Camp meetings were outdoor religious revival meetings popularized on the southern frontier during the early nineteenth century. These meetings generally lasted several days and attracted participants who traveled significant distances and camped on-site for the duration of the meeting.
The camp meeting developed out of the Great Revival of the latter part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a result of the rural setting, the sparse population, and the small number of churches on the southern frontier, camp meetings flourished by providing a central location for crowds that numbered from a few hundred to several thousand.
Historians disagree on the exact origins of the camp meeting, but most suggest that James McGready led the first revival recognizable as a camp meeting in July 1800 at Gasper River in Logan County, Kentucky. This and similar meetings were followed by the best known camp meeting in August 1801 at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Led by Barton Stone, this meeting boasted an attendance variously estimated at ten thousand to thirty thousand people. Brothers William and John McGee attended one of McGready's early camp meetings and brought the revival spirit to Tennessee. John McGee, a Methodist minister, held the first known Tennessee camp meeting at Drake's Creek, Sumner County, in August 1800, and revivalism quickly spread throughout the fall of 1800 and into 1801.
Other scholars recognize antecedents to these revivals in the Carolinas and Georgia from the 1780s to the 1790s. Certainly these early meetings of the Great Revival provided some of the characteristics that eventually defined the camp meeting movement.
The outdoor setting, where participants camped for the duration of the meeting (usually four days), provided the most distinguishing characteristic of the camp meetings. Most services took place in a “brush arbor,” a cleared area surrounded by trees with overhanging limbs that formed a shelter. Fixed structures later replaced the brush arbors. Camp meetings normally occurred in the late summer and provided a break from the hard work routines of farm life. Thus, the gatherings became as much a social event as a spiritual one and provided a meeting place for old friends and new ones, a respite from work, and an opportunity to find suitable marriage partners. An atmosphere of recreation and spiritual renewal permeated the revivals. It is not surprising that camp meetings were marked by extreme emotional and physical “exercises,” with participants shouting, “jerking,” “barking,” falling down, or dancing about in spiritual ecstasy. Lorenzo Dow, a famous itinerant frontier evangelist, described the jerking exercises he witnessed while preaching at Knoxville. Dow noted that these spiritual exercises affected men and women of various ages, races, and economic levels.
Critics pointed out these examples of unseemly or antisocial behavior and denounced the camp meetings as extreme, if not dangerous, events that diverted attention away from true spirituality and religion toward more lustful pursuits. The controversies that accompanied these critiques divided some congregations along revivalist and non-revivalist lines, or along Calvinist and Arminian theological lines, and led to schism among many established congregations. Arminianism constituted a revision of Calvinistic determinism of election and allowed an element of free will in the appropriation of salvation through grace. Arminianism proved more compatible with revivalism and allowed a strong evangelistic strategy that appealed to the human will and the idea of conversion. Despite the theological controversies promoted by the revivals, these meetings were quite successful in bringing converts into the church, as proponents of the camp meetings quickly pointed out when confronted with opposition to the revivalist movement.
William McKendree, bishop of the Western Conference of the Methodist Church, embraced the camp meeting style and systematized the method. The camp meeting method worked in tandem with the Methodist system of circuits and led to rapid expansion of Methodism in Tennessee in the early nineteenth century. In addition, the camp meeting emphasis on repentance and grace worked well with the Methodist Arminian theology. The Methodists continued to hold camp meetings through the 1840s, long after the Baptists and Presbyterians had abandoned the outdoor revivals. Eventually “protracted meetings,” held in established meeting houses, almost completely replaced the camp meetings.
The camp meeting revival movement of the early nineteenth century provided one of the most colorful and controversial developments in American religious history. These meetings certainly played a significant role in the development of revivalism in Tennessee and in the success of Methodism. Remnants of the movement survived in the later Chautauqua lecture circuit and in the established religious campgrounds still operating in the South. The spontaneous, boisterous gatherings of the early nineteenth century, however, gave way to more controlled revival techniques.
John Boles, The Great Revival, 1787-1805 (1982)