Advice for running a successful camp meeting

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

The Camp Meeting Manual: a Practical Book for the Camp Ground, In Two Parts, was written in 1854 by the Reverend Barlow Weed Gorham (1814-1889), and printed by H. V. Degen, of Boston, MA.  Camp meetings were a favorite means, especially among Methodists, to spread the Gospel.  This book follows in the long tradition of the "How-To" books or advice manuals of the nineteenth century, which began with Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac in the eighteenth century.  With respect to religious advice manuals, the leading figure was Charles Grandison Finney and his Lectures on the Revival of Religion (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co. Boston: Crocker & Brewster. 1835).

This particular excerpt of The Camp Meeting Manual directs readers as to the best ways to set up a camp meeting, and it also offers practical advice on how to structure the activities each day.  Revivalist manuals provided several types of advice ranging from the practical, such as how to set up spaces for tents, to the spiritual, such as how to encourage conversion and to achieve holiness.

The idea of holiness was crucial in the Second Great Awakening.  It meant perfect conformity to the will of God. It did not mean that the recipient of this "second blessing" would be free from moral errors.  All humans remained imperfect in that all were prone to make mistakes.  But they could surrender themselves to Jesus, what Methodists came to call laying the self upon the altar.

Transcription of Primary Source


Necessity of union among the preachers - What may be done by each preacher - Every member can do something - The great object - Presiding Elder should be head - Of police regulations on the Camp ground - Rules of order - Arrests - Order of exercises - Closing services. - Measures for securing permanent results.

We now come to certain other considerations of vital importance to a good Camp Meeting.

Small Camp Meetings are usually of little account, and often something worse than valueless; therefore when it it proposed to hold one on any District, every preacher who does not desire to identify himself with it, should by all means oppose the holding of the meeting at all.

Let every such brother state all his objections plainly and fully in the council, and then, on taking the vote on the question of holding the meeting, if there is not a very near approach to unanimity, I would advise to reconsider immediately, and discuss further, till either the reluctant brethren pledge themselves to yield their prejudices to the majority, and identify themselves fully and heartily with the meeting, or the whole enterprise be abandoned or postponed. There are few misfortunes to a District greater of its kind, than a miserable failure of a Camp Meeting. Let us never attempt to draw out the forces of Zion for one of these tremendous onsets upon the powers of darkness, while there is distraction in our councils, and faintness in the heart of officers and men.

There is no such thing as mediocrity in a Camp Meeting. To escape contempt, it must be the greatest assemblage and the most thrilling occasion of religious worship known to the church.

When, therefore, it has been resolved to hold one for any District, the Presiding Elder, in his larger sphere of influence, and the preachers upon their respective charges, should labor unremittingly to rally the people to the ground from every part of the District. In this thing the preachers must take the lead. I have been upon several charges where the people have coolly said at first, “We don’t go to Camp Meetings here;” but with proper exertion have never thus far failed to see a good representation of my flock on the ground.

Let the preachers show that they, and, so far as possible, their families also, are identified with the meeting about to be held; let them announce it from Sabbath to Sabbath with emphasis; let them pray publicly and earnestly, as well as privately, for the blessing of God upon the coming occasion; let them exhort the people to pray for it also, whether they intend to go or not; and finally, let a special prayer meeting be held on the evening before starting for the meeting, if it be practicable. These measures, taken with the proper spirit, will bring the blessing of God in a baptism of power upon preacher and people; and they will generally inspire large numbers, both out of the church and in, with a determination to attend, who had else scarcely thought of the thing. Every member of the church can do something to add to the interest of the coming occasion; and that whether they can go themselves or not.

Let a mother, for instance, who, for any reason, cannot attend in person, fit out a daughter, and entrust her to the special care of some judicious female friend of the congenial tastes and ardent piety, spending herself some hours in special prayer every day for the salvation of her child during the meeting.

Let a son be sent, with arrangements thus suited to his position and character.

Many families can contribute something toward the getting up of a tent, and others can assume a few small cares for a neighboring family, to enable them to attend.

A thousand expedients like the above must be supposed to have been adopted by Jewish families anciently, when every family of all their tribes must either appear, or at least be represented at their feasts of Tabernacles: and who shall tell what boundless blessings would come upon our Israel, were all our multiplied households constrained by zeal for God to represent themselves in some way at the Feast.

All members of the church who cannot be present themselves, should plead with God daily and earnestly for his blessing upon the meeting. And if there are any who can only attend a single day, going in the proper spirit, they will doubtless find it highly profitable. Thus every member of the church can contribute something to the interests of this extraordinary means of grace; and if this were done in a single instance, results incalculably great and glorious would doubtless follow.

The spirit with which individuals and societies attend Camp Meeting has much to do with their own profit, and with the general success of the meeting. Remember from the first, the object is wholly a spiritual one. Salvation ⎯ present salvation. Purity for the church and pardon for sinners. These are the ends aimed at on the Camp ground. They are co-ordinate in God’s method. What is done for one is done for the other. Therefore fix on these. Cry to God for the anointing spirit upon your own soul, and labor and pray with what grace you have, and what you can get, for the salvation of the lost around you.

On the Camp ground, as in the army, and for similar reasons, there must be a general Head.

The circumstances must be extraordinary indeed, to render it at all proper that that office should devolve on any other than the Presiding Elder of the District: but woe to the Camp Meeting, and to the luckless Methodists on the ground, if the said Presiding Elder should happen to be a lily-fingered gentleman, who will handle the whole thing at arms’ length, and with his finger-ends, instead of putting himself where he belongs, in the very fore-front of the hottest battle. Of course, he should oversee the preparation of the ground, and be present, and order all the services, from first to last, if his health permit. He may very properly associate with himself such brethren as he sees fit, as advisers, but should be ready, at all times, to give direction to the movements of the emcampment.

Very much, both of the success and the reputation of a Camping Meeting, depends upon the due maintenance of proper police regulations of the ground.

Some strictness of control is rendered necessary by the following facts:

1. Large numbers of people of reckless character attend Camp Meetings, although they seldom, if ever, visit any other place of worship. It is one of the designs of these meetings that this should be so.

2. Nearly all persons, not decidedly religious, are disposed to take liberties in a forest, which they would not do in a church; on the same principles that the code of morals which governed a man in New York, usually fails to govern him in California.

Rules of order, however, should be as lenient as may consist with a due attention to propriety, but such as are made should be insisted on with great firmness. It is well to have the “rules of order” printed, and posted in conspicuous places, and the attention of the congregation directed to them, that no one may be ignorant of them.

When it is at all probable that there will be occasion to use the civil authority, which so amply protects Camp Meetings in these States, it is advisable to have one civil officer or more on the ground, by special engagement, and in case an arrest is to be made, the said officer of the church is the one to make it, and not the officers of the church, unless there be an overruling necessity for it.

Whenever there is a clear indication of intention to disturb the meeting, whether it be by one person or by several, an arrest should always immediately follow the first decided overt act of disorder.

Hesitancy betrays irresolution, and is immediately understood by the irreverent blasphemer as a symptom, not of moderation, but of weakness and fear, on the part of the authority which he knows should govern him. There is little more difficulty in controlling a congregation on the Camp ground than in a church, when once it is fully understood that the rules must be obeyed; but there are many places in the country where this will not be understood till some persons known to their associates as ringleaders of immorality shall have been made examples of for their warning.

Every thing depends upon the due union of firmness with discretion. Government should be so exercised as to demonstrate to all concerned that order will be maintained at all events, and at the same time there should be such moderation as to enlist both the judgment and the sympathies of community in favor of the measures pursued. It is an interesting fact, that when once a meeting has been properly and thoroughly governed in any place, there is seldom any difficulty in that place afterwards.

As to the order of exercise and of domestic arrangements, I have generally noticed that the following have worked well:

1. Rise at five, or half-past five in the morning

2. Family prayer and breakfast from half-past six to half-past seven.

3. General prayer meeting at the altar, led by several ministers appointed by the Presiding Elder, at half-past eight, A. M.

4. Preaching at half-past ten, followed by prayer meeting to twelve, M.

5. Dine at half-past twelve, P. M.

6. Preaching at two, or half-past two, P. M., followed by prayer at the altar till five.

7. Tea at six, P. M.

8. Preaching at half-past seven, followed by prayer meeting at the altar till nine or ten.

9. All strangers to leave the ground and the people to retire at ten, or immediately thereafter.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Camp Meeting Manual: A Practical Book for the Camp Ground, in two parts
168 pages, illustrated
Gorham, Rev. B Weed
H.V. Degen
Place of Publication: 
Boston, Massachusetts
17 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
X560 G668 C855