These outdoor services of worship held for a week or longer were characterized by the encampment of the participants, often near an established church. The meetings were sometimes accompanied by emotional outbursts and resulted in dramatic conversion experiences. Eventually a brush arbor, wagons, and tents were replaced by a central tabernacle for worship and wooden structures for family groups (still known as “tents”). While only a few camp meetings continue to be held annually in South Carolina, they flourished during the first half of the nineteenth century and are associated with the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening.
One of the earliest documented camp meetings in the United States was held in Logan County, Kentucky, near the Tennessee line in June 1800. James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, was conducting a quarterly Communion service, and two brothers, John McGee, a Methodist preacher, and William, a Presbyterian minister, joined him. In July the McGees returned to Logan County and held a meeting that thousands attended. Preaching night and day was accompanied by shouts, groans, and muscular contractions known as “the jerks.” The Methodist bishop Francis Asbury participated in his first camp meeting in that area in October. Traveling through South Carolina in January 1801, Asbury read accounts of the frontier meetings to listeners, who were stirred by the news.
Camp meetings seem to have entered South Carolina from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. In March 1802 some 160 wagons brought five thousand people to a meeting south of Charlotte near the state line. In April twelve thousand people attended a gathering near Lancaster, which was followed by a meeting in May in the Waxhaws and another in June at Hanging Rock. Camp meeting fever spread to Spartanburg in July. Week after week there were reports of similar meetings across the state.
At first camp meetings were conducted cooperatively by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. But the Old School Presbyterians in the South were generally skeptical of the emotional excesses associated with the movement, and Baptists were divided in their support. Richard Furman, pastor of the Charleston Baptist Church, traveled to Lancaster to see a camp meeting for himself. While he approved, most Baptists withdrew, refusing to cooperate with ministers of a different “faith and order.” Soon the Methodists had the field to themselves. Between 1802, when the movement began in the state, and 1805 Methodist membership doubled— from 7,443 to 16,089. By the outbreak of the Civil War virtually every Methodist circuit in the state had a camp meeting. Methodists living in towns and cities left their homes and moved to nearby campgrounds for the annual meetings. Camp meetings were not only religious in nature but were also major social events in a predominantly rural culture. Rowdiness and misbehavior were often major concerns of religious leaders.
After the Civil War, the new black Methodist denominations established camp meetings. Out of Indian Field Camp Meeting near St. George developed Shady Grove, both of which remain active. Mount Carmel Camp Meeting near Heath Springs was established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Generally, the camp meeting fervor began to wane in the second half of the nineteenth century. Camp meeting structures burned and often were not replaced. Churches in cities and towns began to emulate the urban revivals conducted by Dwight L. Moody in the North. Itinerant southern evangelists copied Moody’s pattern.
With the rise of the Holiness movement in the late nineteenth century, some denominations that developed out of Methodism and Pentecostalism adopted camp meetings. The Wesleyan Church has a campground near Greer, and the Church of God conducts a camp meeting near Mauldin.
Betts, Albert D. History of South Carolina Methodism. Columbia, S.C.: Advocate Press, 1952.
Boles, John B. The Great Revival, 1787–1805: The Origins of the Southern Evangelical Mind. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972.
Jenkins, James. Experience, Labors and Sufferings of Rev. James Jenkins of the South Carolina Conference. 1842. Reprint, Columbia, S.C.: State Com- mercial Printing Company, 1958.