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That Ol’ Time Camp Meeting Religion

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American Christians who come from a holiness or evangelical tradition are likely familiar with the concept of camp meeting. These outdoor events originated in the 1800s as the nation was expanding westward.

By 1800, major revivals in Christianity had begun in New England with the Second Great awakening and on the western frontier with the Great Revival in Kentucky. It was in Kentucky where the camp meetings began.

Thousands of settlers were moving into the new territories and there were no established religious communities or houses of worship. The camp meeting was organized and led by itinerant preachers or circuit riders.

Presbyterian ministers organized outdoor “communion seasons” which were used by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The first camp meeting is believed to have been in Logan County, Kentucky in 1799.

Large open tabernacles were erected to cover the preacher and worshipers. They lived in tents or wooden cabins during the encampment.

Camp meetings were characterized by passionate sermons and exhortations as well as manifestations of conversion. Out of this atmosphere new forms of song and hymns emerged.

Unlike the more formal hymns, songs that emerged from camp meetings were simple, melodic and repetitive. Because of that they appealed to the settlers on the frontier. One such hymn or chorus that emerged was:

Give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion,
give me that old time religion,
it's good enough for me.

These meetings frequently produced emotional demonstrations of religious conviction. Because of this some Presbyterians and Baptists disapproved of the camp meetings. But in the Methodist tradition adopted and embraced the camp meetings. For years they were a signature of the denomination. Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury called the meetings “Methodism’s harvest time.”

In 1811, 10 to 33 percent of the entire American population attended at least one camp meeting. By 1820, there were almost a thousand camps in Virginia. The ten to fourteen day meetings would draw crowds of as many as 10,000.

By the mid 1860’s come camp meetings where held strictly for the promotion of Scriptural Holiness. “The National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Christian Holiness” was organized in 1867. Many present-day holiness denominations and groups came into existence through these meetings. Asbury University and Asbury Theological Seminary trace their origins to this movement. Both institutions are in Wilmore, Kentucky where the Wilmore Holiness Camp Meeting continues today.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain describes the “duke” and the “king” going to a camp meeting where the king professes to be a repentant pirate collecting $87 and a jug of whiskey.

The Holiness Camp Meeting Directory provides a partial list of modern day camp meetings.

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