Hellfire and Brimstone

methodist-camp-meeting-granger 1819

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of Hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”  Rev. Jonathan Edwards, 1741


From time to time, trying to make sense of what you read is like seeing words through a kaleidoscope, with shifting bits of glass and color creating first one image, then another, each one new. The hardest part of understanding can simply be the need to look around the edges of our own thinking in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of a different perception. Sometimes facts are easily seen and absorbed, and we are enlightened, having cleaned the dust from the window for a better view. We learn something, nodding in agreement. Other times, it’s hard to get a clear picture even with our faces pressed to the pane. There is perhaps a glare from the angle, or it begins to rain, streaking the glass. Nevertheless, those of us working on genealogy need to understand enough about history to set the lives of our ancestors in their own context, rather than filtering what we learn through the lens of our own present tense. We have inherited much more than DNA from the lives that came before ours.  It often seems as if what we learn are our own memories recalled, rather than things we cannot possibly know.

As the years go by, I have come to realize that I have my pockets full of habits and ideas but don’t really know where I got them or why I am carrying those things around with me, like a forgotten lipstick in a old favorite shade. My confession: I did not really know the history of Methodism, the denomination of my upbringing. I knew the basic history, but I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the journey of faith that grew the church. I knew nothing of Methodism’s evangelical roots. I was never introduced to an angry God nor taught to live in terror for the sake of my soul. As a young adult not long out of music school, I once had an interview for the position of Choir Director at a Baptist Church in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. At the conclusion of the interview, the preacher asked that I come to church on Sunday prepared to tell the congregation how it was that I came to know Christ. I politely explained that I grew up in the Methodist Church, and we do not do that kind of thing. I was right for my own time but woefully mistaken for the Methodist Church of my grandfather’s childhood and the prior two hundred years out at Plank Chapel Church in Kittrell.

Sometimes peeling the onion of information reveals the most astonishing things. Because of the Smith and Fuller family history at Plank Chapel Church, I began to take a closer look at the history of Methodism and found myself vicariously dropped into one camp meeting after another. Ever so much more extraordinary than the name implies, the descriptions seem to me almost phenomenal. In a nutshell, camp meetings were outdoor revival gatherings of hundreds and sometimes thousands of families who came to a prepared site from near and far, on foot or in wagons and carts ready to camp out for a week or more. Think of the logistics of accommodating more than a thousand people in 1805, in the days before running water, tents, flashlights, or ways to keep food fresh and drinks cold. Each person who did not walk would have animals to care for – horses and oxen had to be housed, fed, and tended. There was a specified rhythm to the day at camp meetings, with many hours were spent listening to sermons and exhortations, personal prayer, singing and participating in worship, with the hoped for outcome being an emotional transformation experience.  Often, dozens of preachers would take part, with more than one sermon being preached at a time and dozens of religious conversions reported at each meeting.

Consider this camp meeting scene, from Guion Griffis Johnson’s book, Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1937), pp. 392–394

“At length the evangelist arose from this seat. At once the congregation was electrified, “And what come ye out in the wilderness for to see?” he asked, fixing his eyes upon the congregation. His voice rose powerfully, “Aye! ye are come as to a holiday pageant, bedecked in tinsel and costly raiment. I see before me the pride of beauty and youth; the middle-aged,..and the hoary hairs and decrepit limbs of age; all trampling, hustling each other in your haste – on one beaten road – the way to death and judgment! OH! fools and blind! slow-worms, battening upon the damps and filth of this vile earth! hugging your muck rakes while the Glorious One proffers you the Crown of Life!”

“With words of doom yet upon his lips, the preacher suddenly stopped. A female voice began a spiritual: This is the field, the world below / Where wheat and tares together grow / Jesus, ere long, will weed the crop, / and pluck the tares in anger up. With a mighty roar, the congregation burst into the chorus: For soon the reaping time will come, / And angels shout the harvest home!”

“Nerves were taut. The tumult rose. Shouts of thanksgiving and wails of despair joined with the ever recurring pulse of the song. Now and minister was praying; now he was shouting, “Washed in the blood of the Lamb!” One after another the weeping mourners arose and flung themselves in front of the anxious seats.”
“It was now two o’clock. After a brief intermission, while the ministers and their helpers continued to labor with the seekers, there would be prayer and exhortation. At candle-light pine torches would be lighted, and the preaching would begin again.”

Detailed descriptions have been written about people being in the throes of “peculiar physical manifestations” called religious “exercises.” Sometimes the affected person fell down; sometimes the exercises involved dancing, “jerking,” barking like a dog, or laughing.

From the Raleigh Minerva Newspaper, Monday, October 7, 1805, p. 3:

At a camp meeting lately at Banks’ Chapel in Granville County, we are told that there were not less than 40 tents erected to accommodate those who stayed on the ground night and day – there were at times as many as two thousand five hundred people; very many converts, supposed to be upwards of 70, some of whom underwent bodily exercises, such as the jerking exercise, the dancing exercise, the barking exercise, etc. However extraordinary this account may seem by those who never witnessed anything of the kind, it is a fact to be relied on, as the Editor has it from many respectable and pious men who were eye-witnesses. The jerking convert, after exhorting and singing, is seized with violent fits of jerking, which usually brings him to the ground, where he lies as if laboring in a slight convulsive fit, and when the spasm seems to abate, the person begins shouting and praising of God for effecting his conversion, etc. The dancing or jumping convert generally commences his exercise after very fervent exhorting – at this time it is very common for a dozen persons to be seen dancing together, with their hands over their heads, and their fingers playing loosely – the exerciser exhibiting a ghastly countenance, without speaking a single word, with his eyes closed, his appearance resembling more a living specter than anything else. After some time, he falls with all the appearance of death and lies apparently lifeless for nearly an hour. Of the barking convert, we have not received a particular description of the exercise, but that some are seized with fits barking or howling like dogs cannot be doubted.

How did this come to be?

History is no stranger to religious upheaval. Time and again groups of people discard their willingness to be sheep in the wrong pasture and head off in new directions despite the difficulty of the journey. Thus, from the Protestant Reformation in 1517 through 200 years into John Wesley’s work in England, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies, religious practices changed from the more distant, intellectual approach of the Church of England to a deeper, more emotional and very personal worship experience. In the period of the First Great Awakening from 1730 into the 1750’s, established Christians were a part of what was described as “a great wind blowing” across the colonies. Dissidents began to challenge the old Anglican Church systems of hierarchy and ritual and began to express their own deeply personal sense of conviction and moral responsibility, portrayed by intense fervor, emotion, guilt, and active participation in worship. The “awakening” was spiritual revelation – and fear.

From theologian Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” preached at Enfield, Connecticut, July 8, 1741:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire.”

With the winning of the American Revolution came the Constitution and the First Amendment, guaranteeing the right to religious freedom of choice without fear of reprisal: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The North Carolina Constitution written in 1776 was even more specific about guaranteed religious freedom.  This ability not only to choose but to create choice sparked another spiritual revival that permanently changed the religious landscape of fledgling America. Known as The Second Great Awakening, the era from the 1770’s through the 1830’s reached out to the unchurched, including people of every race and gender and regardless of status. During those years, camp meetings became the primary means of Protestant conversion, with Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians joining together for the purpose of saving souls.

From L.S. Burkhead, D.D., The Centennial of Methodism in North Carolina (Raleigh, John Nichols, printer, 1876) p. IX.

“On the 21st day of May, 1776, at a Conference held at the city of Baltimore, a Circuit, called Carolina Circuit, was organized, embracing an indefinite extent of territory and allowing the preacher in charge large liberty for his efforts in spreading Spiritual holiness throughout this hitherto unoccupied field.” There was one solitary preacher, who, “with his horse, saddlebags, Bible, and hymnbook … came pioneering this unexplored realm and carrying the ‘glad tidings’ of personal salvation.”

Prior to that time, some ministers from the Virginia circuit had traveled as far as North Carolina, particularly along the path of the Roanoke River and into what is now Franklin County.

From The Centennial of Methodism in North Carolina, p. 52, “In the summer of 1776, Thomas Rankin went as far south as North Carolina, and at Roanoke Chapel “preacher to more than double what the house would hold. The windows were open; everyone could hear; and hundreds felt the word of God.” It was said that Mr. Rankin often “preached and prayed until he was hardly able to stand.” When the Carolina circuit was formed in 1776, there were already 683 members of the church reported from North Carolina.

From the few itinerant ministers roaming North Carolina and preaching to assembled groups as best they could, Methodism grew in the Franklin County area. On Monday, July 10, 1790, Bishop Francis Asbury wrote in his Journal, “Through heat and want of retirement, I suffer loss; but bless God for health and faith. I made my journey to Roger Jones’. About 60 people; God was with us; The people spoke of the goodness of the Lord.” It was at the home of Roger Jones in the Bobbitt Community of Franklin County that the first Methodist meetings were held until a Methodist Meeting House was built on a part of his plantation. Though not a preacher himself, Roger Jones was the original founder of Plank Chapel Church.

It is estimated that the first camp meetings in the Franklin/Granville area were in about 1804. By 1808, ads for camp meetings were frequent posts in the state’s newspapers for many different camp meeting sites, often including the statement that “spiritous liquors” are not allowed, and giving instructions for how to prepare to stay “on the ground.” By 1810, Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury noted in his journal that it was his hope that at least 600 camp meetings could be held annually throughout the young United States.

From a recollection in the Raleigh Christian Advocate Newspaper, Wednesday, October 3, 1883, p. 1.

“In 1837 there was a camp meeting at Plank Chapel in Franklin County, NC, then in the bounds of what was called the Tar River Circuit. It was in the prosperous days of the olden time. The meeting was largely attended. There was an imposing display of fine carriages – fine horses – finely dressed ladies – fine everything. The hospitality was unbounded. Visitors were present from half a dozen counties. Among the preachers, I recall ‘specially Rev. Wm. E. Pell, Rev. Henry Speck, Rev. Henry Gray, Rev. Thos. G. Lowe … and a Brother Branch, first named not recalled.”

From The Spirit of the Age Newspaper, Wednesday, August 24, 1853, page 2:
“We had the pleasure of attending the camp meeting at Plank Chapel in Franklin County last week. Several distinguished Divines were in attendance, and considerable feeling and interest in the subject of Religion was manifested by the large congregation in attendance. Upwards of 50 professed conversion; and some 40 others were inquiring the way to Zion. We have never seen gathered together a larger concourse on a similar occasion. Tentholders were fully equal to the demand made on their generosity – all were assiduously attended to and provided for – and we feel under special obligation for the marked courtesy that we received. We have never seen a more sedate and well-behaved company, or a more intelligent, handsome array of ladies. Several counties were represented.”

And lastly, a letter from Rev. Bernice B. Culbreth, from the Raleigh Christian Advocate Newspaper, Wednesday, September 7, 1892, p. 6:

“I earnestly pray that the truth may abide in good ground, and bear much fruit in God’s honor. At 4 o’clock on the first Sunday in August, I began a meeting at Plank Chapel which lasted 17 days and resulted in 40 conversions, and 26 accessions. We had a good start on Monday, having 6 converts, Bro. J.W. Jenkins helping us till Thursday, preaching with power from on high. We held two services while Brother Jenkins was with us, and one daily after he left. Preachers and people, listen to me: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of our first week were almost lost in saving souls. Why? Oh why was this? Because the meeting was converted to a social pic-nic. That was the reason. The people at Plank Chapel are as clever as you will find anywhere, and they know how to fix up fine dinners. But under God we have demonstrated that one long service is the better way. I hereby declare that I never conducted a meeting more easily and more successfully in all my ministry. When I announced one service tomorrow, most of the “protracted meeting rats” left. Thence, onward to the close, God, the Son, and Holy Ghost was were with us, conducting every service. The church worked as never before. The whole neighborhood was aroused. Men and women shouted who were not accustomed to do such a thing.

Let this pic-nic business be stopped! I stood up for God 13 days without any ministerial help, but the best of all, God was with me, and to him shall be all the glory, both now and forever. Amen. “

Looking over my shoulder at camp meetings from my viewpoint in 2014, I can’t help but tint the image with what we now know about the psychology of crowds.   Even during the First Great Awakening, there was debate as to whether or not the odd physical manifestations of transformation were of God or something much darker.  It was decided that the end result was positive and so must be the work of God.

In 1854, Rev. B.W. Gorham wrote the Camp Meeting Manual: A Practical Book for the Camp Ground. In a list of reasons why camp meetings were so effective (p.17), he begins with: 1.) They call God’s people away from their business and worldly care for several successive days, thereby securing time for the mind to disentangle itself from worldly care, and rise to an undistracted contemplation of spiritual realities.

Eventually, with more people settling in a given area, more church buildings being constructed, and more preachers taking care of individual congregations, camp meetings began to be scheduled less often, though clearly those huge gatherings were instrumental in establishing the Protestant congregations in North Carolina. For those of us who claim deep roots from those early days, this is our history. If we are not cousins, we are cut from the same cloth nonetheless.

Seated in a pew at First United Methodist Church in Henderson, I feel at home. I see the faces of people that I have known and loved for my whole life. I know their voices singing the familiar hymns or speaking the responses. My own voice joins theirs easily. Some families have grown – children and grandchildren sit clustered around my childhood friends. Other families have become small – many sit alone in the pews. My friend from piano lesson days directs the choir. Another friend’s father, now elderly, ushers people to their usual seats. Time in that place seems suspended, as if we are all just the way we once were for that hour. The church service is also much the same, teaching compassion, acceptance, love for one another, encouraging integrity, admonishing against sin, reminding that there can be forgiveness, and most of all – offering the blessing of hope, as stated by the young man who gave the homily, “When you need it, God will provide a bridge to cross…”

In that pew, I represent the 7th generation of Methodists in North Carolina. My fourth great-grandfather, Thomas Smith, was a close friend of Roger Jones, at whose home the first Methodist meetings were held in Franklin County in 1780. His son, my third great-grandfather, Goodman Smith, was a founding trustee of Plank Chapel Church in 1809. Goodman’s son, Thomas Lorenzo Dow Smith, my great-great grandfather, was named for the celebrated and eccentric evangelist, Lorenzo Dow. T.L.D. Smith became an itinerant preacher and a deacon and was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church Conference until 1891. He was considered to be a “local Divine.” My great-grandfather, Archibald Smith, grew up at Plank Chapel, as did my grandfather Early Smith. Archibald and his wife, Bettie Fuller Smith, named my grandfather’s youngest brother, Bernice Culbreth Smith, after the minister mentioned above.

The compelling images of the throngs of people at camp meetings play like a slide show in my mind, along with the charismatic evangelists, the struggling, exhausted itinerant ministers, the spiritual hymns and finally the groups of people building their own churches. No matter where we stand regarding religious practice today, it is clear that this effort – this evangelism – was utterly sincere and of pure motive, and a catalyst for what was yet to come.


Additional Sources:
Bangs, Nathan, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Vol. 2, (T. Mason and G. Lang for the Methodist Church, 1841)

Thomas, Joseph, The Life of the Pilgrim, Joseph Thomas, (Winchester, VA., J. Foster, printer, 1817)

The Journal of the Rev, Francis Asbury, Bishop (New York, 1821)

Norwood, Frederick, The Story of American Methodism, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1974)

More about John Wesley:  http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University:  http://edwards.yale.edu/

More about Martin Luther:  http://www.iep.utm.edu/luther/

The text of the 95 Theses:  http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/95theses.htm

1 thought on “Hellfire and Brimstone

  1. Fascinating stuff, beautifully told, Phyl. My mother, as you know, was a Methodist, and I doubt she knew this much about the history of the denomination. Where we live now, Martha’s Vineyard, was home to a flourishing camp meeting culture in what became the town of Oak Bluffs. The town still boasts a wonderfully preserved, still lived-in collection of Victorian cottages that started as real tents set up for summertime camp meetings. http://www.mvcma.org/history/then-now/ It’s a magical place which retains a sense of religious purpose, infused with the fun of a summer resort.

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