America’s Pentecost- The Camp Meeting

Rev. Steven Lyle

“Religion may be defined as the ultimate passion that determines men’s attitudes, and so defined, religion becomes the fundamental history-making force. “ (W. W. Sweet, Religion in the Development of American Culture, 1765-1840)

It may be hard for some to believe that just a little more than 200 years ago the area now known as the state of Georgia was considered to be, for the most part, a wilderness frontier. It may be surprising especially for those who have driven up and down the freeways of this great state and have seen the many towns and cities in which the interstate and local roads lead through. We are amazed at the skyscrapers in metro- Atlanta, and the rapid growth that has taken place in the cities of Savannah,  Augusta, Macon, Albany, and Columbus to name a few.

It was during the turn of the 18th century that the city of Savannah was the only growing metropolitan area and Augusta was beginning to gather residents and buildings. The rest of the state lacked towns and villages and was considered to be a land to be explored.

This was the backdrop of what would soon become known as the Second Great Spiritual Awakening that would start in the states of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina and would spread westward to the frontier states of Georgia and Tennessee. The instrument that would lead the way for this great awakening of the soul would be the camp meeting. Here, in Georgia, it would have a tremendous impact on this wilderness area as thousands of men, women, and young people would find themselves caught up in the spiritual revival that would spread across our country and eventually, here in Georgia.

To fully understand the impact that camp meetings had on this awakening of the soul here in Georgia and more specifically, Cass County, which would later become Bartow, one must journey back to the beginnings of our nation and to the frontier settlements.

After winning independence from Great Britain there was a growing concern among religious leaders in America about the spiritual vacuum that seemed to exist across the country. In 1794 a Presbyterian minister in Savannah wrote that he was “greatly distressed in mind, from a view of the present apparent languishing state of religion in this country. Coldness and formality prevail.  In a letter written for the Georgia Baptist Association in 1795, Silas Mercer attempted to explain God’s purpose for the spiritual desert that he proclaimed, along with many others, that existed in America. “But why are these things so? To which we answer. The great Governor of the Universe does not always work by miracles, neither offers violence to the human will. It cannot be thought, but that he could have made his people perfect in soul, body and spirit, at the same time when he converted their souls. But it appears to us, that Jehovah, in his wise providence, saw proper to continue them in connection with an old corrupt nature, in order to properly discipline them, that by the various combats between flesh and spirit they may be weaned from sensual delight, and learn to trust their all in him. But again: in a lively time of religion, hypocrites and formalists are apt to creep into the Church, therefore, a time of trail is necessary to purge these, as dross from the pure gold or real Christians. And, further: the Lord intends, it may be, by this way to prove that salvation is by grace alone; for in a time of declension no man or set of men, no, not all the people in the world, can make a stir of religion. So, this proves that religion is of the Lord. (John Boles, The Great Revival, 29, 83)

It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that Methodism began to find it’s spiritual roots in Georgia and it was greatly needed as our area was considered to be a vast spiritual  wasteland. While speaking at a conference of Georgia preachers in 1791 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury (1745-1816), one of the most noted preachers that God used to bring about this spiritual awakening in America characterized the ministry in Georgia as “ the work, in general, very dead.” According to Asbury, settlers coming to Georgia were interested only in “new lands, good trade, buying slaves.” Some historians believe this was the reason why Asbury eliminated Georgia from his traveling schedule for several years during the late 1790s. It wasn’t until 1799 that he returned, and it was then that he found Georgia to be more open to becoming a mission field.  Writing in his Journal Asbury commented: “Little did I think I should ever visit Georgia again much less the frontiers of it.” (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

There were many, rather lengthy, quarterly meetings in Georgia at the turn of the eighteenth century similar to what became known as camp meeting. The two primary leaders in the revival movement from 1800 through 1803 were Hope Hull, who has been called the father of Georgia Methodism, and Stith Mead, the Methodist preacher in the Augusta Circuit. While attending the quarterly conference at Coke’s Chapel near Washington, Georgia, in November 1800 the men were inspired by Bishop Asbury’s account of “the work of God” he witnessed a month earlier traveling in the Cumberland region in Tennessee. Asbury told of this unmistakable revival power flaming up and spreading rapidly at the edge of the migration into the west and south and urged the preachers to expect its coming. (John Boles, The Great Revival, 81-83)

At the conference a year later, Asbury appointed Mead presiding elder of the Georgia District (the land within the state) of the South Carolina Conference. Offering words of encouragement and challenge, Asbury corresponded with the new presiding elder, saying: “God hath given us hundreds in 1800, why not thousands in 1801, yea, why not a million if we have faith”? True to Asbury’s predictions, the revival flowed quickly into the state. By Mead’s first quarterly conference, held in mid-July 1801, manifestations of the long-promised Spirit were evident. The awakenings rapidly increased  during the next few months. When Asbury returned to Georgia in late October of that year, Mead and Hull, along with other clergy  accompanied him as he traveled through eleven counties. Attendance was great—over a thousand people attended the quarterly conference at Pope’s Chapel. The excitement of the crowd was so great that they began to shout and sing as Asbury preached. Even though Asbury left the state predicting “something great,” Georgia was yet to experience a “real” camp meeting. Although Effingham Campground in Springfield, Georgia claims to have held camp meetings as early as 1799, most scholars, including John Boles, believe that they did not occur in the state until late 1802. (James W. May, “How the Great Revival Came to Georgia,” Historical Highlights 4, no. 2, December 1974: pp. 6-11.)

There is no complete certainty when the first camp meeting was held in Georgia but there are several noted gatherings that give the reader an idea of the time period that these spiritual awakenings took place. Methodist historian Alfred Pierce wrote that Georgia’s first camp meetings were held about 1801 or 1802 in either Wilkes or Oglethorpe County. Stith Mead is reported to have attended his first camp meeting from Friday, October 8 and extending until Tuesday, October 12, 1802, at Rehoboth Chapel in Warren County. This was an interdenominational gathering with 26 preachers—18 Methodist, five Baptist, and three Presbyterian—and 7,000 settlers from around the area in attendance.

 The gathering required a large plot of land to be cleared for the crowd and two preaching stands to be constructed for the preachers. With this construction there was also formed an “oblong” area cleared around the meeting house for the campers. This would mark the beginning of a physical trait of the camp meeting and that was the camp sites that surrounded the worship facility.

Two days later on October 14 Mead attended a camp meeting sponsored by Presbyterians, and on October 23 he was involved in another interdenominational meeting. The one held in the Apalachee Circuit was apparently strictly Methodist, but the other two were joint meetings held with Presbyterians. One of the joint meetings took place in November at an encampment near Lexington that was a mile in circumference. With estimates of 8,000 to 10,000 in attendance, there were 25 ministers, including one Episcopalian. Mead preached at other encampments during the winter and spring of 1803. Crowds estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 gathered to hear the word of the Lord in Columbia County; also, a crowd of 3,000 is purported to have come to a camp meeting in February 1803 in Hancock County despite the cold weather. (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

From 1802 to 1804 Georgia camp meetings thrived, setting the stage for a revival element that became “an institutionalized feature” of religion in the state, especially for the Methodists. The Hancock County meeting was the first “recorded” camp meeting held in Georgia. It was held in 1803 at Shoulderbone Creek and recorded by Lorenzo Dow in his journal, History of Cosmopolite. Reverend Dow described the scene saying: “A camp meeting, the first I ever attended was held on Shoulderbone Creek, where I arrived on the third day of its sitting, about the dawn of it. I spoke several times, and the Lord was with us; ten came forward and testified that they found the pardoning love of God, among whom was Judge Stith, who had been a noted deist.”

 For the next several years, the movement continued to grow until each county had one or more campgrounds, and some individual charges had more than two.  Jesse Lee, the historian of the Methodist Episcopal Church and a camp meeting veteran, said: In 1806 “I attended a camp meeting in Hancock, at what was called the ‘Pineywoods house’ seven miles from Sparta. There was the largest encampment I ever  saw (176 tents) and the congregation on Sabbath was estimated at 10,000.…Preaching was had at two stands regularly; great power attended the word and there was a wonderful outpouring of the Spirit and scores of souls were converted. I recollect one evening in particular, while the sweet songs were sounding from hundreds of voices, while converts were shouting all around, it seemed almost as if heaven were coming down to earth. All creation seemed to brighten, and even the tops of the tall pines to wave ‘glory to God!’ To one at least it appeared so.” ( John Boles, The Great Revival, 81-83)

 This service yielded over 100 conversions as it continued through the remainder of the day and night. Worshippers in Georgia were to experience this very emotional type of camp meeting for many years.  In the book, The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt, author John Boles attempts to explain the origin of the movement that swept across the South in terms other than what he termed “the narrow frontier thesis.” Boles stated that the frontier thesis was justified in terms of geography and emotion, but that it never explained the how and why of the origin of the camp meeting movement. He contends that the most popular theory of origin does not explain why camp meetings spread so rapidly throughout the entire South—not just in the newly settled areas or under dire frontier conditions.

Georgia, under the leadership of Reverend Stith Mead, presiding elder of the Georgia District Methodists reported that revival activity occurred in Elbert County in 1801. After a period of despair about the apathy that surrounded religious activities, news of the August 1801 Cane Ridge camp meeting reached Georgia. From that point forward, revival fever heated up across the entire state- -except in the Savannah area. Later that same year and well into 1803, numerous camp meetings were held throughout Georgia as interest and enthusiasm built among members of the clergy and citizens who would attend the events. In the book, A History of Methodism in Georgia, author Alfred M. Pierce states that the camp meeting did not reach Georgia until around 1801 or 1802 and that they were first held in Oglethorpe or Wilkes County. Once established, they spread quickly in the state, and he claimed that there were approximately 400 camp meetings being held annually by 1812 and by 1816 there were another 200 camp meetings in existence.

In our area, Cass County, the Camp Meeting experience didn’t take place until 1834 when the Rev. Stephen Ellis led the formation of the Pine Log Methodist Church and Camp Meetings began to be held for the local settlers in the area. It is interesting to note that the Pine Log Church is the oldest church in North Georgia  that is still active by worshipping and serving on a regular basis. Each year the church hosts a camp meeting in the summer which it has been doing for almost 200 years. This year, 2022, was the 188th consecutive annual camp meeting and was held July 17th– 24th. During those early years of the Pine Log camp meetings the worshippers would come to camp meeting and set up their tents and circuit riders would come and preach and teach the gospel. Today, guest ministers are invited to come and bring the message and many of the old songs that were sung back in the beginning are still sung today. The Holy Spirit still moves, and revival takes place, lives are changed, and the spirit of the camp meeting still lives.