Camp Meetings and Circuit Riders: Did You Know?
In most early camp meetings, the focal point of the gathering was receiving Communion.
The circuit rider often oversaw the preparations of the site for the camp meeting. A site previously used could be “reclaimed” in a single day, and he would direct volunteers in clearing away fallen branches and making any needed repairs to the plank seats. Preparing a new site, however, might take three or four days.
The banner year for camp meetings was 1811, when from 10 to 33 percent of the entire American population attended at least one.
Many camp meetings lasted six days or even nine days. Eventually, four days became the fixed number, with meetings beginning on Friday afternoon or evening and continuing until Monday noon. One proverb said, “The good people go to camp meetings Friday, backsliders Saturday, rowdies Saturday night, and gentlemen and lady sinners Sunday.”
Many people at the early camp meetings displayed unusual physical manifestations: fainting, rolling, laughing, running, singing, dancing, and jerking—a spasmodic twitching of the entire body, where they hopped with head, limbs, and trunk shaking “as if they must … fly asunder.”
At some camp meetings, watchmen carrying long white sticks patrolled the meeting grounds each evening to stop any sexual mischief. Enemies of camp meetings sneered that “more souls were begot than saved.”
Drinking was such a problem at camp meetings that some states prohibited sale of intoxicating beverages within a one- or two-mile radius of a meeting.
Experience taught circuit riders that “Christians enjoy those meetings most which cost them the greatest sacrifice.” A fifty-mile journey was “a pretty sure pledge of a profitable meeting.”
An observer describing the preaching of James McGready, an ...