Description of a camp meeting by an attendee

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches was written by Andrew Reed (1782-1862) and James Matheson (d. 1846), and their book describes the journey of these men among the Congregational Churches of America.  Reed and Matheson came from the Congregational Union of England and Wales as deputies to their sister churches in the United States.

Camp meetings were not unknown in the English Protestant world, but they were primarily an American phenomenon.   Visits such as Rev. Reed and Matheson's were made usually out of curiosity, to see what the commotion was about.  At first these men were not favorably impressed.  They thought the preaching was fair, but there was too much enthusiasm in the activities.  This enthusiasm then contributed to a state of weariness in the attendees.  The author of this narrative did not approve of the excitement and outpouring of emotions that accompanied the revivalist meetings until his own sermon elicited exactly that.

Transcription of Primary Source

            So soon as my kind friend had refreshed himself and his horse, we started again.  We were now on the Northern Neck, an isthmus of various width, and some 150 miles long, which is separated from the mainland of Virginia by the Rappahannoc.  We had twelve miles to travel, and chiefly through pine barrens; reaches of land that are so denominated, because they will only bear pine.  The morning was bright and elastic; I had an interesting companion, and my expectations were raised with the prospects before me.  As we advanced, the land undulated pleasantly, the soil improved, and other timber of loftier growth appeared.  When evidently approaching the spot, my eye pierced through the forest in search of some indications.  We got at last into less frequented paths; wound again and again round the clustering trees and opposing stumps, and then came to what I regarded as the signs of the object sought.  There were, under some trees, pens for the safety of horses; then there were carriages of all descriptions, appearing with horses and oxen, secured and at rest, and occasionally a negro in attendance on them.  Then you passed by a large log-house, which was erected for the time, to supply lodging and food to such as needed them.  Now you saw, in several directions, the parts of cabins, made of the pine-tree, and of the same colour, and only distinguished from it by the horizontal lines in which it ran; and presently you found yourself at the entrance of all you wished to see.
           There were in lines, intersected by the trees, a number of tents composed of log-wood, forming a quadrangle of about 180 feet.  In the centre of the further line, in this square, there was a stand for the accommodation of the preachers, which would contain twelve or fourteen persons.  Behind this were stems of trees laid down as seats for the negroes, running off in radiating lines, and closed by some tents for their use, and forming the segment of a circle.  Before the stand, or pulpit, a rail was carried round the first five or six seats, which we called the altar; and seats, composed of tree-stems, filled up the centre of the square.  Within, without, everywhere, the oak, the chestnut, and the fir appeared, and of finest growth; only those within the quadrangle were cleared of underwood, and trimmed up to aid the sight, so that they resembled the beautiful pillars of a cathedral; while their lofty heads, unpruned by the hand of man, united, and made a foliated ceiling, such as no cathedral could approach, and through which the blue sky and bright sun were glancing.
            It was now the hour of morning worship.  The pulpit was full; the seats were covered with waiting worshippers.  I approached the stand; and was welcomed by the brethren.  We rose, and united in a hymn of praise.  I had never, in such circumstances, joined in offering such worship.  I could scarcely tell what sensations possessed me.  I hope I was not void of those which are devotional, but I was chiefly filled for the moment with those of wonder.  When I looked round on the scene which had broken so suddenly upon me, every thing was so novel, so striking, and so interesting, as to appear like the work of enchantment, and to require time fully to realize.
            But I must endeavour to give you some of the services in detail, as you will desire exact information.  The singing to which I have referred, was followed by prayer and a sermon.  The text was, “If God spared not his own Son,” &c.—The preacher was a plain man, and without education; and he had small regard either to logic or grammar.  He had, however, as is common to such persons, an aspiration after high-sounding terms and sentiments, which stood in strange opposition to the general poverty and incorrectness of his expressions.  The proposition, for instance, raised on his text was this:—That the gift of Christ to sinners is the thing set forth with most life, animation, and eloquence, of any thing in the world.  Such a proposition, though badly propounded, was of course above such a man; but though what he said did but little for his proposition, it was said with earnestness and pious feeling, and it told on the plain and serious portions of his audience.  He was followed by a brother of higher qualifications, who took up the close of his subject, and addressed it to the conscience with skill and effect.  The exhortation was terminated by an invitation to come and take a seat within the altar.  These seats were, when wanted, in other words, the anxious seats; two of them were cleared, and a suitable hymn was sung, that persons might have time to comply.  Very few came; chiefly a mother with her boy, who had previously seemed to court notice.  The lad had indulged in noisy crying and exclamation; he was in the hand of an indiscreet parent, and had not been sufficiently discouraged by the ministers.  The exhortations, and then the singing, were renewed; but still with small effect, as to the use of the prepared seats; and so this service closed.  Whatever may be the claims of the anxious seat, it was a hazardous experiment, where it was evident the previous services had produced no deep and controlling impression.
            The afternoon service was very similar in arrangement and in effect.  The text was, “Let the wicked man forsake his way,” &c.; but the preacher certainly made a feeble use of a powerful passage.  It was interrupted, too, by a noisy and intemperate man, who had found his way hither; yet it was followed by exhortation superior to itself, and an urgent appeal to the people to come forward and separate themselves.  The results were not better than before.  The only apology for thus pressing under unfavourable circumstances was, that the meetings had been held now for three days; that the solemn services of the Sabbath had just passed over the people; and the worthy ministers were anxious for visible fruit, not only as arising from the present appeal, but from past impressions.
            These were the more public and regular services; but other engagements were always fulfilling.  The ministers were invited by their friends to the several tents, to exhort, and sing, and pray, so that when they ceased in one place, they were renewed in another.  And at all times those who liked to gather within the altar, and sing, were allowed to do so; and as, when they were weary, others came up and supplied their places, the singing was without ceasing.
            What you cannot escape wearies you.  The services had been long, and not very interesting; and still the singing was continued.  After getting some refreshments with kind friends, I was glad to stroll away into the forest, and to ruminate on what I had seen and heard.  Now that I had leisure to admire, it was a lovely evening.  Through many a green alley I wandered; and often did I stop and gaze on those exquisite combinations of light, shade, and picture, which forest scenery supplies on a fair summer evening.  In all my wanderings, the singing followed me, and was a clew to my return; but it now formed a pleasing accompaniment to my solitary walk, for it did not force itself on the ear, but rose and fell softly, sweetly, on the evening breeze.
            Soon, however, the hoarse notes of the horn vibrated through the air, and summoned me to return.  It was the notice for worship at sundown; and as there is little twilight here, the nightfall comes on suddenly.  I hastened to obey the call, and took my place with the brethren on the preachers’ stand.  The day had now expired, and with it the scene was entirely changed, as if by magic, and it was certainly very impressive.  On the stand were about a dozen ministers, and over their heads were suspended several three-pronged lamps, pouring down their radiance on their heads, and surrounding them with such lights and shadows as Rembrandt would love to copy.  Behind the stand were clustered about 300 negroes, who, with their black faces and white dresses thrown into partial lights, were a striking object.  Before us was a full-sized congregation collected, more or less revealed, as they happened to be near or distant from the points of illumination.  Over the people were suspended from the trees a number of small lamps, which, in the distance, seemed like stars sparkling between their branches.  Around the congregation, and within the line of the tents, were placed some elevated tripods, on which large fires of pine wood were burning, cracking, blazing; and shooting upward like sacrificial flames to heaven.  They gave amazing power to the picture, by casting a flood of waving light on the objects near to them, and leaving every thing else in comparative obscurity.  Still at greater distance might be seen, in several directions, the dull flickering flame of the now neglected domestic fire; and the sparks emitted from it, together with the firefly, rose and shot across the scene like meteors, and then dropped into darkness.  Never was darkness made more visible, more present.  All the lights that were enkindled appeared only to have this effect; as everywhere more was hidden than seen.  If the eye sought for the tents, it was only here and there that the dark face of one could be dimly seen; the rest was wrapped in darkness; and if it rose with the trees around you, the fine verdant and vaulted roof which they spread over you was mostly concealed by the mysterious and thickening shadows which dwelt there.  Then, if you would pierce beyond these limits, there lay around you and over you, and over the unbounded forest that enclosed you, a world of darkness, to which your little illuminated spot was as nothing.  I know of no circumstances having more power to strike the imagination and the heart.
            But to the exercises.  The singing, which had been sustained in all the interval by some younger persons, now showed its results.  Two or three young women were fainting under the exhaustion and excitement; and one, who was reported to me as a Methodist, was in hysterical ecstasy, raising her hands, rolling her eyes, and smiling and muttering.  It appeared that she courted this sort of excitement as many do a dram, and was frequent at meetings of this character, for the sake of enjoying it.
            However, after disposing of this slight interruption, the regular service began.  It was to be composed of exhortation and prayer; and it was excellently conducted.  The leading ministers, who had been wearied by the claims of the Sabbath, had evidently reserved themselves for this period.  The first address referred to the past; the effort which had been made; the results which ought to follow, but which had not followed, and which the speaker feared would not follow.  It was closed by an affectionate expression of concern that they would now show that it had not been in vain.  The next exhortation was on conversion.  Some skilful and orthodox distinctions were established on the subject, as it involves the agency of the Spirit and the agency of man.  It was discriminative, but it was plain and pungent; and threw all the responsibility of perversity and refusal on the sinner.  It made a strong impression.
            The third exhortation was on indifference and despondency.  The subject was well timed and well treated.  The speaker combated these evils as likely to be a preventative in most persons in coming to a decision; and he made a wise use of evangelical truth for this purpose.  He supported the other addresses by an earnest appeal to separate themselves, and show that they were resolved to rank on the Lord’s side.  The people were evidently much more interested than they had been; and the preachers were desirous of bringing them to an issue.  Exhortation and singing were renewed; and it was proposed that they should go down and pass among the people, for the purpose of conversing with them, and inducing them to come forward.  By these personal applications and persuasions, a considerable number were induced to come forward; and fervent prayer of a suitable character was offered in their behalf.
            It was already late, and here, at least, the service should have stopped.  This was the opinion of the wiser and elder brethren, but they did not press it; and those of weaker mind and stronger nerve thought that the work had only just begun.  It was wished that I should retire, but I was desirous of witnessing the scene.  Other exhortations and prayers, of a lower but more noisy character, were made, with endless singing; favourite couplets would be taken up and repeated without end.  The effect was various, but it was not good; some, with their feelings worn out, had passed the crisis, and it was in vain to seek to impress them; while others were unduly and unprofitably excited.
            None discovered this more than the blacks.  They separated themselves from the general service, and sought their own preacher and anxious seat.  A stand was presently fixed between two trees; a preacher was seen appearing and disappearing between them, as his violent gesticulation caused him to lean backwards or forwards.  The blacks had now things to their mind, and they pressed round the speaker, on their feet or their knees, with extended hands, open lips, and glistening eyes: while the strong lights of a tripod, close to which they had assembled, fell across the scene, and gave it great interest and power.
            As the scenes on either side the stand were not dumb show, the evil was, that the voices of the parties speaking met each other, and made confusion; and as either party raised his voice, to remedy the evil, it became worse.  To myself, placed at the centre of observation, this had a neutralizing, and sometimes a humorous effect; but to the two congregations, which were now reduced in numbers, it produced no distraction: they were severally engrossed, if not with their particular minister, with their particular feelings.  It was now considerably past eleven o’clock; I thought I had seen all the forms which the subject was likely to take; and I determined to answer the request of my friends, and retire.
            I had been assured that a bed was reserved for me at the preachers’ tent, and I now went in search of it.  The tent is constructed like the rest, and is about eighteen feet by fourteen.  As the ministers are expected to take their meals at the other tents, this is prepared as a lodging-room.  An inclined shelf, about six feet wide and four high, runs along the entire side of it, and it is supplied with six beds.  I chose the one in the farther corner, in the hope of escaping interruption; as the bed next to me was already occupied by a person asleep.  I relieved myself of my upper garments, and laid myself down in my weariness to rest.  The other beds soon got filled.  But still the brethren were coming to seek accommodation.  One of them crept up by the side of the person next to me; and as the bed would only suit one, he really lay on the margin of his and mine.  Thus discomposed, my resolution was immediately taken not to sleep at all.  There was, however, no need of this proud resolution, for that night there was to be no sleep for me.  There were still other parties to come, and beds to be provided.  After this there was the singing renewed, and still renewed, till youth and enthusiasm were faint and weary, and then it died away.  Still there remained the barking of the watch-dogs, the sawing of the kat-e-dids and locusts, and the snoring of my more favoured companions, and these were incessant.  Sometimes I found diversion in listening to them, as they mingled in the ear, and in deciding which was most musical, most melancholy; and frequently I turned away in weariness, and fixed my eye on the open crevices of the hut, looking for the first approach of day; and in my impatience, as often mistaking for it the gleaming lights of the pine fires.
            When the sun actually rose, the horn blew for prayers.  To me, all restless as I had been, it was a joyful sound.  I waited till others had dressed, that I might do so with greater quiet.  I stole away into the forest, and was much refreshed by the morning breeze and fresh air.  It was a very pleasing and unexpected sight to observe, as you wandered in supposed solitariness, here and there an individual half concealed, with raised countenance and hands, worshipping the God of heaven, and occasionally two or three assembled for the same purpose, and agreeing to ask the same blessings from the same Father.  This was, indeed, to people the forest with sacred things and associations.
            On my return, the ministers renewed their kind application to me to preach on the morning of this day.  I begged to be excused, as I had had no rest, and had taken cold, and was not prepared to commit myself to the peculiarities of their service, and which they might deem essential.  They met again; and unanimously agreed to press it on me; “it should be the ordinary service, and nothing more; and as an expectation had been created by my presence, many would come, under its influence, and it would place any other minister at great disadvantage.”  My heart was with this people and the leading pastors, and I consented to preach.
            The usual prayer-meeting was held at eight o’clock.  It was conducted by Mr. Jeter.  Prayers were offered for several classes, and with good effect.  To me it was a happy introduction to the more public service to come.  I wandered away again into my beloved forest, to preserve my impressions, and to collect my thoughts.  At eleven o’clock the service began.  I took my place on the stand; it was quite full.  The seats, and all the avenues to them, were also quite full.  Numbers were standing, and for the sake of being within hearing, were contented to stand.  It was evident that rumour had gone abroad, and that an expectation had been created, that a stranger would preach this morning, for there was a great influx of people, and of the most respectable class which this country furnishes.  There were not less than 1,500 persons assembled.  Mr. Taylor offered fervent and suitable prayer.  It remained for me to preach.  I can only say that I did so with earnestness and freedom.  I soon felt that I had the attention and confidence of the congregation, and this gave me confidence.  I took care, in passing, as my subject allowed, to withdraw my sanction from any thing noisy and exclamatory; and there was, through the discourse, nothing of the kind; but there was a growing attention and stillness over the people.  The closing statements and appeals were evidently falling on the conscience and heart, with still advancing power.  The people generally leaned forward, to catch what was said.  Many rose from their seats; and many, stirred with grief, sunk down, as if to hide themselves from observation; but all was perfectly still.  Silently the tear fell; and silently the sinner shuddered.  I ceased.  Nobody moved.  I looked round to the ministers from some one to give out a hymn.  No one looked at me—no one moved.  Every moment, the silence, the stillness, became more solemn and overpowering.  Now, here and there, might be heard suppressed sobbing arising on the silence.  But it could be suppressed no longer—the fountains of feeling were burst open, and one universal wail sprung from the people and ministers, while the whole mass sunk down on their knees, as if imploring some one to pray.  I stood resting on the desk, overwhelmed like the people.  The presiding pastor arose, and, throwing his arms round my neck, exclaimed, “Pray, brother, pray!  I fear many of my charge will be found at the left hand of the Judge!  Oh, pray, brother, pray for us!” and then he cast himself on the floor with his brethren, to join in the prayer.  But I could not pray!  I must have been more or less than man to have uttered prayer at that moment!  Nor was it necessary.  All, in that hour, were intercessors with God, with tears, and cries, and groans unutterable.
            So soon as I could command my state of feeling, I tried to offer prayer.  My broken voice rose gradually on the troubled cries of the people, and gradually they subsided, so that they could hear and concur in the common supplications.  It ceased, and the people rose.  We seemed a changed people to each other.  No one appeared disposed to move from the spot, and yet no one seemed disposed for ordinary exercises.  Elder Taylor moved forward and remarked—“That it was evident nothing but prayer suited them at this time.  And as so many had been impressed by the truth, who had not before, he wished, if they were willing, to bring it to the test of prayer.”  He therefore proposed that if such persons wished to acknowledge the impression received, and to join in prayer for their personal salvation, they should show it by kneeling down, and he would pray with them.  In an instant, as if instinct with one spirit, the whole congregation sunk down to the ground.  It is much, but not too much, to say, that the prayer met the occasion.  When the people again rose, one of the brethren was about to address them; but I thought nothing could be so salutary to them as their own reflections and prayers, and I ventured to request that he would dismiss the meeting.
            Thus closed the most remarkable service I have ever witnessed.  It has been my privilege to see more of the solemn and powerful effect of divine truth on large bodies of people than many; but I never saw any thing equal to this; so deep, so overpowering, so universal.  And this extraordinary effect was produced by the Divine blessing on the ordinary means; for none other were used, and one third of the people had been present at none other.  I shall never forget that time—that place; and as often as I recur to it, the tear is still ready to start from its retirement.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            Thus, then, I was supplied, at once, with a specimen of the three great religious peculiarities of this country; a camp-meeting, a protracted meeting, and a revival; for they were all included in this meeting.  Of what it has in common with other special meetings I shall speak elsewhere; but of what was peculiar to it, it may be desirable to offer a few remarks.
            From all I have learned of camp-meetings, I may pronounce this to have been very well conducted.  The existing arrangements were such as to contribute to this.  The land on which it was held was purchased as a permanent station; and the lands around were held by persons friendly to the object, so that they could control riotous and intrusive conduct, if it should appear.  The tents remained from season to season, and cost the owners about ten dollars each; and if it happened that the possessor could not attend, he lent his tent to a friend.  The poorer or less interested persons came in carriages, or tilted light wagons, which they used as beds.  Separate committees were appointed to preserve order; to superintend the lights and fires; to regulate the use of water-springs; and to arrange for the religious services.  For the last purpose, the ministers present were the standing committee.  By these means, and means such as these, strict order was kept on the premises; and the temptation for the disorderly was cut off.  I saw nothing the whole time of indecent and lewd behavior, though many persons came evidently more from curiosity than from higher motives.  With the single exception I have named, I saw not an intemperate person; nor did I see either wine or spirits on the ground.  There was a man about half a mile distant, who had made a venture with a couple of barrels of distilled liquor; but it must have been a bad speculation, for I never observed a single person near him.
            Spiritual intemperance, too, which is often a far greater evil on these occasions, was kept down by the good sense and right feeling of the leading ministers.  On the merits of the particular methods I do not now speak; but, if they were to be adopted, I know not that they could have been used with more moderation or better effect.  That the anxious seat was too often tried; that there was a disposition sometimes to press it as a test; that the act of passing among the people for the purpose of personal persuasion had better have been avoided; and that the ministers had done well if they had limited the services, and especially the continued singing, by which many young persons were doing themselves a double mischief;—are opinions which I shall appear to have adopted in the preceding statement, and opinions which ought to be expressed to make it impartial and discriminative.  But as a whole, I never expect to meet with three men who in such circumstances are more wisely disposed to pursue the good, and to avoid the incidental evil, than were those on whom rested the chief responsibility of the meeting.  None of their appeals were to blind or selfish passion.  They assailed the heart, indeed; but it was always through the understanding.  They relied not on manoeuvre nor on sympathy for success; they trusted in the light of Truth, clothed by the power of the Spirit, to set the people free, that they might be free indeed!
            It is a question often propounded in America, as well as here,—Of what use are camp-meetings?  This is one of those questions which must be answered in submission to circumstances.  There may be a state of things in which I should consider them as not only among the things useful, but the things necessary.  In the newly-settled parts, where the inhabitants are so few, and are scattered over so large a surface, the ordinary means of worship and instruction can for a time hardly be enjoyed; and, in this interval, the camp-meeting seems an excellent device for the gathering of the people.  Under such circumstances, the very fact of the being brought together, though it were not for religious purposes, would be a decided benefit; and if it should be connected with some expressions of extravagance which we could not approve, it is nevertheless not to be hastily condemned.  We cannot conceive the effect of being immured in the deep and solemn forest, month after month, with little or no intercourse with our brethren, nor of the powerful movement of those social sympathies which have been long pent up in the breast, and denied exercise.  But we can understand, that it is better that they should be called into exercise occasionally, though violently, than that they should be allowed to pine away and die out; since, in the one case, man would become a barbarous, gloomy, and selfish misanthrope; while, in the other, he would still be kept among social beings, and would be in readiness for better things.
            Much more than this is done where the sympathies are wedded to religious objects; and the good effects bear even more on the future than the present.  Where the camp-meeting is really wanted and really useful, it interests a careless people in their own moral and religious wants; and is the natural and general forerunner, as the population thickens, of the school-house, the church, and all the appliances of civil life.

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches, by the deputation from the Congregational Union of England and Wales
187-197, 203-205
2 volumes
Reed, Andrew and James Matheson
Harper and Brothers
Place of Publication: 
New York
20 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
X300 R323 N835