Open-air Camp Meetings in Jefferson’s Area in Jefferson’s Day

Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. When Episcopal worship was available to him, he attended church regularly, faithfully. He also donated generously. Meanwhile, in his neck of the woods there were many revivals. Dr. Mark Beliles thinks that perhaps some of Jefferson’s later-in-life doubts of core Christian doctrines, e.g., the Trinity, could have been influenced by some of these revivals in his area.

In the open-air “camp meetings,” preachers of various denominations cooperated, taking turns preaching. Denominational titles, creeds, names, and distinctives were downplayed for the common identity of simply “Christians,” and this eventually gave rise to what became known as the Restoration movement as the dominant trend in Jefferson’s home county. In its effort for unity, part of this movement not only rejected creeds but also the concept of the Trinity, while still holding to a belief in the atonement and resurrection of Jesus. By requiring no creed, both Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians could be tolerated in their fellowship.

The earliest group in Virginia in this movement was led by Rev. James O’Kelly. They were first known as Republican Methodists but soon simply changed their names to “Christian Churches.” One of these unorthodox Restorationist preachers, Rev. Thomas Stett Cavender, apparently had met with Jefferson in the summer of 1801 in Charlottesville and then again for “a few minutes…in the president’s house” in Washington in October of 1801. Cavender is an obscure person who seems to have been based in Albemarle or else made it a common place of ministry during his itinerating circuit. Jefferson in September 1801 records in his account book of being in Charlottesville and “paid contribution at a sermon.” Usually he would identify the church, so it is likely that this was a non-denominational gathering (camp meeting?) in the area and, being close in time to the meeting with Cavender (mentioned above), possibly a service led by him.

Rev. Cavender wrote several more times to Jefferson after this. Writing from adjacent Orange county, he told Jefferson in late 1802 that “I still continue Traveling and preaching the unitarian doctrine in opposition to the Trinitarian System and all other political and Ecclesiastical impositions whatever.” His letter written from Milton near Monticello on March 22, 1803 led to a donation of $10 from Jefferson on that day for a medical need. Cavendar is important for, although the Restoration movement had already been strong in the area for several years, he is the first locally-based clergyman holding non-Trinitarian views that now is documented having correspondence with Jefferson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *