Today
Camp meetings continued to be important throughout the twentieth century, but as Holiness churches started to follow the pattern of their Methodist predecessors, new camp meetings began to emerge to take the place of gatherings that lost “the Glory” and were trending more social than spiritual. In our own sphere of influence, we recognize Penns Creek, Hanover, and Mount of Blessing Camp as grounds the Lord raised up to keep alive the spirit of the “old Methodist camp.”
Some have questioned the need for camp meetings in the present day because “times have changed.” Yet the principle holds true: there is something unique and precious about a place where people set everything else aside to seek the Lord for days at a time. Yes, we live in challenging times, but the answer is not to do away with the camp meeting. The answer is to purpose in our hearts to pledge our loyalty to at least one such meeting, put ourselves wholly into the services, and to seek the Lord with our brothers and sisters. When individuals are faithful to do this, camp meeting is camp meeting, and everyone can sense that God has once again drawn nigh unto His people.
Kerstetter, Earl. The Glorious Camp Meetings of the Nineteenth Century.
Primitive Methodist Church. History.
McDonald, William. The Life of Rev. John S. Inskip: President of the National Association for the Promotion of Holiness. Forgotten Books: 2018.