Hay Bay Camp Meeting

Hay Bay Camp Meeting a sketch by Wendy Harty May 2021

Old Hay Bay Church was built by the United Empire Loyalists in 1792. It is the oldest Methodist Church in Canada. Camp meetings were innovated by Baptists and Presbyterians and held revivals in the US in the early 1790’s. Reverend Nathan Bangs a circuit rider in the Loyalist settlements along the Bay of Quinte organized the first camp meeting to be held in Canada, Friday September 27 – Monday September 30, 1805.

Reverend Bang’s manuscript journal is the only eye surviving witness of the meeting. In 1803, the Methodists in the area were numbered at 520, with my 6th great grandparents Garrett and Elizabeth Miller, counted. They would travel from Ernestown to Hay Bay, a distance of 25 miles. Hundreds travelled on foot, horse, and boat, erecting tents around a makeshift stage. Bang’s rode into Hay Bay that Friday and surveyed a busy scene with 100 people setting up tents and a stage with protection from the sun or weather elements. His journal reads:

At 5 o’clock the next morning, Sept 28 prayer meeting was held again at the Stage and continued till eight. Then a Sermon was preached by Br. Keeler on “And he preached Christ unto them” Acts 8:5 which wass applied with power. Exhortations followed in the demonstation of the spirit. At 12 o’clock Br. Ryan addressed us in the Name of the Lord on “My people are destroyed for lack of Knowledge, at the application” Hos 4:6 of which God made bare his potent Arm; for the Window of heaven was opened and the bursting power of God descended upon the congregation, in such an awful manner, that it raised a general outcry among the people, who began to be numberous. The travelling and local preachers descended from the Stage and ran among the crowd exhorting the impenitent, comforting the distressed and encouraging the faithful, calling out Men and brethren help. The word of comman was instantly obeyed, for old and young, male and female were now employed in carrying on the work of God.

The people of God were chiefly in a bunch by themselves when the camp took fire and the wicked formed a circle round about where they stood with astonishment to see the exercises, whilst many of them were constrained to cry aloud for mercy. As soon as any were wounded by the spirit of God, they were immediately surrounded by a group of men and women who were earnestly engaged with God for their deliverance, and such faith had they that five were left before they were enabled to sing the song of Redeeming love. It might now by said of a truth, the God of the Hebrews is come into the camp, for the noise was heard afar off. The groans and cries of the wounded, the shouts of the delivered, the prayers of the faithful, and Exhortations of the courageous penetrated the very heavens, and reverberated through the neighborhood. This exorcise continued till about sunset, when in its ceasing Br. Steel preached on “Behold he cometh with clouds ,” Rev 1:7 After several exhortations the exercise ran into a prayer meeting which continued all night without intermission: during which time 5 Souls were Justified, and Backsliders reclaimed and 25 Sanctified. Our grateful hearts could not but return thanks to our gracious Sovereign, for so manifest a token of his loving kindness, therefore we sang Glory to God in the highest.

The Journals and Notebook of Nathan Bangs 1805-06, 1817 Abel Stevens Life and Times of Nathan Bangs

The sun rose and darted its luminous rays into the tents. By Sunday, 2500 gathered believers were close to the stage. The prayers were so loud the preachers couldn’t be heard. The unconverted formed a giant ring around the proceedings. They were labelled the “wicked,” “children of the devil” and “wolves”. The reports in Bang’s journal describe a young woman of high rank, when her sister yanks her away to avoid embarrassing the family. Both she and her sister return and are dramatically converted. A young demoniac boy was exorcised by itinerants with prayer for deliverance and the crowd of 5 or 6 rings deep, keeps the unconverted from taking him away by force. Finally Bangs was struck down with paralysis unable to walk and speak but was able to return at end of day to “preach like fire in a dry stable.” The spectators looked on in amazement to see the Mighty display of God’s power. With enthusiastic and experimental religious worship there were hymns, sermons preached, prayer meetings and healing preformed. Bangs describes a star studded cloudless sky. The forest seemed vocal with the echoes of hymns. He says the scene was indescribable, as they were about to disperse, the preachers were weeping yet rejoicing. A general revival of religion spread around the circuits, especially that of the Bay of Quinte, on which the meeting was held.

According to his journal, Reverend Nathan Bangs returned to the Oswegatchie circuit, renewed his labors, somewhat worn, but full of faith and the Holy Ghost. I imagine Elizabeth Miller helped sustain him with good food and rest in the Miller home at Ernestown. Societies were formed at stops along a circuit which would have a class with a formal leader with 20 members. Attendance at weekly class meetings was obligatory in order to remain a Methodist in good standing. A quarterly meeting every three months along each circuit was held for administrative and disciplinary purposes. Class leaders were appointed to their roles by the itinerants. Bangs volunteered to circuit ride as war brewed between Britain and America in 1812. He could have requested a more pleasant assignment. The war prevented him from going. He turned his attention to a weekly newspaper and was editor for the Methodist Magazine and Christian Advocate, found and read in the Miller homes. The family of Garrett Miller Sr. had many descendants who were active class leaders and local preachers.

The findagrave.com for Garrett and Elizabeth Miller’s son John reveals more of the spiritual journey of the early Methodist Church in Canada.

John the son of Garrett Miller and Elizabeth Switzer. brother to my 5th grandmother Rebecca Miller Bush reads:
~~~He married his cousin Nancy Ann Neville. Together they were the parents of 10 children: Garrett; Anthony; Mary, Rev. Aaron Dougal; Matilda; Ann; Margaret; Elizabeth; Rebecca Ballard and Mitchell Neville.
~~*~~He was an uncompromising opponent of everything that seemed to him to be an infringement on old Methodism. The good man grew eloquent on such topics as free seats in our churches, the rights of the poor, the good old congregational singing, the minister reading two lines of the hymn in church, kneeling during public prayer, becoming seriousness at all times in the House of God; on these topics and kindred subjects, John was a strong man. His class and his church loved him. All found in him a good counsellor, a warm friend, and a consistent member of the church. It was a great pleasure to him to entertain the ministers of the gospel; as his father did in this respect so did he, and, ,his brothers also.
~~He calmly fell asleep on the 15th of Jan.,1864, leaving a large family following him on the same path to Heaven. It is a little remarkable that these three brothers should have passed away from earth within 3 months of each other; William died 20 Oct 1863, Garrett Jr. died 28 Dec 1863 and John followed the next month. Although living within a short distance from each other, neither was permitted to see the other during their last illness.

I found two grandsons who continued on with the ministry. Their tombstones read:

Rev William W. Miller, born March 2, 1825 passed into rest May 3, 1889. Having labored zealously in the ministry for 33 years.

Rev Aaron Miller superannuated Methodist Minister at Picton, Ontario, near Simcoe Falls was the first to build a tannery business and 2 stone houses rather than log. He was John Miller’s son living at the 7th concession of Ernestown at Miller’s Corners, north of Switzer Church. (Supernnuated means retired because of age.)

The Methodist Church would face schisms in the 1820’s but survived by uniting with other churches to form the United Church of Canada. Nathan Bangs was the founder of the Methodist Missionary Society to help the poor and was acting President of the Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

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