The Pine Grove Camp Meetings

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Dr. Ed Eastman
Spiritual Heritage Series: Part Seven of Seven, December 17, 2006

The towns and villages sharing the name “Canaan” include East Canaan, North Canaan (unofficially “Canaan”), and South Canaan (officially “Canaan” and otherwise known as “Falls Village”). However confusing their designations may be, these hamlets, like their biblical namesake, have historically been associated with great movements of God and great spiritual leaders.

Lemuel Haynes, the great African-American Puritan pastor, revivalist and abolitionist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, refused a scholarship to Dartmouth College, choosing instead to be mentored for the ministry during the late 1770’s by South Canaan’s scholar-pastor Rev. Daniel Farrand. Henry Opukahaiah, the icon of the first American efforts to train and send missionaries to the Pacific, was mentored for over a year on the farm of Farrand’s successor in South Canaan, the Rev. Charles Prentice. Clearly, the currents of spiritual renewal that became the Second Great Awakening did not bypass Canaan.

There was, however, another significant spiritual development occurring at much the same time in which Canaan played an important part – the emergence of Methodism in the New York-New England region. While not a direct result of the village revivals that we refer to as the Second Great Awakening, the Methodist movement certainly benefited from the fresh interest in and openness to biblical Christianity that accompanied those revivals.

In 1791 the Canaan area was visited by two of the towering figures of the Methodist movement in America, Francis Asbury and Freeborn Garretson. It was apparently at Garretson’s urging that the first Methodist meetinghouse in New England was erected in 1793 on Battle Hill Road in Falls Village, although one source states that the structure was actually erected by Baptists and then sold to the Methodists. Many years later the original building was converted into a private dwelling, but the structure still stands as evidence of the health of the Methodist movement in the early 1800’s.

The first public Methodist sermon ever preached in North Canaan was delivered in 1786 at the historic Lawrence Tavern. Methodists in what is now East and North Canaan erected their first building in 1816, in Canaan Valley, and in 1824 assisted in establishing a Methodist church in Norfolk.

The year 1833 marked a revival among the Methodists in the Columbia, New York circuit, which extended at the time from the Hudson River to Canaan Mountain, and included Salisbury, Sharon, Canaan Furnace, Canaan Mountain and North Canaan. Three new churches were dedicated that year, and the circuit was divided into smaller charges.

From 1833 to 1857, while other denominations were showing signs of numerical decline, Methodist churches in the region and the nation continued to grow steadily. In 1857, however, came a dramatic change. In that year, a weekly businessmen’s prayer meeting in New York City suddenly exploded into a worldwide prayer movement called “The Laymen’s Prayer Revival of 1857-1858.” This movement was interdenominational in character, and led primarily by laity rather than clergy. As a result of this spiritual awakening, at least half a million new converts were added to churches in America, with equal numbers added to church rolls in Great Britain. The Methodists, who saw 200,000 new converts added to their rolls by the end of 1858, were the chief beneficiaries of this movement, but tens of thousands were added to the rolls of Congregational, Reformed and Baptist denominations as well. More importantly for the Canaan area, the spiritual fervor of this prayer movement, in which Methodists played such an active part, led within a very few years to the birth of the extraordinary Pine Grove camp meetings in Falls Village.

In August of 1860, the Poughkeepsie, New York, district of the Methodist Church conducted a week of camp meetings on rented picnic grounds located on what is now Belden Street in Falls Village. The original campers pitched tents, and there was no plumbing. But crowds grew year after year in spite of the flies and inconveniences. During the early 1870’s, crowds of 3,500 were common. By the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, crowds of over 10,000 people were drawn to Pine Grove from as far away as Hartford, New Haven, and New York City. They traveled by horse or by train, and came seeking spiritual renewal and gatherings for prayer. And pray they did! At 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and after 7:30 p.m. each and every day of camp meetings they met to pray!

A skeptic might attribute the laymen’s prayer movement of 1857 – 1858 to factors such as the financial collapse of 1857, the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in that same year, and the imminence of civil war. But to what can we attribute the protracted postwar commitment to prayer evidenced by the Methodists at campgrounds like Pine Grove? Why did Canaan’s Methodist churches thrive during the same era? Is it possible that God’s presence is truly experienced in corporate prayer movements, even as Scripture (such as Matthew 18:18-20) suggests?

Pine Grove is no longer a Methodist campground, but thanks to the efforts of local historians like Joan Penfield Begg and Dorothy Sanford McCunn, the story of the huge crowds that once gathered there under the towering pines lives on to challenge believers today to pursue a deeper commitment to Christ and one another through corporate prayer. When God’s people pray, God moves to renew, awaken and empower.