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The camp meeting as a Christian gathering originated in the United States of Americamarker. The English founders of Primitive Methodism took inspiration from this for a way of holding an extended prayer meeting.

Camp meetings in America

The camp meeting is a phenomenon of Americanmarker frontier Christianity. The movement of thousands of persons to what had previously been trackless wilderness in the 18th century in America had led to something of a religious vacuum. Not only were there few authorized houses of worship, there were even fewer ordained ministers to fill their pulpits. The "camp meeting" was an innovative response to this situation. Word of mouth told that there was to be a religious meeting at a certain location. Due to the primitive means of transportation, if this meeting was to be more than a few miles' distance from those attending, it would necessitate their leaving home for its entire duration, or as long as they desired to remain, and camping out at or near its site, as usually there were neither adequate accommodations or the funds necessary to obtain them. At a large camp meeting, many came from over a large area, some out of sincere religious devotion or interest, others out of curiosity and a desire for a break from the arduous frontier routine, although many in this latter group often became sincere converts as well.

Freed from their daily routines for the duration of the meeting, unlike traditional religious events these meetings could provide their participants with almost continuous services; once one speaker was finished (often after several hours) another would often rise to take his place. These sorts of meetings were huge contributing factors to what became known as the Second Great Awakening. A particularly large and successful one was held at Cane Ridge, Kentuckymarker in 1801, where the Restoration Movement began to be formalized. They gained wide recognition and a substantial increase in popularity in the aftermath of the American Civil War as a result of the first holiness movement camp meeting in Vineland, New Jerseymarker in 1867. Ocean Grove, New Jerseymarker, founded in 1869, has been called the "Queen of the Victorian Methodist Camp Meetings." 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, Ohiomarker, the Rev. J. M. Bray, pastor of the Sugar Grove Methodist Episcopal Church, began an annual camp meeting that, in 1875, became interdenominational upon its purchase by what is now the 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 what is now Merrick, New Yorkmarker. Parishioners would arrive in their wagons and park them in two circles, one inside the other. Eventually some of them started building small cottages which offered more comfort than the wagons. A chapel and a home for the minister was also built. It was in the 1920s they stopped using the campground. The cottages and church buildings became local housing that exists today. In fact the two roads, Wesley Avenue, and Fletcher Avenue, encompass the area of the original paths the wagons would encircle. The area is also known as Tiny Town because of the small size of the original cottages.

Camp meetings in America continued to be conducted for many years on a wide scale and some are still held today, primarily by Pentecostal and Wesleyan holiness groups and by some other Protestants and Spiritualists as well. The revival meeting is often felt to be a modern-day attempt to recreate the spirit of the frontier camp meeting.

Camp meetings in British Methodism

On Sunday 31 May 1807 the first Camp Meeting was held in Englandmarker at Mow Copmarker. The Wesleyan Methodists disapproved and subsequently expelled Hugh Bourne "because you have a tendency to set up other than the ordinary worship" which led eventually to the formation of the Primitive Methodist Church.

Lorenzo Dow brought reports of Camp Meetings from America during his visits to England. Hugh Bourne, William Clowes and Daniel Shoebotham saw this as an answer to complaints from members of the Harriseaheadmarker 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 Potteriesmarker, 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, 4 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 Copmarker, including Norton-in-the-Moorsmarker during the Wakes in 1807 (Hugh Bourne's target venue), and Ramsormarker 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 Burslemmarker Wesleyan Circuit, they formed a group known as the Camp Meeting Methodists until 1811 when they joined with the followers of William Clowes, the "Clowesites".

Camp Meetings were a regular feature of Primitive Methodist life throughout the 19th century, and still have existence in other forms today. The annual late May Bank Holiday weekend meetings at Cliff College are one example, with a number of tents around the site, each with a different preacher.

Music and Hymn Singing

The camp meeting tradition fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements.

Hymns were taught and learned by rote and a spontaneous and improvisatory element was prized. Both tunes and words were created, changed, and adapted in true folk music fashion:

Specialists in nineteenth-century American religious history describe camp meeting music as the creative product of participants who, when seized by the spirit of a particular sermon or prayer, would take lines from a preacher's text as a point of departure for a short, simply melody. The melody was either borrowed from a preexisting tune or made up on the spot. The line would be sung repeatedly, changing slightly each time, and shaped gradually into a stanza that could be learned easily by others and memorized quickly.

Spontaneous song became a marked characteristic of the camp meetings. Rough and irregular couplets or stanzas were concocted out of Scripture phrases and every-day speech, with liberal interspersing of Hallelujahs and refrains. Such ejaculatory hymns were frequently started by an excited auditor during the preaching, and taken up by the throng, until the meeting dissolved into a "singing-ecstasy" culminating in general hand-shaking. Sometimes they were given forth by a preacher, who had a sense of rhythm, under the excitement of his preaching and the agitation of his audience. Hymns were also composed more deliberately out of meeting, and taught to the people or lined out from the pulpit.

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 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 . Hymn tunes and American Civil War area popular songs (which are closely related to camp meeting songs) as part of the symphony's musical material. Although the piece was not initially performed until 1946, almost 40 years after its composition, the symphony was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year in 1947.


  • Paul Gillespie and his students (editors), Foxfire 7, Anchor Books, New York 1980, ISBN 0-385-15244-2

  • Moore, William D., 1997. "'To Hold Communion with Nature and the Spirit-World:' New England's Spiritualist Camp Meetings, 1865-1910." In Annmarie Adams and Sally MacMurray, eds. Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, VII. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-983-1.

  • George Rawlyk The Canada Fire: Radical Evangelicalism in British North America, 1775-1812. McGill-Queen's UP, 1994.

See also


  1. H B Kendall, “The Origin and History of the Primitive Methodist Church”, (1906 for the 1907 Camp Meeting Centenary), p. 89 ISBN 1901670-49-X ISBN 9781901670-49-3 (EAN-13 format)
  2. Continued mention in Circuit Plans and the Minutes of Circuit Meetings
  3. Cliff College is a Methodist training college in Derbyshire. The meetings are an annual attraction for many Methodists.
  4. Annie J. Randall, "A Censorship of Forgetting: Origins and Origin Myths of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'", in Music, Power, and Politics, edited by Annie J. Randall (Routledge, 2004) ( Google books)
  5. Annie J. Randall, "A Censorship of Forgetting: Origins and Origin Myths of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'", in Music, Power, and Politics, edited by Annie J. Randall (Routledge, 2004), page 16. ( Google books)

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