History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
Camp Meetings and Circuit Riders: Did you know?
In most camp meetings, the focal point of the gathering was receiving Communion. The circuit rider often over saw the preparations of the site for the camp meetings. 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, took three or four days. 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 saying was “The good people go to camp meetings Friday and 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.”
Camp meetings were one of the few opportunities for young people to meet future spouses since everyone they knew in the immediate community were relatives. At some camp meetings, watchmen carrying long white sticks patrolled the meeting grounds each evening to stop any inappropriate conduct. Enemies of camp meetings sneered that “more souls were begot than saved.” After several days of courting at the camp meetings, many couples were married after the meeting concluded, or soon thereafter.
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 Mc Gready, an early leader of camp meetings, said “He would so describe Heaven, that you would almost see its glories…he would also describe hell and its horrors before the wicked, that they would tremble and quake, imaging a lake of fire and brimstone yearning to overwhelm them.” 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 know circuit riders in America. Letters addressed “Bishop Asbury, United States of America were promptly delivered. Plagued by illness all of 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:
- Is this man truly converted?
- Does he know and keep our rules?
- Can he preach acceptably?
- Has he a horse?
Methodist circuit riders were also book distributors. Their commission on sales provided some of them the only cash they ever saw. This helped spread Bibles, hymnbooks, and other religious material throughout the frontier. Peter Cartwright, long time circuit rider, was twice elected to the Illinois legislature. His one defeat was in a congressional race when he lost to a lanky opponent by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Beef or venison jerky was the circuit riders 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 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, largely because of camp meetings and circuit riders.
Source: Timothy K. Beougher “Christianity Today, Issue #45”
Last month’s question: What Methodist Civil War General helped to establish a well-known college within the Holston Conference following the War? College was named after a U.S President located in East Tennessee. Answer: Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who was known as the “Christian General.” He lost an arm in battle in 1862, yet he continued to command and lead troops until the end of the war. Helped to establish Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Compiler’s Note: If you ever occasion to be in the vicinity of LMU, I would recommend to visit the Lincoln Museum located on campus which houses memorabilia and history of the Lincoln Era.
Next month’s question? What are the two oldest Methodist Churches in the Sequatchie Valley?