A Presbyterian minister relates the history of the first ever camp meetings held at the turn of the Nineteenth Century.
Much opposition was manifested to the revival from its first commencement, and what is worthy of remark, its most violent opposers were avowed Deists, and professors of religion.
The First Camp Meeting.
THE FIRST CAMP MEETING IN CHRISTENDOM was held in July, at the Gasper River Church. It is worthy of remark, that the gracious work first commenced in this church, and although the other two congregations had been blessed with times of awakening and refreshing; yet the effect of them had been, in a great measure confined to their immediate vicinities: but from this congregation, and from the first camp meeting, the revival spirit went forth, which diffused itself throughout the churches of the West, and resulted in the conversion of thousands of immortal souls, and caused its influence to be felt not only in the valley of the Mississippi, but also on the coast of the Atlantic, particularly in the Carolina?
The influence of camp meetings on the inhabitants of the western country has been immense, thousands, and tens of thousands, on these occasions have professed to pass from death unto life. Meetings of this nature are now held in almost all parts of the United States, and by different denominations. They have been held for years by a certain class of Methodists in England; and an attempt has been made to introduce them into Scotland, and in the vicinity of Edinburgh its capital. But, very few are acquainted with their origin, which has been traced to various causes, by curious speculators on the subject. Although it is true that the Jews on many occasions, held such convocations; and multitudes assembled in the wilderness, where they remained for days, hearing the heavenly discourses of Him, who spake as never man spake: yet in these latter days, such meetings were not in use until they were introduced by Mr. M’Gready.
A person whose varacity and piety are unquestioned and who resided in the vicinity of Gasper River congregation, when the revival first appeared there; some years ago, gave us the following relation concerning the origin of the first camp meeting. “A family consisting of a father and his seven daughters, had removed from one of the Carolinas, to Logan county—shortly after their arrival they were informed of the strange work that had appeared in Mr. M’Gready’s congregrations; and that a sacramental meeting was about to be held at Gasper River church. They felt solicitous to be present, but as they resided at some distance from the place of meeting, and were strangers in the country, they felt unwilling to impose themselves on the hospitality of those who were unacquainted with them, and were about to abandon the thought of being present, when one of them said, they had often encamped by their wagon in the open air, while upon their journey, without sustaining any injury, and that to pursue the same course on the present occasion would subject them to no great inconvenience. The family went to the meeting in their wagon, provided with provisions for themselves and horses, and encamped near the church. By the close of the exercises most of them had professed to obtain an interest in the blood of the Atonement. This happy family returned home rejoicing in the Lord, and in the fulness of their hearts, declared to their neighbors the great things God had done for them. The curiosity of many became excited, and some were awakened to a sense of their danger; and hearing of another meeting, (we think at Muddy River church) two or three families went to it in their wagons, and most of the converts on the occasion were from this company. Mr. M’Gready observed the circumstance—believed it a token that God would bless such conduct—and urged upon the members of his congregations to request their friends at a distance to come to the meetings prepared to remain on the ground. Previous to the meeting at Gasper River in July, he had it proclaimed far and wide, that on that occasion he expected the people to encamp on the ground; and sent pressing invitations to ministers at a distance, to come and see this strange work,-and to induce as many of their people as possible to be present.” Whatever objections may be urged against camp meetings in the vicinity of large cities, and in densely populated countries, certainly the course pursued by M’Gready, on that occasion, was admirably calculated to promote the interests of the Redeemer’s Kingdom, among the early settlers of this western wilderness. At that period the country was but thinly inhabited; the settlements were comparatively few and at a distance from each other. Indeed the blessed results of that meeting and hundreds that have followed it, clearly prove that in this affair, Mr. M’Gready had the approbation of Heaven. But to return:
The intelligence that a strange work was in progress in Logan county, had excited the curiosity of multitudes in the adjacent countries, and being encouraged by the invitations of Mr. M’Gready, a vast concourse of people flocked to the meeting, from the distance of twenty, thirty, fifty and even a hundred miles. In many instances, whole families went in their wagons, with provisions, &c. At this meeting, and indeed at all of the same nature for years afterwards, no cabins were erected for the accommodation of the people, as is now universally done at camp meetings, in this country. But the people sheltered themselves the best way they could—some slept in their wagons—others erected temporary tents covered with bed clothes &c. Their fare was of the most frugal kind, simply consisting of what was necessary to sustain nature. As the wagons arrived, they took their stations, so as to form a large square, near the centre of which, a temporary pulpit or stand was erected, formed of rough logs with a small hand-board for the convenience of the preachers. As many as possible of the assembled multitude were accommodated on seats, formed by placing on the ground, long logs, parallel, but at some distance, and above these, others roughly hewn, cross-wise. The ministers who occupied the pulpit on that occasion were James M’Gready, William M’Gee, and William Hodge, with perhaps others of whom we have no certain knowledge. During the public exercises on Friday and Saturday, nothing more than a decent solemnity prevailed in the congregation; but on the evening of the latter day, two pious women were engaged conversing on the state of their souls, their views, feelings, prospects &c. which deeply affected those who were standing by. Instantly the divine flame spread through the whole multitude; many of the unconverted became so deeply affected that they fell powerless on the ground, and cried aloud for mercy. Ministers and pious christians passed among them, giving them instructions and encouragement to close with Christ, as he is offered in the Gospel. In this way the night was spent, and before Sabbath morning, a goodly number obtained peace and joy in believing. From this time the work continued to advance both day and night until Tuesday morning, when the meeting closed. The result was, that forty-five precious souls were believed to have passed from a state of nature to a state of grace; most of whom have gone to Eternity—but some yet remain: from that time to the present, they have sustained a credible profession of religion, and thereby have given satisfactory evidence, that they were converted to God in a genuine revival.
A few weeks after this meeting another of the same nature was held at Muddy River Church; at which, fifty persons professed to obtain an interest in the blood of Atonement. At both of these sacraments, many who did not profess to be born again, left them seriously awakened, and anxiously seeking the way of salvation. The young converts were the devoted friends of the work, and many sincere Christians who were present from motives of curiosity, and at first filled with prejudices, had them all removed—became quickened, revived, and strengthened. All these, on their return to their respective homes, were instrumental in arousing the attention of their respective neighborhoods; and in a short time the inhabitants of all the settlements in the Green River country were more or less visited with gracious out pourings of the Holy Spirit.
Consequences of a very important nature to the inhabitants of the Cumberland country resulted from the meeting at Gasper River Church, which was attended by great numbers from that region, especially from Shiloh congregation, at that time, under the pastoral care of Mr. Hodge; five of whose members in full communion, there became convinced that although they had a name to live, yet they were dead in tresspasses and sins; and before they left the meeting obtained satisfactory evidence that their sins were pardoned, their iniquities covered, and their hearts changed. Others who previously had made no profession, were there converted to God, and the members of the church who were sincere Christians, were greatly revived and aroused to a proper sense of the importance of their stations. Among these, was the pastor himself, who returned home praising God for what his eyes had seen, and hif heart had felt, and resolving to do his utmost, as a humble instrument to advance the glorious work, in the region where he resided. The evening these members of Shiloh congregation reached their home, the work commenced there. A youth who at camp meeting had professed to obtain the forgiveness of his sins on his way to his fathers house, fell in company with a young associate; with deep concern he told him he was going down to hell. The boy, who was unaccustomed to such addresses, became greatly alarmed, ran home, and in a state of deep conviction, he sank down helpless, and almost speechless. In a very short time he obtained delivering grace, and to the astonishment of all present, he spake the praises of God, the wonders of redeeming love, and in the most earnest and affectionate manner, exhorted the unconverted to fly from the wrath to come. He called for one of his young friends, who, when he came forward, fell to the floor deeply convinced of his guilt and exposure to the wrath of God—presently he also burst forth in praises to the Most High. In consequence of these conversions, next morning the whole neighborhood was in a state of alarm; they met together for social prayer; during the exercises, some wept, others cried aloud for mercy, and more were added to the list of the converted. The work spread rapidly through the congregation, and by the Sabbath morning after the meeting at Gasper River, eighteen or twenty persons professed to be converted to God. Deists and formal professors opposed the blessed work, still, however, it prospered gloriously, and in a very short period, in almost every family of the neighborhood, some had either professed to have passed from death unto life, or were deeply awakened, with the exception of the families of the opposers.
In the meanwhile, Mr. M’Gready was actively and success fully engaged in promoting the work in Kentucky. At the solicitation of Mr. M’Gee, he visited one of his congregations, and on the first of September held another camp meeting, at the Ridge meeting house, which is situated near the road leading from Nashville to Bowlingreen. On this occasion, great numbers attended from the Cumberland and Green River countries. The presence of God rendered the place awful and glorious, and forty-five precious souls were hopefully brought into the fold of Christ.
The following week, Mr. M’Gready, William M’Gee, and his brother John M’Gee, a devoted and spiritual Methodist minister, aided Mr. Hodge in holding a camp meeting at Shiloh. The multitude that assembled from all quarters on this occasion was greater than at any previous meeting. The solemn exercises commenced on Friday evening, and were continued with some intervals, until Tuesday. On Sabbath evening the effect of the work on the vast multitude was awful beyond description—great numbers, by the enlightening influences of the Holy Spirit, were struck prostrate on the earth—whereever the eye was turned, men and women were seen in this condition scattered all around; and their deep sighs, and heartrending groans, appeared to pierce the heavens. Very few were indifferent spectators—almost all present felt that the power of God was upon them. Some were under the first awakenings on account of sin; and others were earnestly engaged in struggling for deliverance: in this state they continued all night. On Monday morning a glorious resurrection began to take place among the spiritually dead; for a considerable time praises and thanksgivings for the conversion of some new-born soul were heard almost every minute, until they became incessant: finally the whole congregation was filled with joy and gladness. Neighbors and friends, parents and children, brothers and sisters, were locked in each other’s arms, praising God for redemption through the blood of the Lamb. Those who previously were bitter enemies now cordially embraced each other in the bonds of peace. Mr. Hodge in a letter to Bishop Asbury, of the Methodist Church, stated that it was believed upwards of a hundred precious souls, at this meeting professed to find pardon and peace; and it is a pleasing reflection, that very few afterwards dishonored their profession.
For sometime after this camp meeting it was no unusual thing to hear of persons falling down suddenly upon the ground, owing to overpowering views of their guilt and exposure to misery. This sometimes transpired when they were alone in their fields, or travelling on the high road, or when at home in their houses—a clear evidence that the work was produced by the mighty power of God.
In October, another camp meeting was held in Mr. Craighead’s congregation, and although the pastor of the church was no friend to the revival, and viewed the exercises and professions of it subjects as the result of enthusiasm and wild fire; yet God was present in mighty power, and many were added to the church of such as shall be saved. This meeting was gotten up by some of the members of the congregation who had been converted at those that preceded it, some of whom are yet alive, who have informed us, that they had been years in the church, in full communion, but never knew what it was to be born again, until the glorious revival of 1800.—This meeting was followed by another at what is now called the Beech Church, in Sumner county, then under the pastoral care of the Rev. William M’Gee, who from first to last, was the fast friend of the revival; and whose labours of love were crowned with astonishing success. On this occasion upwards of forty persons obtained a good hope of eternal life through the blood of Jesus Christ.
Thus did this blessed work of God, in the year A. D. 1800, burst forth in meredian strength, and diffuse its healing influences through the Cumberland and Green River countries; transforming a moral wilderness into the garden of the Lord. The ensuing winter, the ball gave way to the social prayer meeting—the loud unthinking laugh and foolish jest, to the voice of praise and thanksgiving. Nor was the blessed work retarded by the chilling blast and biting frost. It still progressed prospering and to prosper; and many poor wandering sinners were brought into the fold of Christ.
—Rev. James Smith, History of the Christian Church (1835).
HYMN 262. P.M.
WHAT wondrous love is this, O! my soul! O! my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, that caus’d the Lord of bliss,
To send this precious peace to my soul, to my soul,
To send this precious peace to my soul.
—The Camp-Meeting Chorister (1830).