Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Ernest F. Freeberg

Committee Members

Stephen Ash, Daniel Feller, Mark Hulsether


In reference to the early national and antebellum eras, the term "camp meeting" signifies a rural Protestant revival held over several days and nights, wherein participants utilized temporary living accommodations--typically wagons or tents--and prepared food on the grounds in order to attend multiple outdoor services. Eventually dominated by Methodists and Cumberland Presbyterians, camp meetings routinely attracted several thousand people, thus creating temporary communities larger than most permanent ones in many regions. Considering the scarcity of such sizeable, collective events in the country’s rural areas during this period, the assemblies inevitably generated an exciting array of social opportunities and served as momentous occasions in many nineteenth century Americans’ lives.

This dissertation examines the popular outdoor revivals in terms of their physical, temporal and liturgical structure, their worship practices, conversion experiences and spiritual meanings, along with their famously ecstatic devotions. Fundamental to all of this stood the meetings’ establishment of a sacralized sphere on what many perceived as a threshold of the divine world, a sphere of fecund possibilities for religious transformation and putatively supernatural occurrences. Defining and expressing themselves not only in the gatherings’ holy rituals, but likewise through their social activities, participants embraced identities that conferred meaning and purpose on individual, collective and cosmological levels. Moreover, camp meetings included pilgrimage, an often celebratory atmosphere, dramatic rites of passage, and avenues for earning prestige otherwise unattainable for many people. All this produced a unique, powerful forum for personal change while furnishing converts with psychic and communal support for their new evangelical lives.

The project also extensively analyzes the topics of democratic sound, transitory community, plus the roles of African Americans, women and children in this religious context. Further, this dissertation explores the gatherings’ diverse pursuits, including pilgrimage, enactment of familial roles, foodways, pursuit of status, conduct of business, politics, courtship and sex, drinking and liquor dealing, gambling, derision by skeptics, as well as crime and violence. More broadly, I evaluate camp meetings' implications for understanding evangelical religion and American culture not only during the period addressed, but into the twentieth century as well.

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