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 early leader of camp meetings, said, “Father McGready would so describe Heaven, that you would almost see its glories . . . and he would so array hell and its horrors before the wicked, that they would tremble and quake, imagining a lake of fire and brimstone yawning to overwhelm them.”

The “Great Revival” of the early 1800s began with an emphasis on Christian unity, with many denominations participating together. By 1810, the revival had resulted in at least two distinct splinters from the Presbyterian Church: The Christian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Defending camp meetings, James B. Finley said, “Much may be said about camp meetings, but, take them all in all, for practical exhibition of religion, for unbounded hospitality to strangers, for unfeigned and fervent spirituality, give me a country camp meeting against the world.”

Methodist Francis Asbury (1745–1816) became one of the best known circuit riders in America. Letters addressed “Bishop Asbury, United States of America” were promptly delivered. Plagued by illness all his life, he continued to visit circuits even when he had to be tied to the saddle to remain upright.

The early American Methodists asked four questions about each candidate offering himself for the circuit riding ministry:

1. Is this man truly converted?

2. Does he know and keep our rules?

3. Can he preach acceptably?

4. Has he a horse?

Methodist circuit riders were also book distributors. Their commission on sales provided some of them with the only cash they ever saw. This helped spread Bibles, hymnbooks, and other religious literature throughout the frontier.

Peter Cartwright, long-time circuit rider in Illinois, was twice elected to the Illinois legislature. His one defeat was in the congressional race of 1846, when he lost to a lanky opponent by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

Beef or venison jerky was the circuit rider’s staple food because it would not spoil easily.

Riding a circuit was demanding on those who undertook this grueling ministry—half died before reaching age 33. Yet many ministers thrived on the rigors of the circuit. Peter Cartwright likely held the record for endurance: he enjoyed 71 years as an itinerant.

A circuit rider was expected to take good care of his horse. The First Discipline of the Methodist church said, “Be merciful to your Beast. Not only ride moderately, but see with your own eyes that your horse is rubbed and fed.”

When Francis Asbury came to the colonies in 1771, there were only 600 American Methodists. When he died 45 years later, there were 200,000 American Methodists. The number had grown from 1 in 5,000 to 1 in 40 of the total population of the country, largely because of camp meetings and circuit riders.

By Timothy K. Beougher

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #45 in 1995]

Timothy K. Beougher is assistnat professor of evangelism at the Wheaton Graduate School and associate director for education programs at the Institute of Evangelism at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois.
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