Camp Meeting: A Short History
Camp meeting is a creation of American evangelicalism.
For over two hundred years men, women, boys and girls have come aside from the responsibilities and cares of life to meet for spiritual instruction in these unique and unusual surroundings.
They have come to worship and seek, to sing, pray and praise, and to listen to the declaration of the word of God. George Hughes called those old tabernacles “forest temples” and their influence continues to this very moment.
Cane Ridge is generally acknowledged to be the first of what would be many camp meetings. If you will please travel with me to a now protected log cabin just outside of Paris, Kentucky. There, amid pastured land and the protective covering of graceful trees, twenty-five thousand people gathered in 1801 to hear the word of God declared in conviction and power.
J.B. Finley, later a Methodist circuit rider and prison chaplain in state of Ohio, recounts that conviction for sin became so intense that men sank to their knees as they were seized by involuntary convulsions. Cries of confession were followed with shouts of joy as the ole Kentucky hillside witnessed a visitation of God undder the canopy of a natural cathedral.
Travel to Vineland, New Jersey, and pause at the site of the first holiness camp meeting. Rev. J.A. Wood was a Methodist pastor riding to an assignment in an old train. He fell into conversation with Mrs. Harriet Drake, and together they lamented the spiritual state which had befallen the Methodist Church. The message of holiness was increasingly unwelcome and freedom of the Spirit was suppressed and ridiculed. They agreed it would be wonderful to have a camp meeting exclusively for the purpose of preaching and experiencing second blessing holiness. Mrs. Drake said she would pay half the expenses to see such a dream realized.
There was the plan and very soon the invitation went out:
Come, brothers and sisters of the various denominations, and let us, in this forest-meeting make common supplication for the descent of the Spirit.
The rest is history. Vineland was the site chosen and there John Inskip, William McDonald, Bishop Simpson, Alfred Cookman and a host of others lifted a message of victory over sin and challenged the church to be militant in the proclamation of full salvation.
“There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” was their theme song and holiness—second blessing holiness—became their watch word.
They came on horseback, they came in wagons, they rode trains connected to the camp site by street car. Services were held from morning to night interspersed with prayer and holy conversation. Ten thousand people swelled the grounds to celebrate the Christian Sabbath and hear Wesley’s message of Christian Perfection proclaimed with anointing and power. Hundreds sought and found deliverance from a pollution inherited from Adam and the air was filled with shouts of victory.
So successful was this first holiness camp that the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness formed and became the birthing influence to the child of Methodism. From these primitive beginnings, the holiness camp meeting movement spread to the remotest sections of the country.
From Vineland to Manheim very near Lebanon, PA, and then on to Round Lake just north of Albany, NY, where a total aggregate attendance of 250,000 graced the old Methodist camp ground which still stands. From there to the Midwest and then the Coast. The camp meeting became the spiritual and social center of an emerging movement that would be overtly or covertly excluded from their long church home.
The heritage of these National Holiness Association camps is familiar. You know the names: Stoneboro, Clinton, John T. Hatfield, Ramsey, Bruceton Mills, Victory Grove, Richland…and the list goes on and on. Perhaps you found forgiving and sanctifying grace at one of these old camp meeting altars. Maybe your celestial journey began amid the primitive surroundings of the old tabernacle.
It just may be that for you a trip down memory lane to your spiritual beginnings would revisit the wooden benches, the dimly lit auditorium, the well-worn song book, and your ears again recapture the plaintive cry of an impassioned preacher of the Word.
You have been there and so have I. And now another summer time presents itself. Again this aged means of grace opens its doors to persons scattered across the country. Again the preached word will be heralded forth and young and old will find “a satisfying portion” for a hungry and needy soul.
Perhaps there is an “old camp ground” near you. Maybe you could take an evening from a busy schedule to renew your vows and refresh your spirit. It’s camp meeting time.
Do you have old camp meeting photos or memories to share? Join us on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear your stories.