Today is the 215th anniversary of the start of the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting. Never heard of it? Most people haven’t. But I wanted my girls to be aware of it. So this past June, as my family and I were on a road trip, one of the stops that we made was an out-of-the-way spot were Cane Ridge is located. About 20 miles east of Lexington, near Paris Kentucky. An event took place here in 1801 that historians generally consider to be the first camp meeting. At least 25,000 people attended that first camp meeting and it was instrumental in the spread of revival all over the frontier.
And that brings me to why Cane Ridge still matters. I admit, I love camp meetings. I don’t necessarily enjoy sweating in open-air tabernacles in the middle of the summer months, but I enjoy why they exist and why they were started. But in order to understand why Cane Ridge still matters, we need to go further into history.
In Genesis we read that God showed up in the Garden of Eden to fellowship with Adam and Eve. Imagine what that was like. The presence of God dwelling among the two of them, surrounded by the beauty of Eden. Sadly, Adam and Eve gave into temptation and sinned. Their sin separated them from God and God made them leave the garden. But that wasn’t the end, for He put into motion a plan. A plan that is seen clearer in the next book of the Old Testament, Exodus.
In the first few chapters of Exodus, we discover the Israelites enslaved. Through a miraculous series of events, God showed up and delivered them. They begin to journey to Canaan and stop at Mt. Sinai. There, along with the Ten Commandments and other laws, God gave them a message. “I am going to dwell among you.” This was unheard of! In the Egyptian culture that they had just come from, the gods there were aloof and distant. They only showed up when it benefited them. But God said that He was different, and that He was going to dwell among them!
The latter part of Exodus as well as sections of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy give detailed instructions on how God was going to dwell among them. God had them construct a portable tabernacle where His presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies above the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. Chapter 40 records the account of the glory of the Lord filling the tabernacle! The tabernacle was in the middle of the camp as a reminder that God’s presence was central to them. And though God’s presence was there, only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and only once a year.
Over 600 years later, the ark of the covenant was moved into Solomon’s Temple. And the next series of events are a sad commentary. God dwells among them, but the people reject God. At one point the glory of God even leaves the Temple. The Temple was destroyed and later rebuilt and then destroyed again. But before the second temple was destroyed, a major event happens. Jesus of Nazareth was born. When He turns 30, He began a ministry that changed people in that area and brought new life. A new sense of God’s presence. Eventually He was falsely accused, whipped and crucified. And as Jesus died on the cross, the curtain separating the Holy place from the Holy of Holies was ripped. Symbolically representing that the presence of God was accessible to anyone!
Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, and shortly after that Pentecost took place. And the book of Acts records one account after another of God showing up and doing the miraculous and transforming people. The spread of Christianity is on the back of these accounts. God’s indwelling presence changed things, changed people, transformed cultures. The flame was lite, and the fire spread.
Fast forward to the sixteenth century. By the 1500s, the world was spiritually dark. Symbolically, it was almost as if the Roman church, which was the only church that could legally operate, had again put the curtain up and separated humanity from the presence of God. But if there is one thing that that must be known is that you can’t defeat God. God’s spirit was hovering on the hearts of men and women and again. People were about to be made aware of God’s presence again.
Among others, God used a troubled and imperfect man by the name of Martin Luther to pound the nail in the door of Wittenberg Church, and the flames of the Reformation took off. These were troublesome days, and not everything that Luther did was good, but God used him and others to point to some important issues that underscored the reformation. 1. The importance of Scripture; 2. The beautiful doctrine of justification by faith; 3. The priesthood of the believer. All three of these are crucial, but the third is what I want to put my finger on again for this article. It was this tenant of the reformation, the priesthood of the believer, that woke the people again to the realization that they could daily access the presence of God. In dark times, God made people aware of his presence.
Once again, permit me to fast forward. If we go from Germany to England, about 200 years later, we see some of the same darkness that permeated Germany in the 1500s. England in the 1700s was spiritually dark. But God used some men and women who were influenced by the Lutheran reformation to influence a man by the name of John Wesley. A man who struggled with faith, his heart was “strangely warmed” while hearing the preface of Luther’s work on the Epistle of Romans being read. This man, who was also imperfect, was enabled by God to launch a movement called the Methodists. He commissioned preachers and assigned them to circuits all around England. In dark times, God made people aware of his presence.
The American colonies were involved in a conflict with England. People on both sides were pressing forward to be heard. And the colonies were deeply divided. During this time, Francis Asbury was commissioned by John Wesley to cross the atlantic and preach to the American Colony. He never went back to England. He spent the rest of his life organizing circuits and commissioning preachers to spread the Gospel. He himself traveled five thousand miles a year preaching. He preached seventeen thousand sermons, ordained three thousand preachers, founded five colleges, and became America’s first Methodist bishop. In troubled times, God made people aware of his presence.
In 1801, in a rural area of Kentucky near the village of Paris, people gathered because they were hungry for God. Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others gathered for a communion service. What happened there was a tremendous communion with God. Around 25,000 eventually heard and attended theses services and it turned into what historians call the first camp meeting in the United States. Its impact was felt all around the the frontier area. Men like James Finley were changed forever. Finley went on to become an influential Methodist circuit rider and became involved in prison reform and abolition. In difficult times, God made people aware of his presence.
In the 1860s, our nation was once again divided by conflict. North versus south. Tens of thousands of people died. If ever there was a time when our nation needed to be aware of God’s presence, it was then. Even the church was divided. Social and theological issues caused separation and disillusion. Thankfully, God’s spirit was moving. Individuals like John Inskip, J.A. Wood, William McDonald, Charles Fowler, Phoebe Palmer, and many others again raised the banner. The National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness was commissioned, and the first camp meeting was held in Vineland New Jersey. There was such a powerful demonstration of God’s presence, that they planned another camp meeting the next year. That one was held in 1868 at Manheim Pennsylvania and over 25,000 witnessed the powerful presence of God.
The next few years were full of events like this. So much that camp meetings became part of the religious landscape of the United States and were everywhere. My heritage traces back to the Tri-State Holiness Association Camp Meeting started by great-grandfather in Clinton Pennsylvania. He desired that people become aware of God’s presence in greater ways than they were experiencing.
So why does Cane Ridge still matter, 215 years later? It is not because of the mechanism of the camp meeting. It is not because they were in the middle of the woods sweating. It is because they made the presence of God the most important thing in their lives. They set aside time to seek out God’s presence.
One of the reasons I took my girls to Cane Ridge was to show them where this powerful event took place. Not much is there anymore. Oh sure, there is a sign, a shrine, a cemetery and a beautiful scenic setting. But there isn’’t any glow of God’s presence. It is now just a historical site.
And so it is with our lives. We need to be intentional about cultivating the presence of God in our own personal lives. We live in troubled times. This election season is evidence of that. We need a new awareness of God’s presence. We can go to church, attend camp meetings and go to revival services. But these alone are not the answer. We can hold special services, do visitation and start tent meetings. But this alone won’t change much.
What I need to do and what we need to do is set time aside and beg God for a new awareness of His presence. A new indwelling. What will this look like? I don’t know. It probably won’t be a pillar of cloud or a visible sign of His presence. It probably won’t be like the camp meetings of the 1950s. But we will know. People always know when God shows up. It will require complete surrender on our part.
I’m 39 years old. I have girls who are ages 8, 5 and 2. I am hungry for a new sense of God’s presence. God’s manifested presence in the past isn’t good enough for us today. We need a new indwelling. The presence of God it is the answer for difficult times. And it can happen in our time! May we be willing, may I be willing, to do what it takes.