The Evolution of Camp-meeting Hymnody

It’s the seventh inning stretch at Turner Field, the home of the Atlanta Braves, when the noisy ballgame comes to a silent halt. Every fan, regardless of the scoreboard, turns to focus on the performance of the hour: tenor Timothy B. Miller’s rendition of “God Bless America.”

At 2 p.m. August 23 in the Hall of Philosophy, Miller will join forces with Steven Darsey for today’s Interfaith Lecture: “Historic Camp Meeting Music and Vernacular Sacred Song.” Their lecture will discuss the evolution of camp-meeting hymnody.

Beyond his famous appearances at the Braves’ games, Miller sang for about five years in the choir of Atlanta’s Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, of which Darsey is the music director. Miller later went on to sing in the Meridian Choir of the worship arts nonprofit Meridian Herald, of which Darsey is the artistic director.

Darsey said Miller is an extraordinary singer and “an absolute prince of a human being.”

Darsey himself is a student of Southern-vernacular sacred song services, and holds a doctorate in musical arts in choral conducting from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Darsey has loved singing since childhood, and grew up in a Methodist family that created his religious foundation.

“I would say that music and religion chose me, rather than I chose it,” Darsey said. “I love to sing so much that it was my favorite thing to do in school, and it just was kind of an overwhelming joy and pleasure and became a profound commitment even without knowing it.”

Darsey and Miller’s lecture will focus on the experience of a camp meeting, a Protestant Christian religious service popular during the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. Practitioners went into a secluded religious retreat, where they would listen to preachers, pray and sing hymns — all while surrounded by nature and separated from their everyday lives.

Darsey said camp meetings were intensely spiritual, and there’s nothing he knows of that’s like them today.

“The sheer power of the Holy Spirit affected the thousands of people that gathered in these meetings in ways that are so extraordinary,” Darsey said. “It would be fascinating to see it, [and] it also generated a unique repertoire of music.”

Many of these hymns are difficult to identify since they were often improvised and seldom written down. Since camp meetings were held in the woods with no electricity to provide light at night, most hymns had short, simple verses that were sung from memory.

Darsey believes in the power of these camp-meeting hymns to form spiritual connections. Meridian Herald puts on a camp meeting annually where it attempts to recreate this 19th century experience.

As a professional musician whose work often holds a spiritual focus, Miller experiences a spiritual aspect of music in his everyday life.

Miller said he’s grown stronger in his faith because of the nature of his profession, especially since as a singer he must come to terms with the unknown. Miller said there’s times when he opens his mouth and he doesn’t really know what kind of sound will come out.

“I mean you study, you practice all this time, [expend] all this energy, for about three minutes’ worth of music,” Miller said. “And so having that faith and that belief is something that we are more or less forced to practice on a daily basis — to be confident that even though [we] don’t know what’s going to happen, something will happen.”

Miller said this process causes him to trust and believe that there is something greater than himself that he can rely on.

In today’s lecture, Miller and Darsey will share some of this spiritual magic of hymnody, specifically regarding camp meeting, with Chautauquans.

“This kind of pure spirituality which draws us in a completely different world is among the things that need to be brought back into more general parlance today,” Darsey said. “That’s one of the reasons the Meridian Herald puts on a camp meeting annually: to share some of that music.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.