Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

June 19, 2005


Summer means Camp Meeting Time for many Christians


          Camp meetings have been an important phenomenon of American life for more than 200 years and they are still going strong. Literally hundreds of camp meetings are held every summer in the United States.

          In the early 1800s camp meetings became popular as a means of “saving sinners.” People came from great distances to camp together in tents and wagons for a week or more. The site would usually include a lot of shade trees and a good swimming hole. Worship services, held day and night, included singing and evangelistic preaching. It was not unusual for one preacher to preach for several hours and for another to take over and continue preaching.

          The preachers were known as evangelists who preached fiery sermons while exhorting the lost to be saved. Those who were “under conviction” were invited to the “anxious bench” so that others could pray for their surrender to the Lord. Sometimes devout believers would help seekers to “pray through” their struggle until a victory could be celebrated.

          Camp meetings were known for religious excesses such as the jerks, barking like a dog, laughing out loud, falling down as if dead, singing, dancing, and even running. At first glance such excesses seem weird and ridiculous; how could people have been so ignorant?

          Closer examination of these sensational excesses has caused me at least to think more soberly about these spiritual “exercises.” One early 19th Century evangelist, for example, reported that the “laughing” that occurred frequently in camp meeting revivals was “truly indescribable” and did not excite anyone else to laugh. It was, he said, “a loud, hearty laughter” that seemed “rapturously solemn,” causing saints and sinners alike to reflect seriously about their own relationship to God. 

          The “falling” exercise was very common. Revivalist Barton Stone said it happened to people of all walks of life, not simply the uneducated. The person, with a piercing scream, would “fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead.” This sounds very similar to the modern-day experience of being “slain in the Spirit” that sometimes occurs in Pentecostal meetings.

          Stone described two sisters who fell, “with a shriek of distress, and lay for more than an hour in a lifeless state.” Finally they began to show signs of life and could be heard “crying fervently for mercy.” Onlookers observed a look of “gloom” on their faces. What happened next is quite striking. Stone gives this eyewitness account:

          “After awhile, the gloom on the face of one was succeeded by a heavenly smile, and she cried out, ‘precious Jesus,’ and rose up and spoke of the love of God—the preciousness of Jesus, and of the glory of the gospel, to the surrounding crowd, in language almost superhuman, and pathetically exhorted all to repentance. In a little while after, the other sister was similarly exercised. From that time they became remarkably pious members of the church.

          “I have seen very many pious persons fall in the same way, from a sense of the danger of their unconverted children, brothers, or sisters, of their neighbors, and of the sinful world. I have heard them agonizing in tears and strong crying for mercy to be shown to sinners, and speaking like angels to all around.”

          The “jerks” exercise is strange indeed to modern minds. In more than 50 years of preaching I can truthfully say I have never hoped one of my listeners would starting “jerking.” I would not know what to do next – except to pray. Again, revivalist Stone offers a most helpful explanation:

          “Sometimes the subject of the jerks would be affected in some one member of the body, and sometimes in the whole system. When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked backward and forward, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. When the whole system was affected, I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, their head nearly touching the floor behind and before.

          “All classes, saints and sinners, the strong as well as the weak, were thus affected. I have inquired of those thus affected. They could not account for it; but some have told me that those were among the happiest seasons of their lives. I have seen some wicked persons thus affected, and all the time cursing the jerks, while they were thrown to the earth with violence. Though so awful to behold, I do not remember that any one of the thousands I have seen ever sustained an injury in body. This was as strange as the exercise itself.”

          What seems remarkable to me is that people were “happy” to have had the “jerks.” Obviously they considered it God at work in their lives.

          Intelligent people are amused by the idea of people “barking like a dog.” However, Stone sheds helpful light on that excess also. He says barking was “nothing but the jerks.” He explains:  

          “A person affected with the jerks, especially in his head, would often make a grunt, or bark, if you please, from the suddenness of the jerk. This name of barking seems to have had its origin from an old Presbyterian preacher of East Tennessee. He had gone into the woods for private devotion, and was seized with the jerks. Standing near a sapling, he caught hold of it, to prevent his falling, and as his head jerked back, he uttered a grunt or kind of noise similar to a bark, his face being turned upwards. Some wag discovered him in this position, and reported that he found him barking up a tree.”

          And what about “dancing”? Here again we learn that dancing often began with jerking. After jerking awhile, the person would begin to dance and the jerks would ease. The effect on others was, like that of laughing, quite solemn, never exciting levity in the audience. Such dancing seemed “heavenly” to the spectators who could hear “their solemn praises and prayers ascending to God.” They would dance until exhausted and often fall prostrate on the floor or ground unless caught by someone.

          “Running” also had a reasonable explanation. People ran out of fear when they felt one of the other feelings – like jerking – coming over them. Usually they did not run far before they fell. Stone tells about one man’s experience:

          “I knew a young physician of a celebrated family who came some distance to a big meeting to see the strange things he had heard of. He and a young lady had agreed to watch over, and take care of each other, if either should fall. At length the physician felt something very uncommon, and started from the congregation to run into the woods; he was discovered running as for life, but did not proceed far till he fell down, and there lay till he submitted to the Lord, and afterwards became a zealous member of the church. Such cases were common.”

          The more I learn about the sensational excesses of these early camp meetings, the more I am inclined to wish for their return. But alas, the Methodists would probably run so fast we would not find them for a month of Sundays.

          Today my wife and I will be camping out with the good folks at Bethlehem Family Camp Meeting out on County Road 160 a few miles north of Bonifay, Florida. The president of the camp is my good friend, Mike Roberts, from Opelika. Mike serves the Trinity United Methodist Church whose generous people graciously tolerated my preaching for 13 years.

          Good friends Larry Cochran and Bill Ury will be preaching and Nathan Hamilton will lead the singing. If anything like jerking or those other excesses occur, you can count on a full report next Sunday. + + + +