Archive: the camp meeting

Where Two Centuries Meet

by Eddie Robb, Associate Editor Good News

In our country there exists a movement unknown to most people. Though it is widespread and thriving, no attention is given to it by the news media. You see, camp meetings are simply a part of forgotten America.

Camp meeting? the very words conjure vivid thoughts from our past. Screaming evangelists … spirited singing … seekers wailing at the mourners’ bench—and all these under a crowded tent on a hot summer night in the South.

Few people, even church folks, realize camp meetings are not dead. In fact, several hundred camps are still held each year.

This past summer I traveled to six camp meetings in four states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Georgia} to feel the pulse of this movement that won’t go away. Some of what I found I had expected; much I hadn’t.

At one camp in the eastern hills of Ohio, a sheriff stood guard at the entrance gate 24 hours per day. It reminded me of days gone by when ruffians took delight in breaking up camp meetings.

As I drove through the gate of that 138-year-old camp, it struck me that Peter Cartwright could have just as easily been there for all I knew. Time seemed stopped.

In many ways camp meetings today are like they always have been. Only they are more subdued.

Early American frontier camp meetings were characterized by emotional exhilaration. It was common for men and women to be suddenly swept up in various “exercises.”

Jerks, a spasmodic twitching of the entire body, became a regular occurrence. Sometimes the movement would be so quick and violent that the kerchiefs on women’s heads would fly off.

There were other “evidences ” of the Holy Spirit’s presence, too—the “laughing exercise, ” when uncontrollable guffaws exploded in the congregation; the “singing exercise, ” in which the worshipers chanted melodiously; and the “barking exercise, ” when the smitten gathered on their knees at the foot of trees, barking and snapping in order to “tree the Devil.”

Though today’s camp meetings don’t reflect frontier emotionalism, some characteristics continue. Schedules, for example, remain much like they were 50 years ago.

Regimentation: one, two, three, four! Up at 6:30 for morning prayer. Preaching services three times each day. Lights out at 10:30. Bells, bells, bells. And you’d better know what they mean!

I remember one day after lunch walking through Stoutsville Camp with my wife. Suddenly I got the eerie feeling that everyone was staring at us. I then realized everyone was quiet, except us! People were stopped in their tracks, sometimes in funny positions. It was as though they were instantly frozen.

I didn’t know what was happening, so I shut up and froze, too. After a couple of minutes people began moving again—and talking.

Later I found out that each day at one o’clock there are three minutes of silence for prayer. Alas, another bell!

The life of every camp meeting centers around the tabernacle. Here people gather for preaching services three times per day, youth included. Lively singing is followed by exuberant preaching.

Most camps have three guest evangelists, plus a music team. The evangelists rotate services.

To my delight, I found the preaching in the 20-plus services I attended remarkably good. Perhaps psychology was not a part of old-fashioned camp meeting preaching, but it is today. Preachers were seriously attempting to redefine the classical camp meeting message of holiness in a contemporary context, without losing its reality.

All my life I have heard of “shouting Methodists,” but I’ve never seen any. In fact, at most United Methodist churches I’ve attended, the only shouting is done by kids in the nursery.

But this summer I saw some real shouting Methodists! They got happy! Right in the middle of a sermon, at one of those places where I so much wanted to say, “right on,” but didn’t, a man jumped up from his seat and began hollering. I thought he must have fallen asleep and had a nightmare. I was terribly embarrassed for him and his poor wife … and for the preacher!

To my astonishment the evangelist kept right on preaching as though nothing were happening. And the congregation continued listening as though nothing were happening.

Suddenly I realized, this was a shouting Methodist in real life! ” Hallelujah! ” (I exclaimed under my breath).

Camp meetings are strangely alike. Most are interdenominational, have strong holiness ties, and are John Wesley-conscious. In fact, many camp meetings are attended mostly by United Methodists.

Missions is a central emphasis in the camp meeting tradition. Usually camps devote an entire day to it and have guest missionary speakers.

God has apparently honored America’s camp meetings. Over the years, hundreds of young people have gone forth from camp meeting grounds to mission fields and pulpits all over the world.

One such person was Dr. E. A. Seamands who served as a Methodist missionary in India for 40 years. ”

It all began 65 years ago,” he recently told me. “I was a student in the Engineering College of the University of Cincinnati, and ran out of money. So I wrote my Uncle John for urgent aid. He wrote back saying that he would be at Camp Sychar in Mount Vernon, Ohio, for 10 days and invited me to come up and talk the matter over personally. ”

So Earl Seamands left for Camp Sychar thinking he would get to spend a few days at a recreation resort. To his horror and disgust he discovered that Camp Sychar was a holiness camp meeting!

“I wanted to turn around and head back to Cincinnati, but I needed financial help from my Uncle John, so I gritted my teeth and stayed.

” Little did realize,” Dr. Seamands continued, “that when I would walk out of that camp eight days later my life would be changed.”

Dr. Seamands, like so many youth through the years, received his call on “missionary day ” at a camp meeting.

OMS International and World Gospel Mission dominate the camp meetings’ missions emphasis today. Many camps even include these missionary organizations in their budgets. (Unfortunately, the UM Board of Global Ministries is no longer supported by camp meeting people because of the board’s non-evangelical direction.)

Camp meetings certainly are not in their heyday anymore, but they’re not ailing either. Some, in fact, are thriving. A key reason for their vitality is youth participation. That may surprise you, considering their stringent rules, rigorous schedule, and frequent lack of recreational facilities. But it’s true. And perhaps what’s most surprising is that the kids love it. They come in large numbers to many camp meetings.

A leader of Cherry Run Camp in Pennsylvania told me, “We don’t have much in the way of recreation facilities for the kids, but we do have results.” He meant conversions to Jesus Christ, spiritual growth, and calling of many into Christian service.

Some camps are better equipped for recreation than others. A family from Indian Springs in Georgia, for example, recently built a private lake just for the camp’s kids. Now they have swimming, sailing, skiing, and boating-along with other excellent facilities. However, none of the camps make “entertaining the kids ” a primary goal.

One facility all camps do have is a youth tabernacle. Here they conduct their own services, special activities, and vespers. Many camps even have evangelists for the youth.

Evangelism and new birth are not the primary emphases of camp meetings. After all, most people who attend are already Christians, so the camps traditionally focus on Christian growth … the deeper life … holiness … sanctification.

Perhaps that’s why the camp bookstore is always such an important place. Reading is emphasized, and so people stock up on good books for another year.

Camp meetings, I noted, have a strong emphasis on ethics. They are not, as you might suppose, mainly experience-centered. How you live is more important to them than what you feel. Maybe that explains the prevalence of camp meeting rules. (John Wesley himself stressed “General Rules ” for all the early Methodists. These still appear in our Discipline, pages 67-70.)

Above most pulpits hanging high on the tabernacle wall is a sign proclaiming “Holiness Unto the Lord.” Other camp meetings have banners instructing “Mind God.” Camps take people’s behavior seriously; thus, no drinking, no smoking, no obscene language, no visiting during services, etc. And many camps also define what type of dress is acceptable.

Legalism? Maybe. But camp meeting people simply call it “discipline.”

Contemporary camp meetings tend to be ingrown. They have become a kind of Christian sub-culture—knowing little beyond the holiness movement and known only faintly by the outside Christian world.

Camp meeting people don’t readily trust outsiders because of the prevailing humanism in so many churches. As a result, certain preachers are re-cycled year after year. At one camp I visited, the two guest evangelists had preached there a joint total of 20 times.

Over and over I found myself asking, “Why do all these people come in spite of regimentation … often rustic facilities … stringent rules … long preaching services?”

Then one night it dawned on me while I was listening to another sermon. The evangelist remarked: “Christians are a minority, yes. But show me a kingdom where the royal family is not a minority.”

That’s it! Of course camp meetings are a sub-culture … of course they’re a minority. Though the facilities aren’t plush like the Holiday Inn and though Christian expression in camp meetings is often outdated, lots of people come back year after year. Why? Because they are a part of the royal family … because they love the King.


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