This Week in Texas Methodist History April 3
Camp Meetings continued
Since the camp meeting was the most prominent religious institution on the American frontier of the 19th century, it is not surprising that we would find references to camp meetings in the earliest historical literature of Texas Methodism.
The earliest preaching points in Texas were private residences, but toward the end of the Mexican period of Texas history (1834, 1835) we begin to find references to camp meetings at McMahan’s and on Caney Creek. The meetings were conducted in pleasant rural settings by preachers visiting from the Untied States or by local preachers who had once been conference members but had located so they could immigrate to Texas. The leadership of the camp meetings was not limited to MEC pastors. In the case of the Caney Creek meetings we can document the presence of Methodist Protestant, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers.
The observation of the centenary of the founding of Methodism followed soon after Texas independence, and one of the ways that Texas Methodists celebrated the centenary was by the establishment of a camp ground named Centenary Campground, near Independence in Washington County. It was followed soon afterwards by Waugh Camp Ground in Burleson County, named for Bishop Beverly Waugh who had organized the Texas Conference. By the 1850s there were Methodist camp grounds scattered from the Red River to the Guadalupe. Many of them had semi-permanent structures sometimes called “booths” sometimes “tents.”
In the era before many church buildings had been erected, the camp grounds provided an important focus for church and secular activity. For example, Robinson’s Camp Ground in southwestern Walker County was the site of the 4th session of the Texas Annual Conference in 1843. Several of the camp grounds near the Civil War prisoner of war Camp Groce near Hempstead, served as temporary encampments for Union pow’s.
During the 1840s and 1850s the camp meetings in Texas were no longer dependent upon whatever preachers of whatever denomination showed up. Texas had recruited enough transfers and licensed enough locals to be able to provide a fully staffed camp meeting. John Wesley Devilbiss wrote of a camp meeting at Spanish Springs (near Egypt) in June 1843 that included Preachers Richardson, Kenney, Haynie, Thrall, Hamilton, Williams, and himself.
In the late 19th century the camp ground tradition was extended and modified. Texas was becoming more urbanized, but many Methodists were still nostalgic for the religious institutions of their youth. Like the Disciples at the Transfiguration, they wanted to build booths to help capture the intensity of their experience. As Texas and the United States were becoming more urbanized, Christians waxed nostalgic about the rural settings in which many of them had first known Christ. In addition to camp grounds, popular hymns such as Church in the Wildwood (1857) and Bringing in the Sheaves (1874) reinforced the rural theme.
The 1880s through about 1910 can be described as the great heyday of camp meetings. We have numerous examples of camp meetings in which attendance was counted in the thousands.
There are many reasons for the expansion of the camp meeting movement. One is certainly the nostalgia for a rural past that was slipping away. Another was that rail transportation made it possible for traveling evangelists to make a full time career of preaching at camp meetings and revivals. No longer would the congregants be limited to the local preaching talent. They could now hear “super star” preachers of the era who were as famous as rock stars of today.
Another contributory factor was the split between the MECS conservatives and the Holiness Movement. The MECS General Conference of 1894 passed a rule that a traveling evangelist had to obtain permission from the station preacher to hold a meeting in the town’s church.
Many Holiness preachers naturally disdained such a rule and refused to comply. The camp meeting became an attractive alternative for such Holiness preachers.
Some of the camp grounds of the era, especially those of a Holiness persuasion, acquired an air of permanency. The “tents” became more elaborate. Water and electrical systems were installed, and families created traditions of using the meetings as family reunion opportunities.
A whole genre of camp meeting literature arose. The most common theme was that of the scoffer who came to mock and was converted. Another theme was the scoffer who met a tragic end on his way home.
The camp grounds of the latter era were usually run by a membership association. The association, rather than the church, ran the whole show. They hired the evangelist, provided security, arranged the program, contracted with third party vendors for concessions, etc. The Chappell Hill-Bellville Camp Ground even had a hotel and shuttle service from nearby railroad stops.
The associations drew up codes of conduct and appointed security patrols to enforce them. The crowds of attendees attracted all sorts of people, including bootleggers. One of the most common prohibitions was that against lemonade, presumably because it could be spiked with alcohol.
Just as the protracted meeting was “tamed” so also was the camp meeting. Instead of fire and brimstone preaching all day and night, the camp meetings began to offer a softer side of religion---Bible study, men’s and women’s special meetings, watermelon parties, and so on.
The camp meeting tradition faded but did not die completely. There are still camp meeting sites and associations in Texas. (to be continued)