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History of Gospel Meetings

A gospel meeting is a tool our elders have decided to use to spread God's Word (Matthew 28:19-20) and encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because it is an expediency, a lot of room is left for culture, debate, and time to shape it into what it is today. Some of the earliest references to gospel meetings I could find only dated back to the late 1800s. Although gospel meetings are still a young tradition, centuries of history shaped them into what they are today. Their evolution throughout history goes back as far as the first Passover in Exodus. Modern gospel meetings ultimately find their roots in traditions of the Presbyterian church. Other influences come from the Catholic church's Eucharist rituals and Holy festivals. Realizing this will help us understand the history of gospel meetings, and how we can best use them today. For the sake of brevity and the purpose of this article, we’ll start in 16th century poverty-stricken Scotland.

In 1574 AD, The Old Scottish Poor Law went into effect. To keep masterful beggars—including jugglers and palmists—from working the system, the Poor Law limited relief for the poor. The Church of Scotland had to turn away beggars, who didn't meet the state's standards. As a result, they grew distant from the people they were trying to serve. In my opinion, this was the turning point for modern gospel meetings in history.

Conditions in Scotland only continued to worsen over time. By the 18th century, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was falling apart. The church saw an alarming rate of negligence, specifically around the Lord’s supper. This may have been due to a lack of funds to buy bread and wine, as well as a shortage in qualified ministers to dispense the communion. The Church of Scotland soon decided that quality in Lord's supper observance was better than quantity. Observance went from monthly to quarterly. Over time, it became an annual festival called the Communion Season. During this festival—over several days, sometimes weeks—participants would fast, preach, prepare, commune, and contribute. Members gathered from all over to take part in its observance. This festival played a large role in the revivals of the First Great Awakening.

As this all happened in Scotland, settlers made their way from Europe to America. This led to the birth of the United States through the American Revolution. Following the war, westward expansions left settlers without religious establishments. There were few to no church buildings in existence during this time. Transportation was slow and limited. Preachers were often scarce, serving as circuit riders and moving from one church to the next. In response, people like James McGready, a Kentucky area Presbyterian, arranged camp meetings. The Communion Season served as a model, inspiring the structure for these gatherings. Many people came together as one to hear the Word preached for days, sometimes weeks. It was a common ground for different denominations and cultures to hear and often debate God's Word. Restoration Movement leaders like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell would often preach at these camp meetings. The influence of these gatherings expanded as settlers continued to move west.

As communities began to develop and churches became more established during the 19th century, so did camp meetings. Eventually, large tents replaced the outdoor camp meeting style, providing convenient shelter. Preachers were able to easily move them wherever and whenever needed. Both camp and tent meetings were successful during their time, converting thousands; however, that didn't stop the criticism around them being overly flamboyant. Hell fire and  brimstone  preaching  and convulsive  behaviors  were  commonplace  at these types of events. Many people showed up for the sole purpose of being entertained. Others wanted to be able to say they were a part of something great. By the 1950s, preachers began to pack up their tents and transition to radio and television to preach the Word of God. The tent was eventually ditched in favor of air-conditioned church buildings.

It's easy to assume modern gospel meetings don't see as much success as earlier forms did back in the early 19th century, because we tend to romanticize the past. It's also easy to blame distractions on the lack of attendance and conversions during our meetings. Those types of problems have been around since the first century church (Hebrews 10:25, Matthew 19:16-24, 1 Corinthians 11:17-22). I do find it interesting, that each one of those historical events solved a cultural problem of their time. For example, the Communion Season allowed members to take part in the Lord's supper in face of poverty and hostility. The Camp Meetings were organized due to the lack of churches when pioneers settled to the west. Tent meetings helped preachers bring the Word to the people as churches were first being established. Each one showed great success in teaching God's Word, converting thousands of lost souls. It’s human nature to try and duplicate success, even when the original scenario that propelled it to greatness changes. Sometimes we must reinvent our man-made traditions—so long as they don’t get in the way of God’s Law—to solve the problems we're facing today. Other times, it may be as simple as changing our point of view to see it was successful for reasons we were previously blind to.

Our gospel meeting October 7th with Josh Creel is right around the corner. I thought it would be interesting to go back in history a little to show how we got here. Pray for this gospel meeting and our visiting preacher. Pray that it will be successful in God’s eyes, and that it will stir each one of us up to love and good works. Please invite your friends and family, but also be present yourselves. Finally, I encourage you to prepare for and meditate on this meeting's purpose.

- James Dow