The Town Crier: Camp Reunion | Lifestyles
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, in Kentucky, a new type of religious meeting was born: the camp meeting. The mold was created by James McGready in July 1800 in Logan County, Kentucky, and then the following year at a large camp meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
The Cane Creek meeting in 1801 had about 12,000 attendees with 125 wagons, carriages and a stage and lasted from Friday to Wednesday, a full six days, according to one attendee. Many historians consider it to be the great event that really started the movement as the participants in this gathering dispersed to replicate what they had participated in. And due to the nature of the procedure, it has spread from top to bottom in the young United States.
Talk ‘to’ the people
Camp meetings were part of a widespread revival of Protestant Christianity in the United States and Britain. This revival has its roots in the preaching style of Minister George Whitefield (pronounced “Whitfield” and after whom Whitfield County is named).
Previously, most Christian churches were top-down dogmatic services with a lot of formalities. Whitefield spoke “to” people instead of “addressing” them. His sermons were more personalized, emphasizing people’s emotional needs as applied to spiritual matters. He was based in Savannah, and he and the other itinerant (traveler) preachers of this movement preached to everyone, including Southern slaves. This approach grew in popularity as the camp meeting became a popular and necessary form of worship on the American frontier.
A distant congregation
In the early days of the American colonies, there were small towns along the coasts where groups of settlers built copies of villages as they had left them. These communities had churches and a professional pastor. But as new immigrants settled in the west, they were scattered and isolated, without a church or a preacher. The idea of a camp meeting was that an extended group could meet in one place and share a service, like in a brick-and-mortar church, but in the woods. People could gather from miles around to form a long-distance congregation. This was happening during a widespread revival of Protestant Christianity in the United States and Britain, known as the Great Awakening. A typical camp meeting in the early 1800s was held in the second half of summer when the crops were growing, but it was not yet harvest time. Take a week off from hard work to spend time with family, time at church, and fun time to recharge old batteries before returning for the harvest. The meetings lasted four or five days on average, and since the frontier was quite primitive at the time, people literally came to camp while they were there. A stage or speaker platform was constructed, and an “arbour” area was chosen where a clearing in a grove of trees would provide a shaded and comfortable seating area for the congregation.
Various preachers or speakers would go one after another from early morning until well after dark, when the area was lit with candles, lanterns, torches and campfires. There were hymns, music and, in some cases, dancing.
An egalitarian approach
Speakers and attendees were both white and black, and included men and women and people of all types of faiths. It was a truly egalitarian approach to spiritual salvation.
Sometimes parallel groups would form, with people joining to pray over a person or a situation. Socially, dispersed families could have family reunions at camp reunions, neighbors could visit, strangers could form friendships, and yes, romance would blossom. This approach to preaching the gospel was inclusive; everyone was welcome, regardless of position, race or position in religious beliefs. It was the perfect match for upstart America and its ideals of individualism and classlessness.
Another aspect was that Calvinism was a powerful force in European Christianity, which held that predestination was made for who could or could not become a Christian. But with the approach of the preachers who led the early camp meeting movement, the focus was on Bible verses that taught individual agency and an open choice for all to become a Christian.
So in camp meetings, one of the goals was sudden conversion, like Saul on the road to Damascus when he was converted and became Paul. One attendee was amazed that a quiet, shy, even brooding person could have a conversion experience and step onto the platform to speak to the crowds about what they just went through and how all should participate in this life-changing experience life.
There was a strong sense of what we might consider Pentecostal spiritualism with shouting from the congregation, running around while being aroused by the events and even some people fainting from the excitement. There were criticisms of this “grassroots approach” to Christianity, with some churches wanting to focus more on a formal, disciplined and scholarly approach.
Camp meetings have existed for decades, well beyond the Civil War era. They moved west with the border and in the places where they stood each year large open structures were built with rows of benches, a permanent stage and a roof over them in case of rain. summer.
Some areas experienced a decline in camp meetings as the population grew, churches were built, and there were regular services throughout the year. But the legacy of camp meetings is still there. There are many places across the country where camp meetings still take place, some on the same site they have had for over 100 years.
Some of the modern versions are more like summer camp, but where the emphasis is on preaching, revival and hymns rather than the children’s version of summer camp with its archery, canoe and its songs. For many years, my grandmother went to one of these camps in Mississippi. She couldn’t wait and I heard family rumors that she kept a suitcase ready at all times. She would go down with a group of local friends, stay for about a week, and come back as excited as a gambler returning from a winning streak in Las Vegas. She had her friends once a year that she caught up there and always had great stories to tell. I enjoyed his fun, but for an 8 or 10 year old boy always looking for adventure, I was content with a few hours of church each week on Sundays.
Whitfield County had its own camp meetings in the 1800’s because at that time we were the frontier. In 1851 there was a “Union Meeting” in town between the three main churches here, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian. It was held at the Methodist Church, lasted 40 days and saw many converts.
This kind of non-denominational approach was one of the hallmarks of the camp meeting movement. I read that there were two sites in the county that held annual camp meetings and the one I know of is the one north of Dalton on the Cleveland Highway. If you drive north towards Cohutta, you will pass Pleasant Grove Methodist Church on your left and, a short distance, Grove Level Baptist Church on the right. This is where camp meetings were held on the pleasant flat grove area here.
The original name of this community was the Harrison Community, which became the Filmore Community and is now known as the Pleasant Grove Community, along with the church of that name as well as the county school. The camp meeting site was obviously a natural place for building churches and so in 1852 Stephen A. Cady granted 2.5 acres for the construction of “Shady Grove Meeting House”. A log structure was erected that year and it was shared for services by local Baptists and Methodists. A structure that was to become Grove Level Baptist was begun in 1874, but before completion was destroyed in a windstorm. The structure was started over and eventually completed, although it would not be until the 1930s that a bell tower was added.
Something to remember
Camp meetings are still there, but keep an eye out for frequent “revivals” in one church area or the other. Church revivals, which last from four days to a week, are part of the camp meeting movement, as is the occasional tent revival that I still see set up from time to time in the area. In those primitive, frontier days a few hundred years ago, surely these meetings must have been a highlight of the year, perhaps the only competition was a wedding or a new baby. It is said that the crowds were made up of religious people, researchers and also the curious. But wherever they’ve been in their life arc, I bet once they’ve been to an old fashioned camp meeting, they’ve never forgotten it!