Historic Camp Meetings
Camp meetings grew out of practicality and a literal interpretation of Leviticus 23:40-43 regarding the Feast of Tabernacles…
40 And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
41 And ye shall keep it a feast unto the Lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute for ever in your generations: ye shall celebrate it in the seventh month.
42 Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths:
43 That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
In this case the word “booths” is interpreted as “tents.” In 1854 Rev. B. W. Gorham published the Camp Meeting Manual, A Practical Book for the Camp Ground. In this work Gorham expounded upon this relationship of the Feast of the Tabernacles to the idea of the camp meeting.
Here then, we have, by express institution of God, a religious convocation, identical with a modern Camp Meeting, in its principal or characteristic fact, namely, that the people were to leave their dwelling-houses and live in tents during the meeting…
The truth is, human life needs to be dotted over with occasions of stirring interest. The journey asks its milestones, or rather, if you please, its watering places along the way. Our nature requires the recurrence now and then, of some event of special interest ; something that shall peer up from the dead level of existence, — an object for hope to rest upon in the future — an oasis in the desert of the remembered past. The ancient Jewish festivals that have been alluded to, did meet, and were doubtless mainly intended to meet this want of our humanity.Rev. B. W. Gorham
As for the practicality, preachers were scarce. Methodist preachers would ride circuits to deliver their sermons to multiple churches. In the early 1700s congregants would gather for extended services and would camp around a central worship area. The following images illustrate these early camp meetings.
Almost all denominations for both blacks and whites held camp meetings. The Methodists were particularly known for their meetings, but there were Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, and Pentecostal meetings as well. In some cases the meeting grounds took on an air of permanence. Tents became rough wooden sheds, then cottages, but they were still called “tents.” The preaching platform was sheltered under wooden sheds that became the “tabernacle.”
Rev. Gorham described out the camp meeting should be laid out.
1. If it is probable that there will be an hundred family tents, or their equivalent in society tents, then the ground, within the tents, should be at least half an acre ; or a full acre, including the sites of the tents themselves ; and the ground should be larger or smaller, in proportion, for a larger or smaller meeting.
2. In shape it should be nearly circular. (See ground plan.)
Here’s the ground plan. Men and women would sit separately. The tents would be located around the circle.
Indian Springs Camp Meeting in St. George is probably the closest to this circular format that I’ve seen. Instead of the open seating proposed by Gorham, it does have a tabernacle.
Such a rustic setting called for a different type of music. Most of the early camp meeting music was a cappella. By the late 19th and early 20th Centuries special collections of Camp Meeting Songs were published.
Yep, I became obsessed. Just like I was with fire towers, old schools, and ghost towns, I had to find out just how many historic campgrounds were out there. Turns out, quite a few.
Continued on page 3…