What is amazing about all Christian summer camps is that they were birthed out of the revival fires of the Cane Ridge revivals. Multiple sources cite the term “camp meeting” as being first used to publish the second meeting of the Cane Ridge Revivals at the Gasper River Church.
According to Christianity Today article “The Revival at Cane Ridge,” the Cane Ridge revivals, a move of the Holy Spirit, began in 1801 as God used James McGready, a Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, to touch the lives of thousands of people. The revival was known as “The Communion.” According to Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin, it was “arguably … the most important religious gathering in all of American history.” It ignited the explosion of evangelical religion, which soon reached into nearly every corner of American life. For decades the prayer of camp meetings and revivals across the land was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.” (1)
Convinced Cane Ridge was a work of God, another meeting was planned at Gasper River Church a month later. News spread of the gathering. People flocked to Gasper River Church. According to Christianity Today, it was more people than could be accommodated by the host church’s families. Most people came prepared to camp in tents and wagons. “Though large outdoor meetings had a long history, this was probably the first ‘camp meeting’ — though the term was not coined for another two years.” (1)
Sources tell us that the camp meeting became a part of frontier culture as people moved westward. Denominational youth camps grew out of those state assemblies. The autobiography of Peter Cartwright, highlighted below, gives a clear history of how the state Assemblies grew from the original camp meeting in Kentucky.
Historians generally credit John Walker, a Baptist minister in Virginia Colony, with organizing the first Christan camp. In about the year 1776 he called a gathering, a “camp meeting,” because persons who could not find housing in the village would have to provide their own shelter. That was the first penalty for late registration. Walker posted camp rules – the first on record – and that marked him as a true Camp Director.
The frontier type camp meeting actually grew out of a religious revival in Kentucky. James McGready, a Presbyterian preacher whose fiery, emotional style aroused opposition to his work in North Carolina, moved to Logan County, Kentucky. Here in 1800, McGready sponsored the first recorded planned camp meeting in America. It was held in July at Gasper River. The people camped in open and covered wagons and in makeshift tents. The famous Cane Ridge, Kentucky, six-day camp meeting began August 6, 1801, and proved to be the largest outdoor revival in frontier America.
Reported attendance ranged from several thousand to twenty-five thousand. Camp meetings found their way into American frontier folklore moving westward with the settlers in the first half of the nineteenth century. The camp meeting provided a powerful platform for preachers and a welcome social occasion for isolated families.
Some camp meetings turned into denominational assemblies and widened their purpose. Denominational assemblies began to grow in number and influence. In 1909 the Southern Baptists established Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center in North Carolina, and other followed.
While an occasional visionary provided activity for children and youth in the camp-meeting eras the leaders weren’t much taken with the idea. Eleanor Eels (1906) reported: “There was some hesitation among the good brothers who controlled the campground over letting the young Methodists come on it for any such purpose as holding a youth conference, and when the lease was finally signed, it contained a stipulation that no games or other recreational features should be permitted. The result was an arrangement with a farmer for the use of an adjoining cornfield to be used as a play field.”
The first church sponsored co-ed youth camps grew out of denominational assemblies. Like the assemblies, youth camp programs were built around daily preaching services. However, about the time the camp-meeting era was closing another camping movement began to form. It became known as “organized camping.”
Organized camping developed a decentralized camping philosophy that emphasized smaller camper groups led by a counselor. This philosophy led ultimately to change in church-sponsored camps that produced Christian camping as we know it today.” (2)
It is important to note while we celebrate 100 years of Arkansas Baptists doing Jesus’ ministry at Siloam Springs, the Arkansas Baptist Assembly as a camp meeting is much, much older.
Below is a fictional account of a pioneer family traveling to the Arkansas Baptist Assembly collected from excerpts of the book “Christian Camping Today” by Lloyd Mattson, “Introduction to Christian Camping” by Dr. Clifford V. Anderson and the autobiography of Peter Cartwright.
Our covered wagon moved slowly, but surely. The trail was rough and rutted, but it made it easy for the horses to follow the road. If it didn’t rain, it would be easy going the rest of the way. Passing another covered wagon occasionally slowed down the trip, as one of the wagons had to maneuver out of the ruts. It was a chance to visit with another traveler. Pa always invited people to come along and hear some of the best preaching in the state. Some people said they would be at the camp meeting; it was a big deal.
We had been on the road for a week, traveling from Harrison to the Arkansas Baptist Assembly. My brother, sister and I occasionally ran ahead of the covered wagon to expend the pent-up energy of travel. The anticipation of the Assembly always brought us alive with excitement. Some nights we camped alongside the road. Pa didn’t sleep well those nights because he was worried about robbers. A few nights we were able to stay with family or friends. Those nights Pa rested well, and the next day was a lot more fun. Ma stayed in the back helping Grandpa travel comfortably.
It was 1851, 40 years after the Cane Ridge revivals and each year Grandpa wanted to experience the old revival fires of the Kentucky woods he remembered as a child.
As Grandpa’s family moved west and settled in Arkansas, they continued to meet once a year praying the Father would “make it like Cane Ridge.” Grandpa loved the gathering and our family had learned to love it too. It wasn’t easy to get to the Baptist Assembly, but the camp meetings were worth the trip.
Life on the farm was often lonely for Ma and Pa and it was good to visit with longtime friends in other parts of the state. It was the togetherness of fellowship, the camaraderie of other Baptists, people who believed as you did, that drew people to the Arkansas Baptist Assembly. It was knowing prayers of faithful people all over Arkansas had been interceding for God to move again among His people like He did at Cane Ridge. It was the expectation that God was going to do something amazing, which came to a crescendo, as you drew closer on the slow trip to the Arkansas Baptist Assembly. It was gathering under the stars with hundreds of other people, surrounded by woods, worshiping in the evening with believers and the night-song of crickets and frogs. It was hearing God’s Word in a powerful way from to the best preachers in the state that drew people to a farmer’s field.
As we drew close, we left the trail and drove into the field where the Assembly gathered, we crossed the field toward the small stage that had been built with milled lumber. Organizers made room for people to gather in front of the stage, but the covered wagons circled up at the edge of the audience so women could join in worship and hear the evening preaching as their children slept in tents and wagons surrounding the stage. All week, the food was delicious, as it was prepared in each covered wagon and shared among those who came.
The meeting went on for five or six days, then we would say our goodbyes to new and old friends. New family friends living along the route home extended invitations to stay, making the return trip easier. Goodbyes were always the hard part for Grandpa because he wasn’t sure he’d make the next trip. Pa and Ma would pack up the wagon and we’d make the long journey home. I could tell Pa was pondering the Word of God to the clop-clop of the horses as he drove down the trail. I suppose most adults had time to think about Jesus on the way home. We all left encouraged, revived for ministry, on fire for the Gospel and reminded God was still God and He was at work.
- “Revival At Cane Ridge.” Christianitytoday.Com, 1 Jan. 1995, www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-45/revival-at-cane-ridge.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.
- Christian Camping Today. 3rd ed., The Wordshed, 1984. pp. 25-31.