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While no standardized definition exists, a camp meeting is an outdoor preaching event at which participants sustain themselves and camp overnight, often in tents. Camp meetings are temporary gatherings, typically lasting a few days to a week at the end of the summer. Scholars have developed several theories as to the origin of the camp meeting, and there is still debate over the location and date of the first meeting in the Grove.

Historian Charles Johnson, in his classic work The Frontier Camp Meeting, advanced the concept that the camp meeting originated on the Kentucky frontier where populations were sparse and travel and communication were difficult. While preaching outdoors was common throughout the eighteenth century in rural and backwoods areas where churches, or even basic assembly structures, were not available, the element of overnight camping, often for several nights, was missing from these gatherings. Johnson asserted that camp meetings did not achieve universal popularity or standard form until 1800, the year Presbyterian minister James McGready organized several highly successful outdoor revivals in Logan County, Kentucky

More recent scholarship suggests that the earliest camp meetings did not arise from circumstances created by the frontier and were organized in the Carolinas or Georgia during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Many support the claim that the Rock Springs Camp Meeting near Denver, North Carolina, which dates to 1794, may have been the first camp meeting in the United States. Camp meetings allowed preachers to reach a wide audience and did not require much in terms of infrastructure or planning, as attendees were expected to provide their own food and shelter for the duration of the event.

The earliest camp meetings were the work of Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. While the Methodist church never institutionalized the camp meeting, this form of religious revival was embraced as an important part of the practice and led to Methodist dominance in American Protestantism in the nineteenth century. The most famous, some argue notorious, early camp meeting took place at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in 1801. It lasted nearly a week, attracted tens of thousands of participants, and received wide coverage in the press, launching the camp meeting movement onto the national stage. Preachers at Cane Ridge and other early camp meetings spread the doctrine of universal redemption, and audience members were known to manifest their salvation by shouting, falling down, “jerking,” and dancing. The religious fervor of huge crowds often created a frenzied atmosphere of heightened emotions that resulted in disorderly conditions.

Following the national trend, camp meetings emerged as an important practice for Methodists in the Washington area in the first half of the nineteenth century. Washington Grove historian Philip K. Edwards states that camp meetings for the Washington District of the Methodist Church occurred as early as 1815.

By the 1830s, camp meetings had evolved into more sedate events, subject to rules of order, sometimes enforced by a civil officer. Attendees came for spiritual renewal and development. At some campgrounds, churches erected society tents to house church groups. The revivals fostered a sense of religious kinship, and socialization and recreation became important facets of camp life. Excessive socialization, which was characterized in literature of the day as the “pic-nic spirit,” was criticized by many of the movement’s detractors.

Others, such as Reverend B. W. Gorham, author of a camp meeting manual published in 1854, embraced the extra-religious pleasures of camp meetings. Historian John R. Stilgoe notes, “Much of the excitement of camp-meeting convocations derived from the pure pleasure of group activity. For families accustomed to week-long isolation and hard work, meetings offered a social release unlike that of raisings, bees, and funerals.” In his camp meeting manual, Gorham also promoted the religious campground as a place of good health, forecasting the next phase of camp meeting development wherein existing camps as well as new revival sites were promoted as religious alternatives to secular summer resort communities. To Gorham, the “purity and constant freshness of atmosphere” was one of the many circumstances that rendered the campground “a healthful resort.”

Next month: The “built environment” of camp meetings…

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