The first Camp meeting took place at Mow Cop on 31 May 1807. William Clowes describes the scene: ‘The first day’s praying on Mow Hill presented at this period a most magnificent and sublime spectacle’.
‘Four preachers [were] simultaneously crying to sinners to flee from the wrath to come; thousands listening, affected by “thoughts that breathe and words that burn”; many in deep distress and others pleading with heaven on their behalf; some praising God aloud for the great things which were brought to pass, whilst others were rejoicing in the testimony which they had received, that their sins which were many had all been forgiven’.
But although the first English Camp meeting had been held in the name of Methodism, all was not well. The next Methodist Conference, which was held at Liverpool, had in its agenda ‘Camp meetings’.
As a result, the following pronouncement was made: ‘It is our judgement, that even supposing such meetings to be allowable in America, they are highly improper in England and likely to be productive of considerable mischief, and we disclaim all connection with them’.
The immediate consequences were that the forthcoming Norton Camp could not be held under the auspices of the Methodists; but Clowes, Bourne and the others went ahead undeterred, being persuaded that it was of God. Later, Hugh Bourne was removed from Methodist membership, because he had ‘a tendency to set up other than ordinary worship’.
It would appear that the first Camp meetings were held on the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, in America, under the leadership of James McGrady, a Presbyterian preacher.
They arose out of a deep concern within the denominations for the condition of the many thousands of men, women and children who had migrated west and were settling in newly opened-up territory.
In 1801 a joint Camp meeting of the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist denominations was held in Russellville, but later it was mainly the Methodists who continued with them. Here are some eyewitness accounts of those extraordinary gatherings.
James Finlay, a rough frontiersman who found peace with God, said, ‘I counted seven ministers all preaching at the same time some on stumps, others on wagons … Intense was the conviction produced under the preaching.
‘The scene that presented itself to my eye was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment, as if a battery of a thousand guns had opened on them’.
Joshua Marsden, a British Methodist minister, who was on a visit to America in 1802, gives us his impressions: ‘I cannot contemplate without astonishment the great work God has performed in the United States. It is here we see Methodism in its grandest form. In England, Methodism is like a river calmly gliding on; here it is a torrent, rushing along and sweeping all away in its course.’
In Dr W. M. Farndale’s book, The secret of Mow Cop, we read a vivid account of what Mr Marsden encountered: ‘Mr Marsden found a camp in the form of a crescent, in the centre of which was a platform for the preachers. Around in all directions were rows of planks for the listeners.
‘Some tents were used for refreshments and others for prayer. The meetings generally began on a Monday morning and continued until the Friday…
‘When Joshua Marsden at night came upon the camp ground, the sight of the pendant lamps which were among the trees, the tents half encircling a huge space, the spectacle of four thousand people listening to a preacher: all this, he says, “excited my astonishment and forcibly brought before my view the Hebrews in the wilderness”.
‘At this camp meeting no less than one hundred persons were awakened and converted to God. He adds that before he visited them he had had no very friendly views of camp meetings, but now he was satisfied that they were the right hand of Methodism in the United States and the one main cause why the societies had doubled and trebled there within a few years’.
The American historian, Dr E. J. Drinkhouse, recorded that, during 1802-1804, no less than 39,176 were converted as a direct result of these Camp meetings.
These were the vivid and exciting reports that Hugh Bourne and his friends were reading. It is now that we meet the fascinating and eccentric Lorenzo Dow, a travelling preacher with the American Methodists.
Dr Farndale writes of him that: ‘Having heard much talk about Camp meetings he visited Tennessee and Kentucky and was soon convinced of their propriety and utility. He introduced them into the heart of Virginia, then into the state of New York, and afterwards into Connecticut and Massachusetts’.
Dow landed in England on 24 December 1805, and stayed until the beginning of 1807. During this time, he visited Ireland and also had considerable contact with the movement in Staffordshire, where the Spirit of God was clearly working. Dow conferred with Bourne and his associates and had considerable influence upon them.
Dr Norman Snaith has put the message of Mow Cop in this way: ‘Mow Cop means, “Go where the people are. Shout aloud the glad tidings, but pray, pray, pray”.’
It is not surprising that Camp meetings spread from Mow Cop to neighbouring towns, the most distant being the Wrekin in Shropshire in 1808. Although the Camps were held under the disapproval of Wesleyan Methodism, all the converts were placed in their societies.
The time soon came though when Bourne was dismissed from the Society, and he had a premonition of it: ‘Having never heard a hint of the kind, being also a chapel trustee, having spent scores and scores of pounds in promoting the interests of the Society, and hundreds of members having been raised up out of the world by means which the Lord had enabled me to set on foot, and feeling as if wedded to the Society, I felt as if it could not be, and tried to put the thought from me.
‘But it remained till I found it difficult to walk the road; so after a struggle I gave up; and was instantly filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory; this enabled me to rest in the Lord, and to be thankful indeed.
‘Perhaps the Lord gave me this notice to prevent the separation from being a trial too heavy for me. On arriving home I met the rumour of being likely to be soon put out. This caused me to be thankful to the Lord for having prepared my mind’.
Rules for living
This was on 23 June 1808, and on 27 June Bourne was put out of the society. Two years later others were dismissed, such as John Crawfoot and William Clowes. The complaint against them was that they attended Camp meetings and were too lively in the way they worshipped and praised God.
Before long a small group of men and women, bound by their common love for the souls of men, began to labour together. Amongst them we find such names as Daniel Shubothom and James Steel. They drew up some rules for living, which can be abridged as follows:
1. Endeavour to rise early in the morning, for this is most healthful. Spend some time in private prayer; give yourself with all your concerns up to God; and, if possible, get the family together before going to work, pray with them, and for them, and recommend them to God.
2. While at work lift up your heart to God and, if possible, get a little time in private once or twice a day to kneel before God.
3. At night, be sure to get the family together on their knees, pray with them, and for them; before going to bed, spend some time on your knees, and pour out your soul before God, and remember God is present, Psalm 139.
4. If you are able, read a chapter or part of a chapter in the Bible every day.
5. If you are not born again, pray for God to show you the need of it.
6. As you have received the Lord Jesus, so walk in him.
7. On the Sabbath, attend public worship as often as possible; avoid buying or selling, or talking about worldly business, or doing any work that is unnecessary. Be sure to shave and clean shoes before Sunday and be as much afraid of sin as of burning fire.
8. If the Lord call you to any public exercise, to assist in a Sunday school, he will give you wisdom and patience.
9. Now play the man, be strong, never mind being reproached for Christ.
To be continued