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Roots of Evangelical Worship: American Democracy and Camp Meetings

For the past several weeks, I have been tracing what influences formed what today we might call “Evangelical worship,” including German Pietism, American Revival, and the Wesleys. Developments in nineteenth-century America also had considerable influence.

The nineteenth century in America was a critical time in its cultural, political, and religious development. The nation was still reeling from its Revolution near the end of the previous century, the new government was expanding the political system, and the citizens were enjoying their first tastes of democratic freedom.

Democratic liberty especially significantly shaped both the religious dynamic and—very much related—the cultural tides of the United States. In the southern colonies in particular, the Great Awakening had “forged new and aggressive religious forces in the Baptists and the Methodists and started them on their amazing development, which was to make them the most numerous religious bodies in the new nation. In other words it marks the real beginning of the democratizing of religion in America.”1

Both Nathan O. Hatch2 and Mark A. Noll3 have shown how America’s democracy altered Christianity considerably, and this is perhaps no more evident than in its worship. Americans became known for a kind of “rugged individualism” and distrust of systems of authority or anything that resembled class distinctions. Individuals expected to have a say in how they lived and what they believed, and these sentiments contributed to the development of American culture as well, especially in the church.

Religion in America experienced changes concurrent with, and likely influenced by, the emerging democratic ideas. Religious life became more personal and individualistic, free to all and less dependent upon any sovereign act of God. This shift is evident in the stark contrast between the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century—led by strong Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—and the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, whose primary figure was Charles G. Finney, an outspoken Arminian who believed that conversion was not a supernatural work of a sovereign God, but an individual decision by anyone who decided to choose God (more next week).

The growing Baptist and Methodist congregations in America began to lose their English theological and liturgical roots. Baptist in America were originally Particular Baptists who brought with them the theology and worship practices of their English forbears. Eventually, however, as Baptists were influenced by “New Lights” and began to move west, both their theology and worship began to take a more free form. Methodists in America, led first by Bishop Francis Asbury (1745–1816) replaced John Wesley’s prayer book in 1792 with a much shorter book of guidelines for worship, believing that “they could pray better, and with more devotion while their eyes were shut, than they could with their eyes open.”4 Methodists moving to the frontier ignored forms altogether and encouraged simple, exciting songs such as Edward Payson Hammond’s “Come to Jesus, come to Jesus, / Come to Jesus just now.”

Changes in liturgical practice can be seen perhaps most clearly in the rural camp meetings that began to emerge in the early nineteenth century. These were interdenominational gatherings, often including the Lord’s Supper,5 characterized by extreme emotional expression6 and congregational singing of choruses.The quintessential model for all subsequent camp meeting revivals was the Cane Ridge (Kentucky) meeting of 1801. Attended by crowds between 10,000 and 25,000 people, the meeting became characterized by shouting, prostrations, singing, laughing, emotional fits, and even barking.7 Camp meetings spread from Cane Ridge throughout the rural frontier.

James White suggests that a new liturgical structure—a “tripartite . . . service of the Word”—emerged from these camp meetings that has come to characterize American evangelical worship ever since: it begins with “a service of song and praise which places great emphasis on music,” moves to a “highly evangelistic [sermon], calling souls to conversion,” and climaxes with “a call to those who have been converted to acknowledge this change in their lives by coming forward, being baptized, or making some other indication of their new being.”8 This public “invitation,” sometimes referred to as an “altar call,” became the focal point of a camp meeting service. Baptist elder Lemuel Burkitt described one of the first of these in North Carolina in 1850:

Numbers, apparently under strong conviction, would come and fall down before the Lord at the feet of the ministers, and crave an interest in their prayers. . . . It had a powerful effect on the spectators to see their wives, their husbands, children, neighbors, etc. so solicitous for the salvation of their souls; and was sometimes a means of their conversion. . . . The act of coming to be prayed for in this manner had a good effect on the persons who came, in that they knew the eyes of the congregation were on them, and if they did fall off afterwards it would be a disgrace to them, and cause others to deride them; this, therefore, was a spur to push them forward.9

The nature of these meetings necessitated a simple, emotionally-charged kind of song that would keep the attention of the masses of people while inciting them to spiritual change. Camp meeting leaders, therefore, took those hymns that had been staples of congregational singing and altered them to meet their needs, most often appending a chorus to the end of an existing hymn text, such as this example of adding a chorus to Robert Robinson’s 1757 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Robinson’s text:
Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing,
tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.

Added camp meeting refrain:
I am bound for the kingdom,
will you go to glory with me?
Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

This was the beginning of what would later be called “gospel songs,” and eventually, these choruses were separated to stand on their own. Newly formed “Sunday schools” found these choruses, and other new songs modeled after them, as perfect for use with children, and eventually these songs made their way into urban revival meetings and church services.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. William Warren Sweet, Religion in Colonial America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), 292. []
  2. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). []
  3. Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). []
  4. Jesse Lee, A Short History of the Methodists, facsimile of 1810 ed. (Rutland, VT: Academic Books, 1974), 107. []
  5. See William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 1950), 223–42. []
  6. Jerald C. Brauer, Protestantism in America: A Narrative History (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1953), 108–9. []
  7. Charles Albert Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time (Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ Press, 1955), chap. 4. []
  8. James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, Third (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 164. []
  9. Lemuel Burkitt and Jesse Read, A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association, from Its Original Rise down to 1803 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, & Company, 1850), 150–51. []