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Origin of the American Camp Meeting
by James R. Beller

Ignorance of Baptist history has been the bane of our churches for many generations. We have ignored the greatest revivals and revivalists of American history, which were Baptist, in favor of Protestant revivalists and the Evangelical Alliance. We misstep and misinform especially in the area of the camp meeting.

The camp meeting is uniquely an American experience, born out of the necessity of distant travel to power-packed preaching meetings. Hundreds of thousands of American frontiersmen would travel hundreds of miles to hear the word of God. They would bring their families, their friends and enough provision to camp for the duration of the days or weeks of the meeting. Great revivals would break out in these meetings.

What was the true origin of these meetings? Where did they come from and how did they become so engrained in the American mind?

Most historians agree that America has seen at least three great revivals. 1735-1755, the Great Awakening; 1799-1805—the Great Revival in Kentucky; and the 1858 Fulton Street Prayer Revival.

However, we believe that the three most important and productive revivals have been ignored: 1755-1776—the Separate Baptist Revival of the South; 1785-1789 The Great Baptist Revival of Virginia and 1955-1975—the Independent Baptist Sunday School Revival.

In most Baptist institutions of higher learning, credit for the origin of the camp meeting is given to the Presbyterians or the Methodists, who supposedly were the driving force of the great revival of Kentucky 1799-1805. Supposedly, the camp meeting was the by product of the ministry of the Presbyterian James McGready. The large meetings held at Red River and Cane Ridge, Kentucky are cited as the first camp meetings.

But even Presbyterian and Methodist historians such as Charles Johnson recognize the fact that the camp meeting had its beginning 50 years earlier in the foothills of the Appalachians in central west North Carolina.

George Whitefield was the mouthpiece of the Great Awakening. It was illegal to be a Baptist itinerant, and while some tried to preach as Whitefield, in the open air, they were imprisoned or fined.

Whitefield preached “Ye must be Born Again” and shook the established Church of England and Episcopal Church. When his converts began to embrace believer’s baptism in large number he declared, “All my chickens have turned to ducks.”

One of Whitefield’s converts was a Connecticut Congregationalist named Shubal Stearns. Stearns was a fiery preacher who saw infant baptism as false and was immersed by the Baptist Wait Palmer in Tolland, Connecticut.

Stearns had a vision to preach the gospel to the growing population of the South. So he and 16 of his followers made the trip southwest into the wilderness in early 1755.

Robert B. Semple wrote of Shubal:

“Mr. Stearns and most of the Separates had strong faith in the immediate teachings of the spirit. They believed that to those who sought him earnestly, God often gave evident tokens of his will. Mr. Stearns, listening to some of these instructions of Heaven, conceived himself called upon by the Almighty to move far to the westward, to execute a great and extensive work.”

The group of Separate Baptists settled at Sandy Creek, North Carolina. In 1755, three forest paths traversed the province of North Carolina. The Settlers Road, also known as the Great Wagon Road, ran from north to south all the way from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. Secondly, what eventually became known as the Boone Trail, ran west from Wilmington to the Yadkin settlements. Thirdly, the Trading Path, came from southeastern Virginia (Norfolk) to the Waxhaw country. Those three trails converged on a little notch in the wilderness of North Carolina by the waters of Sandy Creek. That spot, which is nearly remote today, was in the days of the Separate Baptist revival a national crossroads between North and South.

Immediately the Lord began to bless. Within two years, 17 preachers were called from Sandy Creek Baptist Church. Within a few years, 128 preachers called Sandy Creek their home.

Morgan Edwards described the preaching and ministry of Shubal Stearns:

“His voice was musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner as to make soft impressions on the heart, and fetch tears in the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon, to shake the very nerves and throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. All the Separate ministers copy after him in tones of voice and action of body; and some few exceed him. His character was indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian and a preacher.” Edwards, Materials N. C., 387.

Indeed, the preachers who surrendered to the call of God under the ministry of Shubal Stearns took on similar characteristics. Robert Semple wrote describing the Separate Baptists:

“But the manner of preaching was, if possible, much more novel than their doctrines. The Separates in New England had acquired a very warm and pathetic address, accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice. Being often deeply affected themselves while preaching, correspondent affections were felt by their pious hearers, which were frequently expressed by tears, trembling, shouts and acclamations.” Semple, Baptists in Va., 4.

The Separate Baptists gave us the roots of the OLD TIME RELIGION, so identified with Bible believing Baptists of today.

An association of churches was formed in 1758. The purpose of the association was for advice, ordination, and especially exhortation. It was the yearly meeting of Sandy Creek, taking place every October that gave rise to the CAMP MEETING.

Robert Semple wrote:

“Thro’ these meetings, the gospel was carried into many new places, where the fame of the Baptists had previously spread; for great crowds attending from distant parts, mostly though curiosity, many became enamoured with these extraordinary people, and petitioned the association to send preachers into their neighborhoods. These petitions were readily granted, and the preachers as readily complied with the appointments.”

James Read, Separate Baptist Preacher, described the first Sandy Creek Association meeting of 1758:

“At our first association we continued together three or four days; great crowds of people attended, mostly through curiosity. The great power of God was among us; the preaching every day seemed to be attended with God’s blessing. We carried on our association with sweet decorum and fellowship to the end. Then we took our leave of one another with many solemn charges from our reverend old father, Shubal Stearns, to stand fast unto the end.”

America’s first camp meetings involved great REVIVAL among our Baptist forefathers.

In 1770, Shubal Stearns wrote to Isaac Backus:

“The Lord carries on His work gloriously, in sundry places in this province, and in Virginia, and in South Carolina. Not long since, I attended a meeting on Hoy River, about thirty miles from hence. About seven hundred souls attended the meeting, which held six days. We received twenty-four persons by a satisfactory declaration of grace, and eighteen of them were baptized. The power of God was wonderful.