Camp Meetings and Revival Music

MUSIC: Camp Meetings and Revival Music


Instructor, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

II. Distinctive Camp Meeting Song Appears Around 1800

About 1800, with the birth of the camp meeting in the great Kentucky revival, there developed a new and distinctive camp meeting type of song. The earlier church hymns had come from across the sea, but the frontier camp meeting "spiritual songs" sprang from frontier American hearts. This song was introduced when .the Methodists took over the camp meeting and spread it into Tennessee, Ohio, and the rest of the opening West, as well as the more conservative East. The staid old hymns, and even the folk hymns and religious ballads, were too sedate to express the tumultuous enthusiasm of the throngs who gathered under the open sky. Sometimes the revival hymns of Wesley and others were popularized by the insertion of refrains in which all could join. These were set to folk tunes with pulsating rhythm, emotional repetition, and ejaculatory refrains, whose crude doggerel often would be caught up by the throngs, and mighty choruses would roll through the forest clearings. Sometimes a "singing ecstasy" would seize the worshipers. At other times it was a chant o£ mourning, or again of thunderous jubilation. Spontaneous song broke forth in rough and irregular couplets, combined out of Scriptural phrases and everyday speech, with many hallelujahs and refrains interspersed.1

This indigenous type of song, at first trans mitted orally, came to be printed in the simple camp meeting songbooks of the time.2 And later, in the back country, there were "shape note" songbooks (classed as "spiritual songs" in contradistinction to "psalms and hymns"). But most of these preserved in books represent the second stage in camp meeting hymnody with the spirit retained but with much of the crudity "simmered away." This type of individualistic appeal to sinners, backsliders, and mourners sometimes revealed the terms of salvation, and sometimes narrated personal experience. These contagious songs became, it is said, "the prayer of the penitent, and the hallelujah of the redeemed." 3 The Englishman, Hugh Bourne, leader of the revivalist Primitive Methodist secession which adopted the camp meeting from Lorenzo Dow, published and circulated his General Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs for Camp Meetings (1809).4

The churches that rose on the well-worn trails of those valiant Methodist circuit riders were imbued with their hardy spirit and energetic singing. And the new songs of Watts and the revivalists, used not only to stir emotion but to instruct and edify, overrode denominational lines and language barriers as well, and were shared by Dutch, German Reformed, and Lutheran alike. The Dunkers and Mennonites also used them, to which their own compositions were added to accompany their foot-washing rites.6 Nottingham says:

"The whole character of frontier hymnody was a direct outgrowth of the revival meeting. It is redo lent of the very flavor of pioneer life its emotionalism, its fighting spirit, its ever-present sense of the reality of hell fixe, and its fervid sectarianism. Not only is revival hymnody a veritable mine of material for those who would understand the social history of the frontier, but the type of singing there evolved became characteristic of religious singing for years afterwards. Gone were the stately hymns of the eastern seaboard, hymns that had been brought from Europe, and in their place were substituted rough and ready rhymes set to rousing popular tunes."6

To all this must be added the Negro spiritual the music of an oppressed people, with its constant overtone of death and heaven, and the hope of more joy in the world to come than in this world. They adapted the camp meeting message and song to their own needs, and their response in song formed an "overflowing stream of swinging cadences and crooning melodies," with meaningful words such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "All Over God's Heaven," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," and "It's Me, Standing in the Need of Prayer." These expressions of deep feeling, blended with match less melodies in pathetic strains, were also an integral part of the revival music.7

IV. Revival Songs -Wane as Revival Passes

But when the Great Revival became quiescent, between 1830 and 1857, its distinctive type of songs of the heart waned. Yet the Millerites, in the forties, adopted and adapted many of these Baptist and Methodist melodies for their own use.

Contemporary with the camp meeting era, but at the opposite extreme of the revolt against Calvinism, was the emergence of the "literary hymn." 8 Among the pioneer writers of this type were the Unitarian literati, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes ("Lord of All Being"), Samuel Longfellow ("Beneath the Shadow of the Cross"), James Russell Lowell, and others. There were also, of course, John Greenleaf Whittier (Quaker), with his "We May Not Climb the Heavenly Steeps to Bring the Lord Christ Down" (1806); Ray Palmer (Congregationalist), with his moving "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" (1830); Phoebe Gary (Universalist), "One Sweetly Solemn Thought" (1852); Harriet Beecher Stowe (Congregationalist), "Still, Still With Thee" (1855); and many others of progressively high literary quality and devotional tone. But as the Great Revival waned, and the camp meeting, and as the urban type of church spread westward, and as the doctrine and experience of Watts' and Wesley's hymns faded out, the trend was toward the formal, stately, and objective, and toward the reserved and ritualistic, as exemplified by the fact that in the 1840's the Congregationalists had little or no congregational singing.9 As Jackson points out, by the second half of the century the old-time individualistic, emotional, and anti-institutional religion of the early frontier camp meetings was outmoded, and the old- time folk songs were pushed aside in favor of a more urbanized type of hymnody.10

But the Great Revival's "songs of the heart" did not die out completely. The old revival hymns and camp meeting spirituals survived in the rural "singing schools" of the upland areas of the early camp meetings, and were taken over into the Negro spirituals.11 And some of the best of the folk-type songs found their way into church hymnals. And later, says Ben- son, for that class, both inside and outside the church, not reached by the more elevated literary and musical tone of church hymnody, there developed the later "gospel song" that is quite familiar today the descendant, in part, of the camp meeting songs of the early decades of the nineteenth century, but in more refined form. They were evangelical in spirit and evangelistic in objective focusing on winning souls through conversion, and were used primarily in revivals, as well as being taken over by the Sunday schools.

V. Overtone of Prophecy Heard in Songs of the Day

We shall have occasion to refer to this chapter, by way of comparison, when we come to the Millerite movement of the thirties and forties. But before that day prophecy already occupied a place in the religious songs of the early decades of the nineteenth century, when men were preaching and writing much on prophecy. Long before, Watts had written a hymn on "The Ruin of Antichrist," another on "Babylon Fallen," and one on "The Last Judgment." 12 And now that the Great Revival was on in America, the witness of Bible prophecy, the hope of the second advent, the imminence of the judgment, the millennium soon to be established, and the signs of the latter times all found similar expression in song. This is evident from the fact that the Millerites "found a great body of end-of-time songs" 13 from those who had preceded them, and used them in their call to preparation for the transcendent events impending.

Take, for example, Hugh Bourne's A Col lection of Hymns for Camp Meetings, Revivals, Etc. (1810). After defending "worship in the open air" as stamped with dignity by Christ and the apostles, and declaring the death of Christ for us had "sealed the vision and the prophecy," and with sectional topics like "Jubilee," "Redemption," "Judgment," "Millennium," and so forth, we come to hymn No. 25 on "Scriptures Fulfilling." The first and last stanzas make impressive reading:

"See how the Scriptures are fulfilling,

Poor sinners are returning home; 

The time the prophets were foretelling,

With signs and wonders now is come. 

The gospel trumpets loud are roaring

From sea to sea, from land to land; 

God's Holy Spirit is down-pouring,

And Christians joining heart and hand.


"Now God is calling every nation,

The bond and free, the rich and poor: 

These are the days of visitation; 

Sweet gospel grace will soon be o'er.

The Lord will come in clouds and thunder, 

The light'ning beaming from his eye;

He then will cut his foe asunder, 

And hurl them where the damned lie."


In Bourne's Large Hymn Book, for the Use of Primitive Methodists (bound with the other, and likewise dated 1810), No. 59, under "Judgment," we find:


"He comes! He comes! the Judge severe! 

The seventh trumpet speaks Him near. 

The light'nings flash, his thunders roll; 

How welcome to the faithful soul!"


Again, under "Zion's Light," No. 44, we read:


"Arise, O Zion, rise and shine; 

Behold thy light is come! 

Thy glorious conq 'ring King is near,

To take His exiles home. 

His trumpets sounding through the sky,

To set poor captives free; 

The day of wonder now is come,

The year of jubilee."


Or, under "Millennial," No. 48, are the words:


"How blessed are our eyes,

That hear the joyful sound, 

Which kings and prophets waited for 

And sought but never found."


But apart from these larger prophetic themes on the approaching end and second advent were the specific warning signs of the times. The catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, is listed as the basis for these lines:


"Alas! on earth how oft we spy 

Wonders descending on the sky!


"And the dire frighten'd trembling earth 

Abandons all her joy and mirth. 

What terrors seize on us below 

When nature speaks her overthrow!


"Can I with mortal tongue declare 

What horror seized the earth and air, 

When shocks from a supreme

Hand Did shake the distant wicked land?" 14


And more impressive still is the depiction of the Dark Day of May 19, 1780, and its meaning, as used by Randall's Freewill Baptists:


"Let us adore and bow down before

The sovereign Lord of might, 

Who turns away the shining day 

Into the shades of night.


"Nineteenth of May, a gloomy day.

When darkness veil' d the sky; 

The sun's decline may be a sign 

Some great event is nigh.


"And now let all who hear this call

And saw the day so dark, 

Make haste away without delay, 

And get into the ark." 15


Thus the clearly sustained overtone of the "last things" and the approaching return of Christ is already heard running through many of these early nineteenth-century songs, and they will swell like a rising crescendo in the thirties and forties we shall soon be studying.

(End of Series)


1 Jackson, George B., White and Negro Spirituals, chap. 6; Loud, Grover C., Evangelized America., p. 119.

2 Camp meeting songbooks include Hymns on Selected. Pas sages of Scripture . . . Usually Sung at Camp Meetings (1811), John Harrod's Social and Camp Meeting Songs for the Pious (1817), the Camp Meeting Chorister, and Songs of Zion for the Use of Christians (1818). (Benson, Louis F. the English Hymn, pp. 291-296.)

3 Ibid., p. 110; Benson, op. cit., pp. 292, 293.

4 Jackson, op. cit., chap. 7; six spiritual songs" appear in Lorenzo Dows The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil, pp. 691-703.

5 Loud, op. cit., p. 120; Jackson, op. cit., pp. 82, 83.

6 Elizabeth K. Nottingham, Methodism and the Frontier Indiana Proving Ground, p. 26.

7 Marks, Harvey B., "the Rise and Growth of English Hymnody, pp. 246-248; Benson, op. cit., p. 204; Jackson, op. cit., part 11.

8 A great hymn may or may not happen to be great literature. It is something more it belongs to the things of the spirit, to the sphere of religious experience and communion with God. (Benson, op. cit., p. 2.) Its test is to move and mold men.9

 Ibid., p. 470.

10 Jackson, op. cit., chaps. 12, 13.

11 Benson, op. cit., pp. 482, ff.

12 Nos. 29, 59, and 45 in Book I of his Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

13 Jackson, op. cit., p. 107.

14 From "Miss Harvey," in 1806 (Baptist) quoted in Jack son, op. cit., pp. 51, 52. There are nine other stanzas warning to be ready.

15 Ibid., p. 52.



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Instructor, S.D.A. Theological Seminary

August 1952

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