We’ve finished the series on Daniel’s 70th week. Now it’s time for a palate cleanser, a small break from the topic of end time prophecy. Instead of focusing on what will happen in the future, let’s take a look at what God has done in the past. In this palate cleanser, we’re going to start a series on what happened during America’s Second Great Awakening. It’s quite fascinating. In this post, we’re going to learn about the Camp Meetings. I promise you’ll enjoy it. Keep reading!


By Karen Thompson
First in a Five-Part Series

In the series on America’s First Great Awakening, we learned how George Whitefield and John Wesley preached outdoors in order to accommodate the thousands of people that gathered to hear them speak. In the Second Great Awakening, the revivalists took outdoor preaching to a whole new level. Called “Camp Meetings,” revival meetings would last anywhere from several days to weeks. At one point, the power of God began to fall on the Camp Meetings, resulting in extraordinary numbers of people flocking to the revivals. The most famous Camp Meeting was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. Among the 20,000 people present was a young man who was so changed by the meeting that he himself became a Methodist minister. Following is his description of the meeting:

The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others on wagons … Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy. A peculiarly strange sensation came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lips quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground.

The State of the Union

America’s Second Great Awakening took place after the American Revolution, in the late 18th century about 50 years after the First Great Awakening. The 13 British colonies were now the United States of America, and she was growing in size. In addition to the 13 original colonies, the states of Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee were now a part of the union. Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota were not yet states, only territories that were purchased in 1783. In 1800, the United States “consisted of all land it currently owns east of the Mississippi River with the sole exception of Florida and the southern tips of Mississippi and Alabama, which were Spanish, and eastern parts of Louisiana, which were French.”

The Second Great Awakening was named by historians in context of the First Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening consisted of several revivals that broke out all over the new frontier. Before the Revolution, the predominant denominations were Congregationalists (descendants of the Puritans), Anglicans (later known as Episcopalians), and the Quakers. But after the Second Great Awakening, the predominant denominations were the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. These denominations cooperated with one another and were the vanguard of the mission to evangelize what was, at that time, the western frontier.

Evangelizing the Wild, Wild West

In the Second Great Awakening, revivals broke out all over the US, but they were focused primarily in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and northeast New York. The American frontier was primitive, yet thousands of settlers moved to the new territory to begin a new life. The villages that began to pop up were not only primitive but lacked a religious presence. Actual churches were rare and there were even fewer ordained ministers to oversee the congregations in the churches. The Wild West frontier became the missions field for the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. They evangelized the Wild West by sending out itinerate ministers, called “circuit riders,” to the most remote areas of the country to preach the Gospel. The goal was to preach the Gospel to every area, no matter how sparsely populated or isolated it was. Denominations would assign their circuit riders to a specific geographic area in which they would traverse on a regular basis to the same communities. These circuit riders would conduct worship services, visit the members under his charge, conduct weddings, funerals, baptisms, and establish new churches in the area.

Camp Meetings

During this time, Camp Meetings on the frontier became the evangelistic tool in which the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians used to develop religious communities throughout the new territories. They were called Camp Meetings because the meetings lasted for a few days to a few weeks, and there were no hotels or inns to accommodate the thousands who attended the meetings so they came in their covered wagons and tents and “camped out.” Some traveled distances as far as 30 to 40 miles, so they came prepared with supplies to accommodate their stay. There was no electricity, so in the evening, the camps were illuminated by candles placed on the trees, at their wagons, and tents. Advertisement for these Camp Meetings was either by word of mouth, pamphlets, and area newspapers.

Unique Features of Camp Meetings

In preparation for the meetings, organizers of the Camp Meetings built wooden platforms on which the minister could stand while preaching. They cleared a patch of forest and created benches out of logs on which people could sit. The services were continuous, with meetings going from early morning till late in the evening. There would be a lineup of ministers who would take turns preaching throughout the day. When one was finished, another one got up to preach. Depending on how many thousands that came to the meetings, there might be multiple preaching platforms with ministers preaching simultaneously to different sections of the crowd.

And their sermons weren’t short either. Some preached for hours. The activities during the Camp Meetings included preaching, prayer, singing, weddings, and baptisms. In every service, the conversion experience was emphasized. As a result, there were thousands who were converted during the Second Great Awakening.

An Egalitarian Spirit

There was a distinguishing mark that was brought forth by the Second Great Awakening. Due to the revival, the young nation took on a new spirit of egalitarianism, the idea that all people were equal. The walls of division that separated people from associating with one another were being torn down. This attitude was in evidence at the Camp Meetings. Every class of people flocked to the meetings be they young or old, rich or poor, male and female; every class of social standing congregated with one another in unity. No group of people segregated themselves. They all intermingled with one another.

The Ministry Was Personal

The meetings were popular because the preachers deemphasized formal theology and avoided dry, philosophical sermons about the Bible. They made the Gospel personal, emphasizing God’s love and that He wanted to have a personal relationship with them. Regular invitations were given to the crowds to make a commitment to God, to become born again. The fire of God fell upon the seekers, resulting in deep emotions. At times, there was great joy and at other times, tears of repentance. Some fell into trances where others were lifted high in exaltation.

Spontaneous Singing

Camp Meetings weren’t all preaching. There was lots of prayer and singing. There were times of extended singing, where someone would be “seized by the spirit of a particular sermon or prayer, would take lines from a preacher’s text as a point of departure for a short, simple melody” and would rise up to sing a song. Sometimes a minister who was musically gifted would be the one to break out in song, leading the crowd in a time of singing. The songs were simple and repetitive, something quickly learned by the crowds. The songs were sung over and over until the crowd learned them. The inspired singing would turn into a “singing ecstasy” and would culminate with the crowds throwing their hands in the air, or as they called it, “hand shaking.” Many of the songs developed into a “call and response” format, where the singer would sing a lyric and the crowd would sing a repeated phrase in return.

Colonel Robert Patterson’s Eyewitness Account

There are several firsthand descriptions from people who were present at the Camp Meetings that inform us of the unusual happenings that took place. One came from a man named Colonel Robert Patterson (he was involved with the settlement of Kentucky from its beginning). He wrote a letter to a friend, Rev. Doctor John King, dated September 25, 1801, describing the meetings. He said 12,000 people were in attendance, with 125 wagons and 8 carriages. Then he said something that caught my eye: “300 were struck.” What did he mean by struck?

His told his friend that no one was exempt from being struck, and no group was favored. This confirms what we already knew about God, that He is not a respecter of persons. He gave a description of the types of people that were struck. People of all ages, from eight years of age and upward, male and female, rich and poor, white and black, those in every denomination, people who approved of the meetings, and people who were in opposition against them … every kind of person was eligible to be “struck.”

He went on to describe what he meant by being “struck.” They “instantaneously laid motionless on the ground” as though someone had struck them. When they came out of being struck to the ground, some said that before it happened, they were overcome with certain symptoms . They described having “deep convictions, their heart swells, their nerves relax.” After being overcome with those sensations, they were struck by God and became motionless and speechless in an instant! While they were struck, they were unable to move or talk. They did, however, retain their senses. The length of time people lay on the ground not able to move or speak was anywhere from one hour up to 24! So amazing!

He went on to describe other extraordinary things that happened. He tried to help his friend visualize the enormity of the meetings. He said to his friend, imagine a large congregation “assembled in the woods,” with ministers preaching day and night. The camp at evening is lit up with candles on the trees and in the wagons.

He described what happened when someone was struck. When he fell down, those around him carried him away from the crowd to a convenient place. They would stay with the person and pray for him, perhaps sing a hymn that was “suitable to the occasion.” And if the person who was struck should start to speak, those around him would pay careful attention to what he said. He said, “Many are struck under such exhortations.” After providing his friend with that description, Patterson then said, “Now suppose 20 of those ground around; some rejoicing, and great solemnity on every countenance, and you will form some imperfect idea of the extraordinary work!”

Patterson went on to describe something so profound that he considered it to be miraculous. He described a man who was considered to be a “wicked unthoughtful sinner.” This man had never addressed an audience in his life. But when he came to after being struck, he rose up and started preaching for two hours nonstop. He described the man “recommending religion and Jesus Christ to sinners, as a lovely Savior, free willing, and all sufficient, and calling to sinners and inviting them to come to Christ and close in with the offer of salvation, in the most pressing and engaging manner.”

Peter Cartwright’s Eyewitness Account

Peter Cartwright, a Methodist circuit rider, gave us another amazing description of the Camp Meetings from his autobiography published in 1856. He described the Cane Ridge Camp Meetings in 1801 saying the power of God was displayed in a “very extraordinary manner.” The meetings, he said, went on for weeks. By his account, the attendance of the meetings during the weeks ebbed and flowed anywhere between 12 and 25 thousand people. He said it wasn’t unusual for up to seven preachers to be preaching to the crowds at the same time from different stands erected for that purpose. He said heavenly fire spread in every direction.

Like Patterson, he too described people being struck: “I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon.” He described praises to God: “I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the high praises of God at once.” The shouts, he said, could be heard for miles around.

As with any move of God, there were those who openly mocked or criticized what was happening at the meetings. The usual accusations were of fanaticism and the like. The opposition he said came from “old dry professors” and “old starched Presbyterian preachers.” The work of God went on, however, and spread in nearly every direction until “the country seemed all coming home to God.”

The Jerks

Every time the power of God is poured out, there comes with it certain physical manifestations… laughter, tears, shaking, trembling, trances, falling out under the power. While people’s bodies were experiencing these physical manifestations, they were also undergoing deep changes from within. Fears and worries were vanquished. Depression was lifted, replaced with peace and joy. True works of holiness were being accomplished. The critics and skeptics didn’t focus on the inward works of holiness that were wrought; they focused on the sensational physical manifestations.

Peter Cartwright said that while they were in the midst of having to deal with the mockery of critics that came due to the physical manifestations, something even more controversial began to take place. They called it the “jerks.”

It happened to both saints and sinners alike. People would be listening to a song or a sermon and then all of a sudden be seized “with a convulsive jerking all over.” Cartwright said he once saw in a large congregation more than 500 people jerking at the same time. It was something a person had no ability to resist. In fact, for those who resisted the jerking, the jerks became more severe. In an effort to be alleviated of the jerks, some would stand up and dance, others would try to run, but no matter what they did, they could not escape it. Through experience, they discovered that if they didn’t resist it and just simply worshiped the Lord, the jerks would dissipate.

He described seeing proud young gentlemen and ladies, “dressed in their silks, jewelry, and prunella from top to toe, take the jerks.” He said the sight of it “would often excite my risibility” which is to say he had the urge to laugh! He said the first jerk would be so strong that it would cause bonnets, caps, and combs to fly off. The jerking would cause long hair to “crack almost as loud as a wagoner’s whip.”

He shared one experience when ministering to a very large congregation in 1804. Two young ladies “very finely-dressed” with their brothers came to the service late. Since it was crowded, the brothers stood at the door. The young ladies took seats near to where Cartwright stood. As he began to preach, “the congregation was melted into tears.” The two young ladies, however, “took the jerks, and they were greatly mortified about it.” It created a great stir in the congregation. At the end of the service, there were several conversion experiences that took place.

Afterward, the brothers of the young ladies were very angry at Cartwright. They thought he had given them the jerks, so they were determined to horsewhip him. But Cartwright managed to escape their whipping by telling them, “Yes, if I gave your sisters the jerks, I’ll give them to you.” They became frightened of Cartwright and backed off. Before the year was out, however, he was glad to report that all four sisters and brothers were “soundly converted to God.”

Cartwright had an opinion about the jerks: “I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God, first, to bring sinners to repentance; and, secondly to show professors that God could work with or without means, and that He could work over and above means, and do whatsoever seemeth Him good, to the glory of His grace and the salvation of the world.”


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