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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Camp Meetings and Revivals in 21st Century North American Methodism

A couple of generations ago in North America, camp meetings and revivals were not uncommon in many Wesleyan Methodist traditions, flourishing in part from their popularity in the 19th century across frontiers. Outdoor meetings or camp meetings or week-long revival series held in local churches perhaps helped to pave the way for Billy Graham’s famous evangelistic crusades that inhabited tents long before he ever filled a stadium.

An engraving of a Methodist camp meeting from 1819, almost 200 years ago.
An engraving of a Methodist camp meeting from 1819, almost 200 years ago.

Not all Methodist practices included this revivalistic streak: there were plenty of downtown First churches with more formal liturgy, and to an extent there were some class delineations – though camp meetings and revivals were never restricted to blue collar folks, and the towering downtown First churches themselves had their roots somewhere in early circuit rider preaching. But most Wesleyan Methodist denominations have links to some kind of regional campground, even if it’s used mostly for the kids and youth.

In the photographs I have seen, in the histories related, sadly many of these twentieth-century camp meetings or revival series seem quite monochromatic: Black churches and White churches held their own events. (In the first half of the 1900’s Black Americans still had to travel with reference to the Green Book, a small travel guide noting which towns were safe to drive through, which hotels and restaurants served Blacks, and so on. You couldn’t just get in your car and go: that could leave you stranded, or hungry, or worse. If anyone has records, photos or reminiscences of integrated revival meetings or camp meetings, be sure to let me know.) It wasn’t just White Methodists who enjoyed camp meeting: denominations like A.M.E. Zion have a long tradition of camp meetings. Bishop W. Darin Moore notes in The Sound of Revival,

Bishop J.W. Hood
Bishop J.W. Hood

From the numerous renowned preachers of the Methodist movement including John Wesley, George Whitfield, Francis Asbury, and William E. Sangster, to Zion’s own array of preaching giants, such as but not limited to James Varick, James Walker Hood, Joseph Charles Price, Benjamin G. Shaw, Alfred G. Dunston, and Clinton R. Coleman, preaching has been the heart and soul of personal transformation, as well as community and church renewal.

Recently as we packed to travel to a rural camp meeting – my husband’s great-grandfather helped found it – I mused about whether conferences have effectively taken place of most revival series or camp meetings. On the one hand, conferences could be seen as the Yuppie’s ordo salutis: name tags, name-brand coffee, name recognition speakers. On the other hand, some revival series and camp meetings remain, continuing to attract various age groups and sometimes exhibiting slow but steady growth in more diverse demographics.

The Indiana campground I traveled to as a child had an open-air tabernacle, cabins, RV spots, ancient dorms, and a large, noisy dining room. It was decided the tabernacle should be enclosed and air conditioned, padded chairs replacing the long wooden slat bench pews. Not long after that, attendance dwindling, it was closed down, then sold. Though sad for me on a personal level, much as I detest the heat I hadn’t wanted it changed, in part because it seemed to me that if we had just waited a bit longer, shown some patience, it would’ve come back. These things are cyclical. Now I look at mandolin-playing hipsters who (while enjoying their strong coffee) would see that campground as a kind of authentic get-back-to-nature, learn-about-our-roots experience, and I think I was right, even if they would’ve wanted some artisanal organic snacks sold next to the Cheetos at the concession stand.

I think there’s room enough for conferences, revivals and camp meetings (even if “revivals” are now called “summit” or “spiritual emphasis week” or “Revive:The Awakening” #awakened). For one thing, physically setting apart time in a dedicated space grabs your whole body’s attention: it breaks up your habits, your routine. You physically go somewhere specifically for the purpose of attending to your soul. For another thing, taking several days, or a week, to do so is somewhere between Sabbath and tithing on the scale of spiritual disciplines: you mark to yourself and others that it is important to you in your time, schedule and budget to learn, listen, examine, rest, and receive. Additionally, when it’s possible, families who attend – whether nuclear or multigenerational, adopted or stepparents – families as a unit can set aside time both to be together and to attend to their souls.

That said, our conferences, revivals (#awaken) and camp meetings must morph and stretch. Preachers cannot assume a baseline of biblical knowledge among kids and youth (and adults). More and more children and teens come from broken homes, brought by a grandparent. Elementary and high school ministries are populated by racially diverse participants – is the speakers’ platform? In the technology and globalization age, even middle schoolers have access to extraordinarily hard core explicit material with ten minutes of solitude and a click of a few buttons. They also have instant access to the same tragic headlines about news that adults do, even if they receive it through Snapchat, not CNN. A sweaty fifth grader may be staring back at you from a pew, worrying about whether he’ll ever be in the middle of a mass shooting: after all, some elementary schools have active shooter drills instead of Cold War A-bomb drills. And this is one weakness of the #conference movement: targeted audiences mean the pigeonholing of generations, vocations and sometimes gender. You can’t take the whole family to most conferences, and they wouldn’t want you to anyway.

What’s your experience of multi-generational spiritual retreats? Have you ever been to a faith-based camp meeting or a week of special church services? What did you like or dislike about it? Was it a diverse gathering? How would you describe it to someone who had never before participated?