Born into a prominent Quaker family near Philadelphia, Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911) converted to Methodism after learning about the doctrine of sanctification and the Holiness movement within the denomination (A Brand Plucked from the Fire and 21). In her autobiography, she describes the experience of attending her first “camp meeting” or outdoor revival gathering. Such meetings were largely intended to strengthen the faith of existing Christian believers by allowing them to focus on their spirituality apart from the “distractions” of ordinary life.
Smith’s account captures the flavor of “religious summer camp” expressed by others who attended such meetings from the late nineteenth through late twentieth centuries in America. Holiness movement adherents were sometimes criticized by fundamentalists for their hyper-emotionalism and inclination towards a doctrine of universal salvation but the two movements shared a tendency to withdraw from the larger society into an insular Christian community as the broader American culture became more secular and scientific. Note, however, that while Smith emphasizes the emotional high of her experience, she also cautions the reader against mistaking the intense emotions of such a “mountaintop moment” for genuine sanctification.
Source: Hannah Whitall Smith, My Spiritual Autobiography or How I Discovered the Unselfishness of God (New York: 1903).
As may be imagined, we took every possible opportunity of learning all we could of the new truths we had discovered; and I must confess that, although we found, as I have said, that the Friends [Quakers] did actually teach it, yet it was among the Methodists we received the clearest light. The Methodists were very definite about it. They taught definitely that there were two experiences in the Christian life, the first being justification, and the second sanctification, and they urged Christians not to be satisfied with justification (i.e., forgiveness) merely, but also to seek sanctification or the “second blessing,” as they called it, as well. . . .
It was not, however, every Methodist who took this ground, as many thought it was too extreme. Those who did were called “Holiness Methodists,” and it was from them we received the most help. They held “Holiness Meetings” for the express purpose of considering the subject, and it was our delight to attend these Meetings whenever we could. Especially did we enjoy their “Holiness Camp Meetings,” which were held in the summer time in lonely forests or at seaside places. They were called “Meetings for the promotion of holiness,” and were really great open air Conferences of Christians of all denominations, from all parts of the country, who were interested in the subject, and who would assemble at these Camp Meetings, living in tents under the trees, and spending a week or ten days in waiting upon God, and conferring together on the deep things of the Kingdom.
No words can express the wonderful power, and solemnity, and yet overwhelming joyfulness, of these meetings. We were there living in tents, entirely separated from all our usual occupations and cares, with nothing to do but to give ourselves up to the spiritual influences around us, and to open our hearts to what we believed to be the teachings of the Holy Spirit. Such a company of earnest Christians, all set on coming into a closer communion with God, could not fail to create a spiritual atmosphere of great intensity; and the thrilling experiences of spiritual joy that were told in every meeting, with the songs of praise resounding through the forest, and the happy faces of every one we met, were all something so out of the ordinary and so entrancing, that it often seemed almost as if we were on the very threshold of Heaven. I cannot help pitying every Christian who has known nothing of such seasons of pure delight. They were a sort of culmination of the grand spiritual romance which my religion has always been to me, and I count them among the most entrancing times of my life. To this day the sight of a camp chair, or of a tent under the trees, always brings back to me something of the old sense of supreme happiness that used to fill every hour of those delicious Camp Meetings. . . .
I shall never forget the first time I was present at one of these Camp Meetings, and the first Prayer Meeting I attended. It was an early morning meeting in a tent. I knew nothing of Methodist Meetings, having never attended any except those little ones at Millville, and had no conception of the emotional atmosphere into which I had come. I found when I got into the meeting that I had forgotten my handkerchief, but having never in my life shed any tears in a meeting, I was not troubled. But in this meeting the fountains of my being seemed to be broken up, and floods of delicious tears poured from my eyes. I was reduced to great straits and was obliged surreptitiously to lift up my dress and use my white under-skirt to dry my tears. I have never since been to any meeting without at least two hand- kerchiefs safely tucked away in my pocket, although I believe I have never since been so over-whelmed with emotion as at that time. It was my first introduction to the entrancing joys of spiritual emotion, and I reveled in it. . . .
. . . I learned in time therefore not to seek emotions, but to seek only for convictions, and I found to my surprise and delight that my convictions brought me a far more stable and permanent joy than many of my more emotional friends seemed to experience. In the time of stress, with many of them, their emotions flagged, and even often vanished, and they had hard fights to prevent utter failure and despair, and some of them have been thankful at last to struggle back to the stable ground of conviction, which in their emotional days had seemed so barren and comfortless.
All this however took me many years in learning. But meanwhile the joy and power of the glorious secret we had discovered grew every year more and more practical; and more and more my soul learned to rest in absolute confidence on the keeping and saving power of the Lord. I must repeat what I have said elsewhere, that not for a moment do I mean that temptation ceased its attacks, or that we had reached what is sometimes called “sinless perfection.” Temptations continued to arise, and sometimes failures befell. But we had discovered a “way to escape,” and had learned that this way was the way of faith. We had found out that Christ was a Deliverer, not only from the future punishment for sin, but from the present power of sin, and we realized that we need no longer be the “slaves of sin.” And just so far as we laid hold by faith of this deliverance, just so far were we delivered. We had not picked up holiness and put it into our pockets as a permanent and inalienable possession; but we had discovered the “high way” of holiness, and had learned the secret of walking therein. . . .
- Smith describes camp meetings as events where the religious community could withdraw from the wider world; what are the potential benefits and harms of such withdrawal, both for the religious and for the broader society?
- What do you think Smith means in drawing a distinction between “emotions” and “convictions”? Although she describes her experience at the camp meeting as profoundly emotional, Smith cautions against excessive emotion. How do you think she would respond to someone like Aimee Semple McPherson (“What About Those Manifestations?”)?