Converting rituals: the worship of nineteenth-century camp meetings and the growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New England
Mount Elewononi, Sarah Jean
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This thesis examines the practice of the camp meeting as a significant factor in the growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in nineteenth-century New England. Such a comprehensive investigation into camp meetings in New England has never been done before. Also, with the exception of one book and one other recent dissertation, the general history of Methodism in New England is a topic that was overlooked for nearly a century. This research helps to fill those gaps. Many scholars give credit to camp meetings for fostering conversion, though the focus has generally been on camps held in the American South and the western frontier. After briefly recounting the rise of Methodism and camp meetings in the United States, the thesis turns to a more specific focus on the rise of Methodism and camp meetings in New England prior to 1823. Zion's Herald newspaper provides a steady and previously untapped source of primary information about camp meetings in New England from its first appearance in 1823 to well into the twentieth century. After discussion of some key developments of New England Methodism relevant to camp meetings between 1823 and 1871, a thick description of one camp meeting in 1823 is presented to show how the many parts worked together. This is followed by an account of aspects of the camp meetings that might be classified broadly as ritual, how these changed over time, and the impact they had on the process of identity formation at the camps. The spotlight is then directed toward the liturgical aspects of camp meetings as practiced in New England. These include components of worship practices common to Methodist congregations of the period as they gathered for prayer meetings, Sunday worship and quarterly conferences, such as preaching, praying, singing, and love feasts, and also those acts of worship developed specifically for camp meetings such as dedicating the grounds, and the closing ritual procession and "parting hand." As with the ritual practices, attention is again given both to how these worship practices influenced worshippers, and how they changed over time. Finally the interpretive framework of "poetic discourse" offered by Stephen Cooley is used to analyze the most potent ritual elements involved in the process of conversion and church growth in conversation with contemporary scholars in the fields of sociology and ritual studies. In the end this study shows not only the factors that fostered conversions and church growth, but also how the camp meetings gradually lost their potency as they changed over time.