Photo: Benjamin M. Adams, from the Official Journal: Minutes of the 104th Session of the
New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1903).
When I was attending graduate school at Drew University in the early-mid 1990s, I wrote a paper for Dr. Leigh Eric Schmidt’s class “Holidays and Holy Days in America.” I had the opportunity to dig into the journals that were part of the newly-arrived papers of Rev. Benjamin Matthias Adams (1824-1902). My paper was focused on which holidays and holy days were important to Adams and how he observed them.
Throughout his life, Adams used his journal to record important life events, pastoral activities, and the state of his spiritual life, which included attendance at camp meetings.
I quickly saw that camp meeting time (usually held during the months of August and September, and in July later in the century) was particularly important to Adams. He was an individual with an intense spiritual life, which may or may not be surprising, since he was born to Methodist parents and had a father who was a local preacher.
Adams’ journals begin in 1846, when he was a 22-year-old school teacher. In November of that year, he married Amanda M. Lockwood. In April 1847, Adams began his journey into the Methodist ministry when, after being examined at Quarterly Conference, he was given a license to preach.
The first reference he makes to going to camp meeting occurs 7 September 1847: “Started for Camp Meeting at White Plains.” It is likely that this was not Adam’s first camp meeting, given his family’s background. Attending these two-to-three-week outdoor revivals was part of the rhythm of Adams’ life. Being in an environment of prayer and preaching nourished his hunger to become closer to the God he loved. In response, he began preaching and exhorting in order to inspire and convert others.
In 1850, Adams was ordained as a deacon in the New York Annual Conference. That September, while at the camp meeting in Salisbury, Adams felt called to preach at the meeting. He revealed his calling to a pastor friend who then laid his request before the presiding elder. His friend soon returned and reported, “The Elder is going to have you preach tomorrow at 8 oclock [sic]. Now don’t you flinch.” Adams wrote: “I felt somewhat relieved at this and looked to God for help – I have no text and now at 11 oclock [sic] satisfied that God loves me and I love him I retire to rest [.] God of all peace help me to do my duty[.]”
Adams preached at his first camp meeting on 12 September. In his journal, he notes that he got up that morning at 4:30 and struggled to come up with a text and inspirational words. (Frankly, I would have done the same thing if I were told I had to get up and preach the next morning). A cheerful little verse - Ecclesiastes 9: 10 - came to his mind: ”Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (King James Version). Today, we might be saying, “what the what?” about his choice of a text; but, hey, it was the nineteenth century and illness and death were always at one’s elbow. They couldn’t mentally, spiritually, or emotionally avoid it the way we do now.
Adams’ first preaching attempt at camp meeting evidently went well. His summation of the sermon was self-effacing, and he gave all the credit to God: “Suffice it to say that ‘The Lord’ did the preaching.” He further noted that “if we had only had faith” the whole gathering “would have been slain I think.” In other words, they would have been moved to conversion or repentance or greater spirituality.
From that point on, Adams preached at camp meetings on a regular basis.
I’m going to cut the blog off here because I have discovered something that I need to research a bit more before I continue with Adams’ story. There appears to be a connection between Adams and Methodist evangelist and writer Phoebe Palmer. Palmer was one of the founders of the Holiness Movement of the mid-to-late 1800s. I think she had something to do with where he went next in his life as a pastor.
This only goes to show that you never know what you’re going to find when you start doing research. I’ve always thought the endeavor was like pulling on a piece of yarn and finding that another piece was tied to it. Then you find another piece tied to that and another and another. You never know where it all will lead.
I’ll sign off now.
Yours in total geekiness,
Benjamin Matthias Adams Papers, 1846-1902. United Methodist Archives and History Center, Drew University, Madison, NJ.
Note: The Archives is a collaborative effort between Drew University and the General Commission on Archives and History for the United Methodist Church (GCAH). The website URL is https://www.drew.edu/library/special-collections-archives/umahc/
Monthly Echo of the Original Five Points Mission, 20 May 1903, p. 4.
Official Journal: Minutes of the 104th Session of the New York Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, p. 116 (New York: Eaton and Mains Press, 1903).
 Quarterly Conference was a gathering of clergy and lay representatives that occurred four times a year.
 Deacon – Up until recently, the process toward full ordination and membership in an Annual Conference was 1) to state your intention and call to the congregation to which you belong; 2) be examined and approved as a “Certified Candidate” by one’s District Board of Ordination; 3) be examined and approved as a deacon (probationer) by the Conference’s Board of Ordination; and 4) finally be examined and approved as an elder by the Conference’s Board of Ordination. The front part of the process was slightly different in the 1800s, but then, as it was until 1996, deacons were a transitional order on the way to ordination as an elder. Deacons are now a separate order within Methodism with vocations that differ from the elders’ call “to Word and sacrament.”
 In the world of Methodism the word “Conference” means two things. First it refers to a now-annual meeting of pastors and lay representatives that set polity, mission focus, and other organizational items, and sends representatives to a larger, worldwide gathering called “General Conference.” The word “conference” also refers to geographically determined administrative organizations. For instance, the church I serve is included in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, which covers the entire state of New Jersey, and a few small, contiguous areas in Pennsylvania and New York state.
 Or, as the Common English Bible puts it: “Whatever you are capable of doing, do with all your might because there’s no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave, which is where you are headed”