Ohio History Journal




Instructor in American History, University of Maryland

(On Military Leave)

As soon as we came upon the ground [Mechanicsburg, Ohio], I felt

that God was with the meeting. Give us a chimney, that we may have fire:

it was done. God was with us, and souls were converted.--BISHOP FRANCIS


In challenging the lawlessness and immorality of the frontier

the western churches forged new religious weapons. Among the

most successful was the camp meeting. To many denominations it

proved invaluable in gaining new adherents, and to the isolated

settlers it provided spiritual and social refreshment. This new tech-

nique was generated in the pulse-quickening years of the Great

Revival when the Presbyterian preacher, James McGready, was

attracting great crowds to his services in Logan County, Kentucky.

At his Gasper River sacramental meeting of July 1800 the newly

erected church building could not hold one-tenth of the worshipers

who had traveled from miles around. Undaunted, he moved the

meeting to the adjoining clearing, where religious fervor prompted

many to improvise shelters and encamp for several days. By this

spontaneous action, linking the practice of camping out with the

continuous outdoor service, the camp meeting institution was born.

Measured by the numbers converted, the Gasper River sacrament

was a brilliant success, insuring the staging of similar open-air

revivals by McGready's fellow ministers and those of other faiths.

With its equalitarian appeal, sociability, audience participation, and

emphasis on personalized religion, the camp meeting found a ready

acceptance among many Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist clergy-

men in the settled areas of Kentucky and Tennessee. It was no small

factor in the widespread success of the Second Great Awakening.

In many ways atypical, the Cane Ridge camp meeting of Bourbon


1 Italics his. Francis Asbury, Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury (3 vols., New York,

1852), III, 463, entry of August 26, 1815.


Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 33

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                 33

County, Kentucky, has been the model many critics have used to

create their lurid pictures of the frontier revival. Certainly scholars

of American Christianity would agree that the Cane Ridge services,

if they can be dignified by that name, represented the most dis-

orderly, the most hysterical, and the largest ever held in America.

This "General Camp Meeting" of August 1801 lasted six days and

nights. Attended by an estimated ten to twenty-five thousand persons,

it was participated in by great numbers of Presbyterian, Methodist,

and Baptist preachers. The Rev. Barton W. Stone, its Presbyterian

sponsor, boasted that "many had come from Ohio," probably from

the Miami River Valley, and some from even greater distances.2

When the tumult of Cane Ridge had died down, the Great Divide

in camp meeting history was reached. With its "muscular Chris-

tianity," its bedlam and confusion, that meeting helped fortify the

convictions of the more conservative churchmen that such pro-

ceedings were a burlesque of religion. Anti-revival and pro-revival

sentiment divided western Presbyterianism into two feuding groups.3

Included among the woodland revival's supporters were a number

of ministers and exhorters of little or no education who viewed it as

a remarkably effective technique for gaining converts. Visitors from

neighboring states returned home from Kentucky to hold encamp-

ment after encampment. Early Ohio camp meetings were marked

by the same rampant enthusiasm and animal excitement that char-

acterized those in Kentucky, a condition that is understandable,

since they were offshoots of that same movement. Zealous Pres-

byterian preachers moved north of the Ohio River and conducted a

camp meeting at Eagle Creek in present-day Adams County be-

ginning on June 5, 1801--the first encampment on record in the

Ohio Territory.4

2 Barton W. Stone, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself

(Cincinnati, 1847), 38. Historian MacLean reports visitors from the Eagle Creek

settlement in Ohio to Kentucky encampments in late May. See John P. MacLean, "The

Kentucky Revival and Its Influence on the Miami Valley," Ohio State Archaeological

and Historical Quarterly, XII (1903), 246.

3 The story of the schisms in western Presbyterianism over the camp meeting's un-

bridled emotionalism and its infringement on the Calvinistic creed is told in William

W. Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, Vol. II, The Presbyterians, 1783-1840:

A Collection of Source Materials (Chicago, 1936), 89-96.

4 This initial encampment lasted four days and three nights. MacLean, "The

Kentucky Revival," 246.

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34       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

The promoters of this forest revival became the nuclei of a group

which shortly broke away from the parent organization and in 1804

formed the "Christian Church," also known as the "Stonite" or

"New Light Presbyterian" Church. Richard McNemar, "New

Light" leader, has described a phase of their spirited services:

Praying, shouting, jerking, barking, or rolling; dreaming, prophesying,

and looking as through a glass, at the infinite glories of mount Zion, just

about to break open upon the world [occurred].... They practiced a mode

of prayer, which was as singular, as the situation in which they stood, and the

faith by which they were actuated. According to their proper name of dis-

tinction, they stood separate and divided, each one for one; and in this

capacity, they offered up each their separate cries to God, in one united

harmony of sound; by which, the doubtful footsteps of those who were in

search of the meeting, might be directed, sometimes to the distance of miles.5

That same year "the ministry" of the Shaker community, located

at New Lebanon, New York, some twenty-five miles east of Albany,

decided to send missionaries to the West. The glowing reports of

revivals in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio printed in the eastern

religious press matched the prophecy of Mother Ann Lee, founder of

the celibate society. On New Year's Day, 1805, Benjamin Seth

Youngs, Issachar Bates, and John Meacham set out on foot to create

a new moral order in the western country. After a sixty-day journey

they reached the scene of religious excitement-Bourbon County,

Kentucky. At various encampments the "Three Witnesses," as they

were called, presented unusual "testimony" whenever they were

granted the right to use the rostrum after the formal services had

ended. From the outset, the Shaker missionaries complained that

they were not accorded the usual preaching privileges during the


Moving northward to sparsely populated Ohio the next year,

the Shaker churchmen continued to use the "Stonite" encampments

as sounding boards. Stopping at the Turtle Creek settlement in

southwestern Ohio in March, they made it a point to appear at all


5 Italics his. Richard McNemar, The Kentucky Revival; or a Short History of the

Late Extraordinary Outpouring of the Spirit of God in the Western States of America

(New York, 1846), 73. In 1812 Barton W. Stone ceased reporting camp meetings

held by the various autonomous church organizations, thus ending even this meager

source of information on Stonite encampments.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 35

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                    35

of Richard McNemar's revivals and to gain converts through their

preaching.6 Such tactics naturally aroused the ire of the "New

Lights," who considered their hospitality rudely imposed upon. So

aroused was Barton W. Stone that he denounced the Shakers as

believers in "an old woman's fables." They were "wolves in sheep's

clothing, [who] have smelt us from afar, and have come to tear, rend

and devour."7 Not content with luring laymen to their millennial

cause, the Shakers concentrated on winning over a number of Stonite

ministers. Preacher Malcolm Worley enthusiastically gave the society

an estate of five thousand acres when he joined.8 This tract formed

the basis of the main Shaker community west of the Alleghenies--

Union Village--which was founded near Lebanon, Ohio, in 1805.9

Five other Stonite clergymen succumbed.10 Of these, Richard

McNemar's defection on April 23 was possibly the most significant.

His congregation, like many others, also transferred their allegiance.

Thus camp meeting revivalism is inextricably connected with the

beginnings of Shakerism on the western frontier.

McNemar waited but five days to hold his first encampment under

new auspices. A group of Stonites journeyed from Springfield to

the Turtle Creek church to show the erring members their folly.

The invaders soon made the camp ground a lively place. By no

stretch of the imagination could the meeting be said to have con-

tributed to denominational love and understanding. Issachar Bates,

Shaker missionary, described the hectic scene:

A great body of blazing hot New Lights with John Thompson . . . a

6  Turtle Creek is now Union Village, Warren County. Consult Calvin Green and

Seth Wells, A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or United Society of Be-

lievers, Commonly Called Shakers (2d ed., Albany, 1848), 79-82; McNemar, The

Kentucky Revival, 79-115.

7 Introduction to his "Letters on Atonement," cited in McNemar, The Kentucky

Revival, 102.

8 Levi Purviance, The Biography of Elder David Purviance, with His Memoirs

(Dayton, Ohio, 1848), 287.

9 The first year Union Village was composed of one hundred and twenty-six

"believers," but by April 30, 1810, there was a complement of three hundred persons.

See Green and Wells, Summary View, 80; also consult John P. MacLean, Shakers of

Ohio: Fugitive Papers Concerning the Shakers of Ohio, with Unpublished Manuscripts

(Columbus, 1907), 11, 60. "North Union Village," founded in 1822, is present-day

Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. For other Shaker communities founded in the

West, see Green and Wells, Summary View, 75-76.

10 Specifically, John Stewart, John Patterson, John Dunlavy, Matthew Houston, and

Richard McNemar. See MacLean, Shakers of Ohio, 190-194.

36 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

36       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

preacher at their head determined to break down all before them. Thompson

mounted the stand and began his preachment and undertook to show how

much they had been imposed on by deceivers . . . and now these Eastern

men had come to tell us that Christ had made his second appearance,

(pause), but they are liars, they are liars, they are liars. . . . For about

half an hour it was one steady cry glory to Jesus, glory to Jesus, glory

to Jesus, and almost every other noise.... I was ordered back to hell from

whence I came and called all the bad names they could think of, after the

noise began to cease I stepped off the log and passed through the multitude

and as I passed they cried out, see how his conscience is seared as with a

hot iron, he does not regard it [at] all.11

Although a few other camp meetings were held by the Shakers

during 1805, once their new community at Union Village was firmly

established they saw little need for more of them.

While the Presbyterians and Baptists were discontinuing the

camp meeting, the Methodists were coming to view it as their own

peculiar institution.12 By 1805. only the left-wing elements of Pres-

byterianism continued its use, as already noted. Although never an

"official" practice of the Methodists, this supplementary technique

of revivalism became an integral part of their system. Bishop

Francis Asbury, general superintendent of the Methodist Church in

America, was one of the camp meeting's greatest advocates; under

his church's sponsorship the pioneer revival reached its harvest time.

Methodism's rapid progress in the Northwest Territory can be

charted in the multiplication of circuits and the rapid increase in

church membership. When the Western Conference, comprising

all the circuits west of the Alleghenies, was created in 1800, only

three circuits existed in the Ohio Territory. Then the total member-

ship in the entire Northwest Territory was 364 whites and 2 colored.13


11 Manuscript Autobiography of Issachar Bates, quoted in MacLean, "The Kentucky

Revival," 269-270.

12 The third schism in western Presbyterianism, growing out of the controversy

over camp meeting revivalism, produced the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. This

group apparently did not reach Ohio until the year 1829, when they conducted their

first outdoor revival there. See B. W. McDonnald, History of the Cumberland Church

(Nashville, 1888), 294-295. The Baptist Church generally limited its use of en-

campments to the annual meetings of the local "Baptist Associations."

13 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New

York, 1840-45), I, 98. Asbury noted in 1812 that "Ohio will give six thousand for

her increase of members in one new district." Journal, III, 396, entry of October 10,


Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 37

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                   37

By 1811, the year before the Western Conference was divided into

the Ohio and Tennessee conferences, the situation was entirely

changed. The denomination's enrollment had then grown to include

10,028 white and 76 colored communicants.14 Explanation for this

phenomenal growth lay in the tireless activities of the itinerant who

delivered the word of God at his preaching appointments, class

meetings, and two-day meetings (lasting from Saturday afternoon

to Sunday evening). Nor was the circuit rider averse to utilizing

the camp meeting in extending Methodist influence to the remotest

edges of settlement.15

Apparently the first Methodist encampment in Ohio was held

near Marietta in 1804 under the leadership of itinerant George

Askins. To put it softly, it met with less than moderate success. The

year following, another was arranged there by traveling preachers

Jacob Young and George C. Light. This time "blessed results"

were obtained, and the ground was broken for the organization of

the customary class meeting.16 In succeeding years some of the giants

of early Methodism, including John Sale, James B. Finley, Peter

Cartwright, James Quinn, John Strange, John Collins, Henry Boehm,

and William McKendree, rode the far-flung circuits of the Ohio

settlements and faithfully recorded the number of camp meetings.

Although fragmentary, their reports are a rich mine of revival lore;

in fact, the Ohio camp meeting record appears the most complete

of all the states.

Bishop Asbury, moreover, rendered an accounting of nationwide

encampments in scattered years, listing the number per circuit, total

attendance, and persons professing grace. His Journal and letters

offer irrefutable proof of the popularity of camp meetings. In 1809


14 Minutes, I, 209.

15 Indicative of the spare settlement were the comments of William Burke, pre-

siding elder of the Ohio District, in 1803. He reported that a circuit rider in the

Miami Circuit would travel "between forty and fifty miles without [encountering] a

house," and that it took six weeks to complete the circuit with two saddlebag

preachers joining forces. "Autobiography of Rev. William Burke," in James B.

Finley, Sketches of Western Methodism: Biographical, Historical, and Miscellaneous,

Illustrative of Pioneer Life (Cincinnati, 1854), 85-86.

16 In the Hockhocking Circuit. Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal

Church (3d ed., 2 vols., New York, 1845), II, 163-165.

38 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

38       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

the father of American Methodism rode the Ohio circuits during

the mild months of August and September and recorded four camp

meetings in the Muskingum District and seventeen in the Miami.

He joyously commented: "It appears that the bishops [elders]

will hold a camp-meeting in every district; we are encouraged so

to do: great power was manifested here, and much good was done.

I will not say how I felt, nor how near heaven."17 The harvest

season for the open-air revival in Ohio and the nation at large con-

tinued until the outbreak of the War of 1812. At least fifty-nine

encampments were held in Ohio between 1804 and 1816, the year

of Asbury's death.18

By the time the adherents of John Wesley introduced their version

of the forest revival in the new state of Ohio, the camp meeting

was becoming systematized. Here it was entering its second phase,

the institutional stage of development, in which encampments were

distinguished by elaborate advance planning, smaller crowds (at-

tendance declining from thousands to hundreds), and more effective

audience management.19 The notable decline in bodily excitement

was in stark contrast to the earlier Kentucky and Tennessee camp

meetings in which it was common for hundreds to fall prostrate or

become nervously affected. The "jerks," the "holy laugh," and

"falling" exercises still appeared in conjunction with the altar serv-

ices, but available reports of Ohio encampments held from 1804 to

1815 reveal that such manifestations were a rarity. It is evident that

while the religious fervor of the Cumberland Revival still con-


17 Journal, III, 317, 321, entries of August 13 and October 24, 1809. The same

year the presiding elders of the Western Conference reported over seventy camp meet-

ings; "the work is spreading gloriously in the Illinois and Michigan settlements."

See Henry Boehm to the Rev. Jacob Gruber, Granger County, Tennessee, October 22,

1809. Asbury Manuscripts, Methodist Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland.

18 Computed by the writer from available sources. Asbury, armed with letter reports

of encampments, estimated in 1811 that Methodist camp meetings across the young

nation "amount to between four and five hundred annually, some of which continue

for the space of six or eight days." See Francis Asbury to Dr. Thomas Coke, September

2, 1811, printed in the Methodist Magazine (London), XXXV (1812), 316.

19 Ohio attendance figures seldom reached the one thousand mark of previous

Kentucky and Tennessee encampments. Some random sampling of Ohio camp meetings

after 1805: Marietta meeting, summer of 1806, two hundred converts; at Hockhocking,

August 1807, eight hundred reported present; at Brush Creek, August 1808, one

thousand reported present.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 39

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                      39

tinued in the Methodist camp meetings it was channeled into more

acceptable modes of behavior. Wherever the outdoor revival spread,

the same evolutionary pattern can be noted.20

Four-day encampments, usually beginning on Friday and con-

tinuing until Monday noon, became the rule. They were scheduled

and advertised weeks and even months in advance on some Ohio

circuits. The religious press carried the announcements;21 meeting

notices and copies of camp meeting rules were tacked to trees along

the route to the camp ground. Most frequently, the word was spread

by the itinerant as he went from cabin to cabin on his rounds, and

through his correspondence.

The number staged each year on any circuit depended largely

upon the itinerant himself, the density of population, and the

degree of enthusiasm among the settlers. Individual preachers would

cooperate in union-circuit meetings, and within a particular circuit.

By 1806 it became a fixed custom for the last quarterly conference

(the "Quarter Meeting") to be held as an encampment. This

"yearly camp meeting," at which circuit business was handled, was

always attended by the presiding elder of the district.22 Just as

popular was the annual conference camp meeting which likewise

augmented the purely local ones.

Mother Nature, to some extent, fixed the limits of the camp

meeting season. In the Old Northwest its flowering time came in

the late summer and early autumn when the weather was mild and


20 This study is primarily concerned with Ohio revivals held before 1816 under

Bishop Asbury's inspiring direction, for by that date the camp meeting pattern was

firmly established for decades to come. Actually, the backwoods camp meeting was an

ever-evolving institution. Its three phases of development--boisterous infancy, maturity,

and gradual decline by the 1840's--are treated in Charles A. Johnson, "The Frontier

Camp Meeting: Contemporary and Historical Appraisals, 1805-1840," Mississippi

Valley Historical Review, XXXVII (1950-51), 91-110.

21 For a rare notice in the secular press, see advertisement in the Weekly Recorder

(Chillicothe), September 26, 1814. Also consult Ernest L. Carter, The Early Camp-

Meeting Movement in the Ohio Valley (unpublished master's thesis, Ohio Wesleyan

University, 1922), 66.

22 By 1809-10 both circuit riders Benjamin Lakin and Peter Cartwright talked of

their "yearly camp meetings." Journal of Rev. Benjamin Lakin (1794-1820), entry

of August 31, 1810, Divinity School, University of Chicago; Autobiography of Peter

Cartwright, the Backwoods Preacher (New York, 1857), 45. James B. Finley, pre-

siding elder of the Ohio District in 1816, stated that "the last round of quarterly

meetings for the year were camp meetings, with few exceptions." Autobiography of

Rev. James B. Finley; or, Pioneer Life in the West (Cincinnati, 1853), 289.

40 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

40       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

sunny. By late July, encampments were increasing in frequency,

reaching their peak in August and September. This period of popu-

larity coincided with the completion of the wheat and hay harvest

and was the free interval before corn cutting time. Freed from the

demands of the soil, the farmer could put his family aboard the

wagon and head for the old camp ground.23

Little was left to chance at the outdoor revival; duties were care-

fully apportioned among the camp leaders to achieve maximum

effectiveness. More orderly proceedings were assured at Ohio encamp-

ments when a system of worship and camp regulations were adopted

possibly as early as 1806. The meeting schedule was usually an-

nounced from the preacher's stand at the opening session. There-

after from sun-up to retiring time, the trumpet's call guided the

worshiper from one service to another. There were customarily

four religious convocations-at eight o'clock, eleven, three, and at

candle-lighting time-exclusive of the sunrise prayer service and

mourners' meetings in the tents.24 When an ordained elder was

present to officiate, the Lord's Supper was administered either on

the Sabbath or on Monday morning.

On Sunday, a banner day, the camp grounds were crowded with

persons who came to spend the day in worship and companionship.

If the "spirit ran high" the leaders sometimes deviated from the

announced schedule. Night-long services, however, which had con-

tributed so much to the disorder and frenzy of the Great Revival

encampments, were the exception, not the rule, being contrary to

many camp regulations, which provided for a ten o'clock curfew.

Thus through elaborate planning, the itinerants sought to establish


23 Shortly after the Cumberland Revival, adherents of Methodism in the Midwest

began the practice of donating their acreage for the use of the campers. As a result,

permanent and semi-permanent camp installations developed in the more settled

areas; encampments soon bore the name of benefactors, such as "Windell's Camp

Ground" and "Turner's Camp Ground" in Ohio. See Finley, Autobiography, passim.

A fund of detail on Ohio encampments occurring prior to 1822 can be found in this


24 For similar orders of service at an 1806 Baltimore Circuit meeting, Maryland,

and an 1816 Pickaway Circuit, Ohio, see an extract of a letter by Henry Smith, dated

Baltimore Circuit, November 11, 1806, copied in Benjamin Lakin's Extracts and

Commonplaces, Benjamin Lakin Manuscripts, Divinity Library, University of Chicago;

and a letter by the Rev: William Swayze, undated, printed in the Western Christian

Monitor (Chillicothe), October 1816, 471-473.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 41

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                41

an orderly system of worship within a revivalistic framework.25

Yet with this change in character the frontier camp meeting lost

none of its magical allure.

"Camp meetin' time" was a holiday occasion as well as a

time of devotion for the Ohio pioneer. Supplying the need

of group association to overcome the seclusion and monotony of a

rural existence, it offered relief from farm drudgery and a chance

for four whole days of preaching, praying, and singing together.

The settlers' enthusiasm for this significant social experience was

indicated in the distances of forty, fifty, and even one hundred

miles they traveled to attend. Here was a chance to make new

friends and meet with old ones. Within and without the camp

grounds, youths engaged in "sparking" as best they could when

confronted with the event-packed service schedule. In addition,

camping out was a pleasurable pastime for all Americans. This

feature of the forest revival certainly goes far to explain its popu-

larity with the residents of the populous East.

The backwoods camp meeting has been described as "the most

mammoth picnic possible," where hospitality abounded. Actually,

the lure of "good eats" created a real problem to Ohio campers.

"Spongers" became so numerous in 1814 that the leaders urged

prospective worshipers to refuse to support hangers-on.26 In a

pioneer region when tent cities sprung up in a forest clearing as if by

magic, many were attracted by the spectacle which had all the

glamour, excitement, and pageantry of the later-day circus. The

woodland meeting with its row on row of tents surrounding the

speakers' platform, its banners, and campfires was something to

behold. Curious youths who wandered about the encampment fre-

quently ended up as converted penitents in "the circle of brotherly

love." A great many persons who had come for a lark "had an

interest awakened in their hearts" under the spell of revival preach-

ing. The more flamboyant camp meeting personalities were great


25 The custom developed of tallying in the converts during the camp meeting either

at the altar services or at the campers' tents. The lists were then turned over to the

appropriate circuit rider or to the class leaders to present to the next itinerant who

took charge of that circuit. See Finley, Autobiography, 253.

26 Advertisement, Weekly Recorder, September 26, 1814.

42 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

42       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

drawing cards and their appearances were well advertised. Cer-

tainly Peter Cartwright, famed for his combativeness and lively

speaking style, Ralph Lotspiech, the "weeping prophet," and

"Father" John Collins, gospel spellbinder, ranked as major at-


Many other than the religious-minded attended. Participants were

sometimes classified by the day of their arrival. As one proverb put

it: "The good people go to camp meetings Friday, backsliders

Saturday, rowdies Saturday night, and gentleman and lady sinners

Sunday."27 The worst as well as the best people of the community

were drawn there, and they brought their morals with them. Ap-

parently, the immoral and irreligious were always in approximately

equal numbers with the professing Christians and the serious-

minded. Numerous spectators, not content with entertaining them-

selves in the intervals between the services, sought amusement

during the proceedings. As often as not, the ladies' side of the

auditorium was invaded by convivial pioneers, bringing the worship

to an abrupt halt. Regulations drawn up in the interest of main-

taining proper religious decorum specifically forbade persons from

"walking to and fro, talking, smoking, or otherwise disturbing the

solemnities of the meeting." Yet, in the eyes of many, laws were

simply rules to be broken. The problem was publicly aired in the

Ohio press in 1822.28

Whiskey and whiskey sellers presented a real menace to the camp

meeting.29 Liquor consumption inevitably spelled disturbances, pos-

sibly sexual irregularities, and not infrequently free-for-all fights.

Neighborhood toughs often tried to break up the services and

send the campers packing. Saturday nights and Sundays were the

times of greatest danger; it was then that the camp guard and par-


27 Western Christian Advocate (Cincinnati), September 17, 1873.

28 Bangs, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, II, 266-267; and Ohio Monitor

and Patron of Industry (Columbus), July 20, 1822.

29 Ohio and certain other states, acting in part under church pressure, enacted

laws prohibiting the sale of intoxicating beverages within a radius of one and

sometimes two miles of a camp ground. For requests to strengthen Ohio's statute

of 1831, see the Western Christian Advocate (Cincinnati), April 15, 1834, and

August 13, 1841.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 43

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                   43

ticularly the night watch remained on the double alert.30 Some

persons sought to punish attendants at these "Methodist pow-wows"

(as they were styled by the critics) by stealing horses and wagons

or by committing acts of vandalism.31 A combination of human psy-

chology (making a rowdy a guard captain), and fistic ability by the

leaders saved many a backwoods revival from disaster. Indeed, the

success or failure of an encampment in the last analysis was often

solely dependent upon the ingenuity of the saddlebag preacher.

Enacted against such a tumultuous background, is it so surprising

that camp meeting religion partook of certain volatile characteristics?

The natural setting also shaped the religious character of the

forest revival. Laid out on a sloping green near a spring or creek,

the woodland auditorium helped neutralize secular forces. The

accomodations were simplicity itself, with the seats merely felled

logs cross-laid or planks supported by tree stumps. At night the

forest sanctuary took on an awe-inspiring quality. Flickering lamps,

candles attached to the trees, elevated fire stands, and smoking

campfires helped illuminate the scene. This evening atmosphere

affected preacher and worshipers alike. He was impelled to oratorical

heights, while they were moved to a deeper meaning of reverence

which sometimes manifested itself in great physical movement,

noise, and song.

In the afternoon and evening altar services, religious enthusiasm

reached its peak. Then the penitent seekers at the altar were appealed

to through crude but electrifying speeches, tearful testimonials, and

moving hymns. Group singing "fanned the sacred flame" during the

emotional crises of the altar services. Climaxing hours of preaching

and exhorting, these songs which were echoed from all parts of

the clearing opened the way for a show of great feeling.32 Some


30 A Marietta camp meeting of 1806 became the scene of a free-for-all fight, de-

scribed by Cartwright, Autobiography, 90-92. At a Bush Creek camp meeting of

August 7, 1808, Asbury noted: "Some waggoners attempted to sell whiskey on the

camp-grounds: we stopped our preaching--the people soon knew how deeply we

felt the insult, and they were driven away." Journal, III, 285, entry of Sunday, August

7, 1808.

31 See Finley, Autobiography, 350-351.

32 The editors of the early Methodist hymnals pointed up the Biblical injunction

in their introductory pages: "I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the

understanding also." I Cor. 14:15. See, for example, The Methodist Pocket Hymn

Book, Revised and Improved (New York, 1803), 3.

44 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

44      Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

people jumped and screamed, clapped their hands, thumped and

patted the ground, and agitated their bodies.33 Indeed, worship at

the altar was as much a product of the people as of the earnest

minister in the pulpit. On the camp ground women often abandoned

their role as silent participants and joined the men in stirring in-

dividual exhortations. Yet the aim of the leaders was not mere

emotionalism; it was believed that once the senses were awakened,

reason would be appealed to. While the extemporaneous sermons of

the self-educated evangels were delivered in such a manner as to

keep the emotional fires burning, they had a definite pattern.

The needs of the individual rather than of society were the point

of focus. The pietistic theme of the salvation of man was as wide as

all humanity in its appeal. The West needed a doctrine of per-

sonalized religion that would appeal to the emotions, relieve the

element of danger inherent in pioneer living, and emphasize the

direct relationship between a loving God and man. Itinerants

stressed that the Creator was ever-present, ever-watchful over his

flock, and all-powerful in the face of adversity. To a fighting popu-

lation in constant peril from ruthless nature, Indian attack, law-

lessness, starvation, and illness without medical aid, these were

comforting thoughts. The possibility of sudden extinction must

certainly have made the question of one's immortality a matter of

great concern.

The age-old problem of man's relation to an unseen God and

the hereafter was resolved by the techniques of the backwoods

evangelists who personalized supernatural forces. They extolled

the beauty of the Supreme Being, but at the same time stressed his

awesomeness, believing that fear would act as a flash of light to

show the indifferent that they were in immediate danger of falling

into the pits of hell. To the unschooled backwoodsman the invisible

was absolutely credible. "Soul-melting preachers," who knew the

Book of Nature as well as they knew the Bible, could array Hades

before the wicked so that the strongest would tremble and quake


33 Yet altar services were often solemn, prayerful occasions. Such was the case of a

Portsmouth, Ohio, open-air assembly of August 1818. See a letter from John Collins,

dated Chillicothe, Ohio, April 22, 1819, printed in the Methodist Magazine (New

York), II (1819), 234-235.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 45

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                 45

"imagining a lake of fire and brimstone yawning to overwhelm them

and the hand of the Almighty thrusting them down the horrible

abyss." Bishop Asbury's sermon notes for an address at a Zanesville

encampment of 1815 underscored this theme: "Knowing the terror

of the Lord, we persuade men."34 Believing that the pathway to

the intellect was through the feelings, these "Brush College"

graduates used every weapon at their disposal to insure that no

hearer would be unmoved.

While the sermons were generally doctrinal in character, dealing

with the fall of man, general atonement, and the concepts of in-

dividual conversion and simultaneous regeneration, the itinerants

were not socially myopic. In uncompromising language they fear-

lessly denounced the evils that flourished in these ribald, primitive

communities: immorality, intemperance, blasphemy, eye-gouging

brawls, card playing, and horse racing. James B. Finley, Ohio circuit

rider, ignoring the counsel to "preach the gospel and let people's

private business alone," constituted a veritable one-man temperance


The Ohio camp meeting record richly illustrates the social character

of the frontier revival; it was a part of community life, shaped by

the social forces at work. For example, a contemporary church

chronicler of the Mad River settlements described the years 1803-

1807 as difficult ones for settlement. Not until 1808 did the pioneers

there have "an opportunity to spend their time profitably together,

and camp meetings began." At one of these early encampments

General Simon Kenton, celebrated fighter, hunter, and traveling

companion of Daniel Boone, was "caught in the Gospel net" after

praying at the altar the whole night through.36

Feverish camp meeting activity went on during the following

year in Ohio and other settled portions of the Old Northwest.


34 Frederick M. Davenport, Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals (New York,

1905), 67; Asbury, Journal, III, 460-461, entry of August 11, 1815.

35 "The only temperance society that then existed [about 1812], and, consequently,

the only standard raised against the overflowing scourage of intemperance, was the

Methodist Church." Finley, Autobiography, 248.

36 Theophilus Arminius, "Short Sketches of Revivals of Religion in the Western

Country," Methodist Magazine, V (1822), 352; and Bangs, History of the Methodist

Episcopal Church, II, 245-247.

46 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

46       Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

Almost all encampments held in 1809 were well attended. This was

especially true when Bishop Asbury put in an appearance while

making the rounds of his episcopal tour. A Sunday crowd of one

thousand persons warmed the hearts of the sponsors of a Xenia

encampment. Twenty-two traveling and "located" preachers took

turns addressing the campers. One participant remarked that it was

"a very large Congregation in general for our part of the Country."37

Unusual events in nature such as fierce storms and earthquakes

influenced many to join the Methodist fold. The superstitious

pioneers believed that these strange occurrences were not the result

of natural forces but the machinations of either a wrathful God or

the Devil. When a hurricane struck as a Chillicothe camp meeting

was being held in May 1809, the presiding elder of the Miami Dis-

trict, John Sale, found his dire predictions for the sinners being

reinforced. As the storm raged on he preached about the evils of

horse racing, with the result that many were eager to confess

Christ. "The young converts exhorted, shouted and sung the praises

of their Redeemer amidst the raging elements, and the tumbling

forests! whilst darkness and horror were on the brow of the enemies

of the cross of Christ."38

The earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 were a "time of great terror

to sinners." During almost four months, the central Mississippi

River region was subjected to over a thousand shocks. As brick houses

cracked, chimneys toppled, and yawning chasms developed, settlers

turned to religion to atone for this visitation from God that had most

certainly come as a punishment for their sins. In Ohio there flocked

to church meetings scores of people who had previously paid no

attention to the subject of religion.39 Methodist membership in the

Miami District doubled within the year of 1812. The Baptists like-

wise reaped a harvest in members, even if the conversions were short-

lived. Under such conditions camp meeting orators, influenced by


37 Letter, Peter Pelham, dated Green[e] County, Ohio, September 8, 1809, printed

in Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, Vol. IV, The Methodists: A Collection

of Source Materials (Chicago, 1946), 183.

38 Theophilus Arminius, "Short Sketches of Revivals of Religion," 352.

39 Finley, Autobiography, 239-240. The earthquakes were felt particularly in Missouri

and Louisiana, according to Bangs, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, II, 292.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 47

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816                 47

millenarianism, could more effectively exhort sinners to repent before

it was too late. Terror and fear may have been the precipitants,


for this work began and ended with earthquakes, in those counties; and

the whole strain of preaching by the Baptists and Methodists was, that the

end of all things was at hand, and if the people were not baptized, or did

not join societies, there was no hope for them.... It is also a fact that

many, who had joined their societies, have already left them. Some have

been excluded from communion, and others are under censure.40

In fact, an Indiana preacher sadly noted that after the return to

normalcy, "half as many as our present membership" had become


Conversely, religious ardor was considerably diminished by the

more tangible "agents of the Devil," the Indians and the British.

From 1795 to 1812 Ohio settlers lived in comparative peace with the

partly dispossessed Indian tribes, yet talk of war councils sometimes

kept them on edge. Bishop Asbury commented in 1807 that the

rumor of an expected attack by the redmen had caused many in-

habitants of that state to flee. Again, while itinerant Benjamin Lakin

visited the Wyandots in Upper Sandusky town on a missionary tour

in 1810, he learned there was "considerable alarum [sic] in con-

sequence of the Sinneca [sic] Indians and others, holding councils

in the night ... [showing] an inclination to go to war with the

Winedotts [sic]."42

The camp meeting did not escape the devastating impact of the

War of 1812. Attendance fell off so sharply that few were held. For

two years the Maumee River Valley in Ohio was the scene of hos-

tilities, and war hysteria gripped many circuit riders as well as the

Methodist faithful. Lakin complained at the 1812 session of the

Ohio Conference: "I felt my mind pained at the spirit of war that

appeared in some of the preachers[.] Three had left their circuits


40 John F. Schermerhorn and Samuel J. Mills, A Correct View of That Part of the

United States Which Lies West of the Alleghany Mountains, with Regard to Religion

and Morals (Hartford, 1814), 16-17.

41 Allen Wiley, "Methodism in Southeastern Indiana," Western Christian Ad-

vocate, 1845-46. Reprinted in Indiana Magazine of History, XXIII (1927), 151.

42 Journal, entry of September 8, 1810.

48 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

48        Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

and gone--volunteers for thirty days in the army--But the Con-

ference thought proper to give them [back] their stations."43

When encampments were held, a spirit of patriotism rather than

devotion often prevailed. At Lakin's camp meeting on Strait Creek

in July 1812, after the close of the first sessions,


a man came to call the people together to see who would volunteer to carry

relief to De Troit to our Army who were in distressing circumstances[.]

All that ensued was comotion [sic].... [The next day] We had but few

to preach too [sic], and not more than 20 or 30 to attend the sacrament.

Two days later he lamented that "at my last camp and quarterly

meeting, we were frequently interrupted by the returning volunteers:

Yet some souls were converted."44 On occasion company commanders

would mount the rostrum and order the soldiers to comply with the

camp meeting rules. Elsewhere in the nation sermons were delivered

to volunteer troops who were marched in a body to camp grounds.45

War might drastically alter the outdoor revival, but it did not change

its primary goal--the saving of souls.

By the year 1815, lean times for the camp meeting were over.

Summer encampments were again a normal feature of Methodism

in Ohio. Asbury reported that he personally attended five there that

year. By the time of the Methodist Church leader's death in 1816,

no less than six hundred camp meetings were held throughout the

nation. Thus by the first year of peace the forest revival was again

all-powerful in the young republic.46


43 Ibid., entry of July 24, 1812.

44 Ibid., entry of July 22, 1812.

45 For Bishop Asbury's sermons to soldiers, see Journal, III, 393, entry of September

1, 1812. Bilingual itinerants, such as Henry Boehm, gave camp sermons to German

worshipers throughout the year 1812. Henry Boehm, Reminiscences, Historical and

Biographical of Sixty-four Years in the Ministry (New York, 1865), 210; Asbury,

Journal, III, 395-396, entries of September 8 and September 20, 1812. Henry Boehm

was the son of John Philip Boehm, one of the founders of the German Reformed

Church in America.

46 Sweet, The Methodists, 68-69. Contemporaries of the forties and fifties noted

that the midwestern camp meeting was not only changing in character-with elaborate

physical appointments now the distinguishing feature-but was also being supplanted

by the indoor "protracted meeting" in the settled areas. For an 1840 view, consult

John F. Wright, Sketches of the Life and Labors of James Quinn (Cincinnati, 1851),

106, 121.

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816 49

Early Ohio Camp Meetings, 1801-1816              49

The high regard of the Ohio circuit riders for the camp meeting

is mirrored in all their writings. One minister informed the editor

of the Western Christian Monitor in 1816 that he doubted the

propriety of camp meetings but "still loved them" for their many

conversions which were the "strongest evidences . . . that the in-

stitution is owned and blessed of heaven."47 Peter Cartwright gave

it his unqualified endorsement when he declared: "I am very certain

that the most successful part of my ministry has been on the camp-

ground." James B. Finley was no less favorably impressed: "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."48

Even the revival's severest critics have not challenged its in-

calculable role in winning adherents. Allen Wiley, circuit preacher

of neighboring Indiana, asserted in the 1840's that "no human being

can correctly estimate the amount of good which this country has

realized from camp meetings. Perhaps nearly one-half of the members

of the Methodist Episcopal church are the fruits of camp meetings,

directly or remotely."49 Many of the greatest names in early

Methodism owed their youthful conversion or religious awakening

directly or indirectly to the pioneer camp meeting. Other spiritual

results included the quickening of religious life and the raising of

the moral tone of a community. A successful encampment frequently

set off a chain reaction in which revivals spread to neighboring

towns and sometimes lasted throughout the winter. Hundreds of

people visited the tent cities in Ohio, attracted by the social novelty,

who seldom or never attended other church activities. For the travel-

ing preacher the camp meeting was an invaluable aid in keeping in

touch with the ever-advancing frontier, as a few could do the work

of many. And when half-peopled regions became settled communi-

ties, the woodland revival still had an important role to play in the


47 Undated letter, M. Lindsey, printed in the Western Christian Monitor (Chilli-

cothe), I (1816), 424-425.

48 Cartwright, Autobiography, 523; Finley, Autobiography, 315.

49 Wiley, "Methodism in Southeastern Indiana," 179.

50 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

50      Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

West. By virtue of its length and natural setting, it was singularly

adapted to the conversion of sinners and the social refreshment of

the campers.

Although it was rough, crude, and imperfect, the backwoods camp

meeting was an expression of the times. Clearly it arose in response

to a need: the spiritual poverty of the isolated frontiersmen. In

spite of the forest revival's basic weaknesses-the noisy, unchurch-

like atmosphere, spurious and short-lived conversions, excessively

emotional services, contribution to the spirit of denominational in-

tolerance, and apparent prolongation beyond a point of usefulness

in the populous regions-the fact still remains it was a vital socio-

religious institution that helped tame backwoods America.