During the nineteenth century, camp meetings became a signature program of American Methodists and an extraordinary engine for their remarkable evangelistic outreach. Methodism in the American Forest explores the ways in which Methodist preachers interacted with and utilized the American woodland, and the role camp meetings played in the denomination's spread across the country. Half a century before they made themselves such a home in the woods, the people and preachers learned the hard way that only a fool would adhere to John Wesley's mandate for preaching in fields of the New World. Under the blazing American sun, Methodist preachers found a better outdoor sanctuary for larger gatherings: under the shade of great oaks, a natural cathedral, where they held forth with fervid sermons.
The American forests, argues Russell E. Richey, served the preachers in another important way. The remote, garden-like solitude provided them with a place to seek counsel from the Holy Spirit, serving as a kind of Gethsemane. As seen by the American Methodists, the forest was also a desolate wilderness, and a means for them to connect with Israel's wilderness years after the Exodus and Jesus's forty days in the desert after his baptism by John. Undaunted, the preachers slashed their way through, following America's expanding settlement, and gradually sacralizing American woodlands as cathedral, confessional, and spiritual challenge-as shady grove, as garden, and as wilderness.
The threefold forest experience became a Methodist standard. The meeting of Methodism's basic governing body, the quarterly conference, brought together leadership of all levels. The event stretched to two days in length and soon great crowds were drawn by the preaching and eventually the sacraments that were on offer. Camp meetings, if not a Methodist invention, became the movement's signature, a development that Richey tracks throughout the years that Methodism matured, becoming a central denomination in America's religious landscape.
"Reading through the lens of the sylvan images that inspired mainstream American Methodists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, eminent Methodist historian Russell Richey reexamines Methodism's missional impulse and brings into focus its practiced theology and ecclesiology. This robust and engaging study speaks principally to Methodism's past, but it also has much to say about and to American Methodism in the present day."
– Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, Professor of Worship, Boston University
"Russell Richey effectively employs a unique and engaging approach to Methodist history. Beginning with John Wesley and early British Methodism, he leads us to recognize the manner in which American Methodism grew and flourished in wilderness, forest, and shady grove. With generous quotes from primary sources and insightful interpretation we learn about American Methodism's mission and ministry as it moved across the continent,becoming an influential force in American life."
– Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., General Secretary Emeritus of United Methodism's General Commission on Archives and History
"Russell Richey has done as much as anyone to shape how we think about early American Methodism. In this call to reconsider the connection between nature and faith, Richey expands the scope of his work. American Methodists did not simply tolerate 'the woods,' they engaged with the forest and incorporated it into their ministry. Nowhere was this more evident than at camp meetings, as Richey so persuasively argues."
– John Wigger, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Missouri
Introduction: Methodism and the American Woodland
1. Wilderness, Shady Grove, and Garden
2. Cathedraling the Woods
3. A Church Spread into the Wilderness
4. Gardening the Wilderness or Machines in the Garden or Tending the Garden
5. Two Cities in the Woods, Methodism's Gardening Options: A Concluding Note
Appendix: John Wesley Preaching under Trees and in Groves
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Russell E. Richey, author or editor of twenty books and an array of articles on American Methodism, held professorial and administrative posts successively at Drew, Duke, and Emory universities. He is Dean Emeritus of Candler School of Theology and William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Church History Emeritus. He now serves as Visiting Professor at Duke Divinity School.