Backcountry Religious Ways: The North British Field-Meeting Style

The backcountry was indeed very mixed in its religious denominations much as the borders of North Britain had been. But most visitors observed that Presbyterians generally predominated by the middle decades of the eighteenth century.102 The English also tended to include growing numbers of dissenters of many different sects. Even members of the Church of England behaved like dissenters in the backcountry, as they had often done in the north of England. On both sides of the British border there had been a strong antipathy to state churches, religious taxes and established clergy.103

Throughout the backcountry and borderlands, Anglican priests were held in special contempt for their lack of personal piety, and for their habit of subservience to landed elites. Clerical diaries from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century suggest that there was truth in these complaints. The diary of an Anglican clergyman named George Williamson in the English county of Cumberland was an extraordinarily secular document, full of detail about his hunting, fishing, coursing, drinking and gambling but with little mention of spiritual questions. One of the few references to church affairs was the record of a bet on whether a colleague would continue as rector of a parish. Established clergymen such as Williamson were regarded as corrupt and alien presences on the borders. That prejudice was carried to the backcountry where Anglican missionaries met with much hostility, not only from Scots and Scots-Irish, but from English settlers as well.104

There was, however, no hostility to learned and pious ministers of acceptable opinions. Presbyterian settlers sent home to Scotland and Northern Ireland for their own college- trained clergy who came out to serve them. As early as 1736, it was written that "about this time, the people began to form into societies and sent back to Ireland for a minister."105 These Presbyterian ministers were proud of their learning. One of them infuriated a Quaker by allegedly arguing that "the most ignorant College learnt man could open the true meaning of the Scriptures better then the best and wisest of God's children that had not College learning."106

These ministers were valued for their skill at preaching, which combined appeals to reason with strong emotions. In the backcountry, before the end of the eighteenth century, a familiar form of evangelical religion was the camp meeting. This was an outdoor gathering, commonly convened in some sylvan setting, where a large number of people worshiped together for several days. Many historians have mistakenly believed that the camp meeting was invented on the American frontier. In fact it was transplanted to America from the border counties of Britain, where it was well established by the eighteenth century. Even the Anglican population of that region often met in outdoor "field meetings" during the eighteenth century. So also did Scottish Presbyterians who held frequent "Holy Fairs," which were camp meetings by another name.

The following hostile description of a Scottish Holy Fair dates from the year 1759:

At the time of the administration of the Lord's supper, upon the Thursday, Saturday and Monday, we have preaching in the fields near the church. Allow me then, to describe it as it really is: at first you find a great number of men and women lying upon the grass; here they are sleeping and snoring, some with their faces toward heaven, others with their faces turned downwards, or covered with their bonnets; their you find a knot of young fellows and girls making assignations to go home together in the evening, or to meet in some ale-house; in another place you see a pious circle sitting around some ale-barrel, many of which stand ready upon carts for the refreshment of the saints.... In this sacred assembly there is an odd mixture of religion, sleep, drinking, courtship, and a confusion of sexes, ages and characters. When you get a little nearer the speaker, so as to be within reach of the sound, tho' not of the sense of his words, for that can reach only a small circle . . . you will find some weeping and others laughing, some pressing to get nearer the tent or tub in which the parson is sweating, bawling, jumping and beating the desk...there is such an absurd mixture of the serious and comick, that were we convened for any purpose than that of worshipping the God and Governour of Nature, the scene would exceed all power of farce."107

Many borderers deeply believed in this form of worship and had been persecuted for it in Great Britain and Ireland. Robert Witherspoon remembered that his father had been "one of the sect that followed field meetings, some of his kindred and himself were much harassed."108

Presbyterian emigrants such as the Witherspoons introduced field meetings to the American backcountry as early as 1734, probably earlier. Outdoor assemblies of the same sort were held by Presbyterians and Baptists before the Revolution. Woodmason recorded many instances of "big meetings," as they were called, as early as 1768."109 After the Revolution, Presbyterians and Methodists began to sponsor large "field meetings" on a regular basis.

At Mabry's Chapel, Brunswick circuit, Virginia, a quarterly meeting was thought to have drawn 4,000 souls, black and white together, on 25 and 26 July 1785. An even larger one was held et Jones Chapel, 17-28 July 1785. On the first day, 5,000 people attended; on the second day, the meeting was so large that nobody could count it. More startling than the size of the crowd was the intensity of its behavior. The shouting was heard half a mile away, and on the ground there were wild displays of emotion. "Such a sight," wrote one observer, "I never had before. Numbers were saints in their ecstasies, others crying for mercy, scores lying with their eyes set in their heads, the use of their powers suspended, and the whole congregation in animation."110

The Methodist itinerant Francis Asbury preached at many such meetings in the 1780s500 people at Bayside Chapel, on Maryland's eastern shore (1783); 400 gathered round a great sycamore in western Virginia (1784); 1,000 in an urban meeting at Baltimore (1785)."111 Most were held for two days. These assemblies began with prayer and preaching, reached their climax in what was called a "great shout," and ended in a Christian "love feast."

Other camp meetings followed in a series of waves, spreading south into the Carolinas and west to the far frontier. There they developed into something called the "Kentucky style" which was marked by close cooperation among denominations, careful preparation and much advance work, a battery of skillful preachers, the use of anxious seats, and fellowship meetings.112

The borderers also introduced another form of worship which had spread widely among reformed Christians throughout Europe. This was a ceremony of fellowship which in North Britain was called the "Feast of Fat Things" or the "Love Feast." A backsettler named Benjamin Ferris wrote, in the year 1726,

"I came into communion with the Presbyterian Church and ate bread and drank wine with them at that feast of fat things as they often called it and many times they used to call it a love feast. But I could not see it to be so; for many of the members was often in contention and quarreling, back-biting and slandering."113

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