Unit 7.12 The camp meeting shaped prairie Methodism.


Methodism has continually adopted new methods as expediency provides them. The camp meeting shaped prairie Methodism. Asbury called camp meetings Afishing with a large net.@[1] It is hard to imagine in this century the human hunger for socialization and activity which the camp meeting fulfilled in the prairie environment. When Alexis De Tocqueville asked a Detroit man in 1831 if religion had reached that Ahalf peopled@ area, he replied:

Almost every summer, it is true, some Methodist preachers come to make a tour of the new settlements. The noise of their arrival spreads with unbelievable rapidity from cabin to cabin – it’s the great news of the day. At the date set, the immigrant, his wife, and children set out by scarcely cleared forest trails toward the indicated meeting place. They come from fifty miles around. It’s not in a church that the faithful gather but in the open air under the forest foliage. A pulpit of badly squared logs, great trees felled for seats, such are the ornaments of this rustic temple. The pioneers and their families camp in the surrounding woods. It=s there that, during three days and three nights, the crowd gives itself over to almost uninterrupted religious exercises. You must see with what ardor these men surrender themselves to prayer, with what attention they listen to the solemn voice of the preacher. It’s in the wilderness that people show themselves almost starved for religion.[2]

The camp meetings countered rural isolation by combining religious activity in the center of the camp with socializing, courting, barter and recreation on the outer edges.[3] This tradition of combining evangelistic preaching with family vacations evolved into the Chautauqua movement, both in resort settings and traveling tents.[4] Camp meetings eventually became campgrounds and then conference owned church camps, at Asbury’s suggestion.[5] The camp meeting was the primary evangelistic tool of the Second Great Awakening in United States history and so successful that it doubled the proportion of church members in America from one in fifteen to one in seven between 1800 and 1850.[6]

The camp meeting is the quintessential Acome structure@ of American religious history. Both the camp meeting and the prairie church met the human need for socialization in the midst of rural isolation. Both drew a large crowd because they were the only source for human interaction on the frontier. Revivals would later be organized around the visit of an elder at quarterly conference who would provide the sacrament to members followed by camp meetings open to the public. These events created a community that Adefined itself by act@ or by an event, rather than by an address.[7]

Events brought people together; God acting in grace seemed less a salvation process and more of a salvation event. It was God, acting in a series of events, who convicted the sinner, brought the crowds of sinners to the camp meeting, brought salvation through the response to an evangelistic sermon and brought sanctification as a second work of grace. Any human role was minimized. The salvation event, mediated by a gospel preacher, is the descendent of the sacramental event mediated by a priest ordained in apostolic succession. Anglican sacramentalism, too, is a part of the Wesleyan heritage.[8] Prairie DNA continues to focus on events as the method to bring people into the church building to hear the gospel.

On the prairie the process of salvation became one which sought to get people into a service of worship where they might respond to the proclamation of the gospel by the preacher rather than one which sought to get people into a class meeting where they might be spiritually mentored by a lay person. All barriers were dropped and all activities of the church were opened; who could tell but that this day was a sinner=s last opportunity to experience salvation? Evangelism became focused on decision-making events rather than on disciple-making community.[9] Revival services became crowds of strangers before, during and after time in worship. New class meetings would not be formed to disciple the new converts; a few would become incorporated into a single existing class meeting already crowded with advanced disciples. Rather than training new disciples to become disciple-makers, classes focused on personal piety and holiness.

The camp meeting event forever shaped the prairie Methodist experience. The great Atwo a day@ checkerboard church planting that began after the Civil War replicated these small Acome structure@ churches every five to seven miles apart in the rural countryside.[1] Prairie DNA was phenomenally successful in its time; from 1860-1920 the Methodist Episcopal Church grew from one million to well over four million members,[2] far outperforming Wesley=s societies. This membership increase coincides with the end of the requirement that all Methodists participate in class meeting as a condition of membership.[3] After vigorous employment in the 1870s, Aafter 1880 there is no mention of camp meetings being encouraged officially by the Southern Illinois conference.@[4] This expedient tool shaped the prairie Methodist experience and that historical influence is active and visible today.

[1]Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 148. Southern Baptists averaged four hundred missions a year in the 1890s and thirteen hundred in the 1990s, a daily average of 3.6 a day. Lyle Schaller, The Interventionist (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 195-196.

[2]Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., APart Two: The Nineteenth Century,@ in John G. McEllhenney, ed., United Methodism In America: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 91.

[3]White, ARise and Decline of the Class Meeting,@ 6. The requirement was ended in the Methodist Episcopal South in 1866 and the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.

[4]Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 145. The holiness movement was well received in Southern Illinois but suspect within the Methodist Episcopal denomination. While the conference remained officially distanced, participation continued unofficially; six Holiness Camp Meeting Associations were founded in the first half of the twentieth century in Southern Illinois, with Methodists providing the major support in five of them. Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 153-155, 171-172. Cf. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 280-285.

[1]Russell E. Richey, AFrom Quarterly to Camp Meeting: A Reconsideration of Early American Methodism,@ Methodist History 23, no. 1 (July 1985): 202.

[2]G. W. Pierson, ATocqueville and Beaumont in America,@ quoted in Johnson, Frontier Camp Meeting, 231‑232.

[3]Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 119-120, 124, 129-131. Cf. Johnson, Frontier Camp Meeting, 3, 208-228, 234-236, 240, 243-244. Cf. Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 24-25. Cf. Melton, From Log Cabins to Steeples, 115.

[4]Charles A. Parker, AThe Camp Meeting on the Frontier and the Methodist

Religious Resort in the East: Before 1900,@ Methodist History 18 (April 1980): 179‑192. For an example, see The Lakeside Association, History of Lakeside, http://www.lakesideohio.com/lakesideexperience/History.aspx (accessed June 18, 2007). Cf. Johnson, Frontier Camp Meeting, 245-247. Cf. Melton, Log Cabins to Steeples, 119.

[5]Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil, 145.

[6]Jeffrey K. Hadden and Anson Shupe, Televangelism: Power & Politics On God’s Frontier (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison‑Wesley, 1981), http://religiousbroadcasting.lib.virginia.edu/ powerpolitics/C6.html (accessed May 1, 2007), 102. Cf. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2006), 206-210.

[7]Russell E. Richey, AFrom Quarterly to Camp Meeting: A Reconsideration of Early American Methodism,@ Methodist History 23, no. 1 (July 1985): 205, 203-213.

[8]From a sacramental point of view, salvation occurs at the event of Christian baptism and the event of holy communion confers spiritual strength and maturity as a means of grace. There is a trend among modern churches to embrace the sacramental faith of justification through baptism and sanctification by good works. Wesley supports sacramentalism but declares it insufficient in section four of John Wesley=s sermon, AThe New Birth,@ Works of John Wesley, 6:75-76. Cf. Ted A. Campbell, AConversion and Baptism in Wesleyan Spirituality@ in Kenneth J. Collins and John H. Tyson, eds., Conversion in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 160-174. Whether evangelical or liturgical, this approach relies on the paradigm of a salvation event which occurs during worship rather than in ongoing relationships of community participation. One modern form of seeking a salvation event through worship is someone “serving Christ” by watching worship broadcast on television.

[9]Win Arn and Charles Arn, The Master=s Plan for Making Disciples (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth Press, 1982), 9.

NOTE (my response)



The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

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