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Lancaster County SC Genealogy

Camp Meetings

by Louise Pettus

Camp meetings, with their fire and brimstone preachers, began attracting huge crowds on the rough frontiers of Virginia and Kentucky in 1799.

In May 1802, Waxhaw Presbyterian Church in northern Lancaster District became the first South Carolina church to participate in what was to become known as the Great Revival, or the Second Great Awakening.

The Waxhaw meeting was interdenominational. James Jenkins, a Methodist evangelist, reported 12 Presbyterians, 5 Baptists and 5 Methodists.

Besides the ministers, who preached from Friday to Tuesday all day and much of the night, there were numerous exhorters (apprentice or trial ministers) who visited the tents and prayed with individuals.

The crowd had arrived in 120 wagons, 20 "cars," and 8 carriages. Tents encircled an open space about 150 yards by 300 yards near a stream.

Attracted by the crowds, hecklers and carousers came to scoff and disrupt. Some set up whiskey kegs in the nearby woods and retailed the whiskey by the cupfuls.

Some of those present at the Waxhaw camp meeting returned to their homes to carry out revivals of their own. A camp meeting, said to be the second in SC, was held less than a month later at Hanging Rock in southern Lancaster District. James Jenkins reported to the Methodist Bishop Asbury that there were 3,000 people and 15 Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers present at Hanging Rock.

Also in June, there was a camp meeting arranged by the elders of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in York District. Over 1,000 people attended. Bethesda's membership increased from about 60 to over 300.

At Salem Methodist Church near Heath Springs, not far from the Hanging Rock site, there began the custom of yearly gatherings. Worshipers built brush arbors to shelter themselves from the hot sun, and encircled the camp with rough cabins they constructed for their own convenience. Camp meeting participants brought wagon-loads of bedding and enough food to see them (and their animals) through the week. The smoke of camp fires and the aroma of cooking food was to be long remembered.

Unlike Salem, the Waxhaw Presbyterian congregation did not repeat the 1802 experience. At Waxhaw, the congregation split when the regular minister, John Brown, attempted to introduce Dr. Watts "Psalms and Hymns" to replace "Rouse's Version," and worse still, took communion with the Methodists. Brown's congregation was so offended and upset that half the elders took away many of the congregation to form new churches.

The Rev. Brown, a warm and generous man, was so upset by the experience that he decided to leave the church itself. He resigned to become a schoolmaster, and later was professor of moral logic at S.C. College, and, in 1811, became the first president of the University of Georgia.

Waxhaw Presbyterian Church did not have another minister for 12 years. After the split over the Psalms, there was slight Presbyterian participation in future SC camp meetings. Baptists also dropped out because they opposed sharing communion with other faiths. That left camp meetings largely to the Methodists.

Camp meetings held by white people generally died out as an institution under the stress of the Civil War, but the custom was picked up by newly-formed black congregations after the Civil War. The most notable camp meeting still in existence is held at Mount Carmel A.M.E. Church in Lancaster County, always beginning on the first Wednesday of September.