The American camp meeting was born in the revival fires of the Second Great Awakening (1800-1805). Early camp meetings drew thousands of believers and became extremely popular on the American frontier. Settlers would gather for extended meetings, often characterized by ceaseless praying, fervent preaching, and wild scenes of emotional response. Methodist encampments were extremely spiritual, and hundreds and sometimes thousands of attendees would flood the encampments with canvas tents, prepared for days of communion with God and His people. Attendance at some camp meetings is estimated at 20,000 (Johnson 51). In 1811, Bishop Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, declared: “Camp-Meetings! Camp-Meetings! The Battle axe and weapon of war-it will break down the walls of wickedness, forts of hell” (qtd. in Johnson 99). From its inception, the camp meeting was designed to steel saints against the devil and convert sinners from their error.
The first recorded camp meeting in Indiana was held during the summer of 1807 in Clark County, near Grant, Indiana. In 1810, two separate meetings were conducted in Indiana on the Methodist Whitewater Circuit. At one such meeting, the wife of a preacher named Jeremiah Meek became “ecstatic” and scarcely ate, drank, or slept for three weeks following (Sweet 24).
Undoubtedly, these Hoosier camps were proportionally similar to other Wesleyan open-air convocations held in the East. The typical day at camp began with prayer at daybreak followed by an 8:00 a.m. devotional service with singing and an address. At 11 o’clock, the main morning service would be held, with a full-fledged sermon. The noon meal was followed by private prayer meetings before afternoon services resumed, and evening services followed supper (Johnson 123-30). The evening services often resulted in raucous altar invitations, where penitents would gather at the mourner’s bench or congregate in mourner’s tents, where heartfelt repentance and fervent prayer and supplication could extend into the wee hours (Johnson 133).
When the Pentecostal movement began, many followers emerged from Wesleyan and Holiness faiths, and the Pentecostal camp meeting was a natural continuation of the earlier traditions of revivalistic Christians. Many of the larger meetings included some of the most prominent Pentecostal evangelists of the day such as Maria Woodworth-Etter, Smith Wigglesworth, Howard Goss, D.C.O. Opperman and A.A. Boddy.
Camp meetings were widely publicized and attended, and announcements regularly appeared in issues of Pentecostal publications and circulars. In May 1907, The Apostolic Faith, Azusa’s newspaper, advertised the first ever Apostolic Faith Camp to be held in Los Angeles, “beginning June 1, and continuing about four months” (“Los Angeles Campmeeting” 1). Interestingly, most of the earliest advertisements for camp meetings establish only an opening date. Notices like the one for a July 1914 meeting in Seattle, Washington, which read: “Pentecostal Camp Meeting begins July 15th and continues one month or longer” were not unusual (“Pentecostal Camp Meetings”). Open-ended meetings demonstrate early Pentecostal reluctance to regulate God’s work.
Like their pioneer predecessors, many camp meeting attendees camped in canvas tents and cooked meals over open fires. Freewill offerings were solicited from participating churches to support the care of the saints during the meetings. An invitation to the Fourth Interstate Encampment of the Apostolic Faith Movement in June 1913 offered generous, if primitive, accommodation:
As usual a large dining tent will be erected and meals served free to all who [sic] attend the meeting. Tents and cots will also be free. No charges will be made for supplies of any kind. We shall endeavor to supply tents and cots for all come, but no bedding will be furnished. We will not be prepared to furnish it. Every one should bring with him a comfort to lay upon his cot as much bedding as he will require. He should also have his own pillow, lamp, washpan, soap, towel, comb, songbook, and Bible, etc. (“The Fourth Interstate . . .” 1)
Provisional shelter and food were often provided free of charge on the “faith line”-dependent totally on God’s supply. A 1914 notice for the Churches of God in Christ Camp in Semmes, Alabama promised: “Tents and meals free as God provides” (“Pentecostal Camp Meetings” 2).
Interstate and “World-Wide” camp meetings played a significant role in creating a network of fellowships that matured into organization and provided Pentecostals with a spiritual environment for developing a degree of doctrinal and practical cohesiveness. The World-Wide Apostolic Faith Camp held in Arroyo Seco, California in April 1913 marks the beginning of the Apostolic rediscovery of the doctrines of baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Mighty God in Christ. At a baptismal service held during the camp, R.E. McAlister posited that the “words Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were never used by the early church in Christian baptism” (Ewart 106). Bro. John Schaeppe, an attendee at the camp, spent that entire night in prayer and received a revelation of the power of the Name of Jesus. The baptismal sermon and Schaeppe’s revelation contributed to restoration of the fullness of New Testament Christianity.
As Hoosier saints gather this year at the campground in Fortville, we will be continuing a rich tradition of revivalism. While improvements like air conditioning and padded seating have made the campground a more comfortable place to enjoy the annual meetings, we cannot forget the powerful heritage passed to us from over two centuries of Christian predecessors whose souls were alight when the Spirit’s fire fell in cruder commorancies. The old-fashioned camp meeting may be refitted with contemporary conveniences, but the same power of God that visited the primitive pioneer woodland camp and the turn-of-the-century Apostolic Faith meetings will fall wherever saints are gathered in Jesus’ Name to seek greater unity, faith, and revival. This season, let us come believing God for a spiritual increase; as Bishop Asbury said in 1809: “attend to camp-meetings, they make our harvest times” (Asbury 316).
Asbury, Francis. Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury: Bishop of the Methodist Church. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1821.
Ewart, Frank. The Phenomenon of Pentecost. Houston: Herald Publishing House, 1947.
“Fourth Interstate Encampment of the Apostolic Faith Movement Held This Year in Meridian, Miss. June 18 to 30, 1913.” Word and Witness 9 (5). 20 May 1913, 1.
Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press: 1955.
“Los Angeles Campmeeting of the Apostolic Faith Missions.” The Apostolic Faith 1 (8). May 1907, 1.
“Pentecostal Camp Meetings.” Christian Evangel No. 62. 10 October 1914, 2.
Sweet, William Warren. Circuit-Rider Days in Indiana. Indianapolis: W.K. Stewart Co., 1916.