I will go ahead and make the bold statement that Salem Campmeeting is my favorite week out of each year. It is hard to explain to people who have never heard of campmeeting so here are a few resources.
Salem Campmeeting Home Page
Wikipedia – Campmeeting
The bell clangs loudly as it swings back and forth. Screen doors slam shut as everyone walks toward the music and finds a seat inside the tabernacle. “Hallelujah, Thine the Glory, Hallelujah Amen” is sung without a hymnal, and the offering plate is passed around for the second time that day. A little boy sprinkles sawdust on his feet and then rubs his toes together letting the sawdust pass through and return to the ground. With a sheet of paper he found next to him, the boy fans the sweat dripping down his brow throughout the service. The preacher prays, “We thank you for the fact that there are bicycles lying on the ground all around this tabernacle, symbols of young people, of kids, who are coming to love this place, and consequently to love you” (Nearly 180 Years Old). It is early August, and Camp Meeting has begun.
The scene above is unique in today’s culture. To an outsider it seems unusual, but to those whose families have been going for decades, it is another sacred tradition. In today’s world of hustle and bustle, Americans all over the country step away from society for one week to enjoy this time. Unique to America, the concept of Camp Meeting started in the early 1800s, revolving around the First and Second Great Awakenings. Thousands upon thousands of people traveled from all around, where they crashed upon the camp grounds like waves (Shore 2).
Thirty minutes east of Atlanta in Newton County, one of the oldest running Camp Meetings continues as it has for the past 175 years. Taking a glimpse into a week there helps one to understand why and how this tradition has continued until today. Just like in 1898, laptops, televisions, and Playstations are nowhere to be found. No pool floats or sand buckets were loaded into cars for the journey, even though for many families this is their only summer vacation. They arrive and gather with many friends and relatives for the first time since last Camp Meeting. In many tents, four generations of people from the same family are united once again. Those who have passed away during the year are mourned for, and babies’ new lives are celebrated.
Bunk beds fill rooms where small children sleep the humid summer nights away while their parents and other family members pack into the other rooms. Each family stays in a unit referred to as a tent, an allusion to the days of old, before the wooden structures were built (Bruce 71). The tents aren’t just sleeping quarters; the history and stories behind each unique one add to the sense of community and ritual (Kendell-Taylor 20). Giggles and talking can be heard throughout these tents because no ceilings exist, only tin roofs that crackle in the sun and fade to rust in the rain. Six feet over, an even larger family sleeps, providing another link in the horseshoe of tents which surround the tabernacle.
At 7:30 in the morning the tabernacle slowly fills. Old and young alike try to stay awake during the short devotional. This start to the day is the same as it has been for hundreds of years, being seen as an indispensable preliminary by all who have attended (Johnson, 122-144). Families retreat for buttered biscuits, and then everyone splits into classes to learn age-appropriate Bible lessons before the 11:00 service. Joyous singing can be heard as the latecomers slip in the back of the tabernacle. Soon after, the clinking of change can be heard as coins drop into the tin offering plates. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God,” the preacher remarks midway through his sermon. The fan above slowly provides relief, for his perspiration has plastered his shirt to his chest. He asks the crowd whether anyone wants to come to the alter, but no one accepts the offer that day. People quickly file out to go and savor the pimento cheese sandwiches and sweet tea.
Instead of taking afternoon naps, people sit on their porches and the campground comes alive with chatter. On one porch, an eighty year old man tells his grandson’s friend to be careful with girls when he goes off to college, “A girl will you leave you high and dry, but God will always be there.” Filing through old index cards with scribbles of family recipes, a lady tries to teach some little girls how to cook. One man, who goes by Bubba, describes this aspect of Camp Meeting like this, “We get too busy in the world. We need to sit down on a porch and swing for a while” (Hendrickson). He and others share updates on what they have done throughout the year, advice on raising kids, and reflections on the sermons from the week. Children swing on the playground under the sweltering sun, sharing embellished stories about their schoolmates, memories of Camp Meetings past, and questions about life. At 4:00 the bell rings again, and all the men and children slowly make a pilgrimage to the softball field.
The younger kids change into swimming suits and cross the busy road onto an old concrete path under a canopy of pecan trees. At the end of the path they find a piece of history accidentally trapped in urban sprawl. They stick their heads under an old pipe and chilling natural spring water rushes over their heads. A feeling of shock and refreshment overcomes them, the same sensation people who were baptized there hundreds of years before received. While they play, a man by the name of Casey tells the story that if a couple drinks from the spring together, they’ll get married and that it has been tested time and time again (Thorpe). The kids promise that it’ll never happen to them as so many have before.
Family, fellowship, food, and friends are simply not enough to keep an institution like this one going for 175 years. Swinging on the porch, while fireflies light up the night, Bubba passes on wisdom as it was given to him so many years before. He tells some young boys, “Camp Meeting provides a time and place for everyone to stop and meet with the maker of life. We need Camp Meeting to remind us of who we are and who we are meant to be” (Hendrickson). One of them asks, “That’s why people keep returning every year isn’t it?” Bubba simply nods his head and realizes the boys are starting to understand.
As the sun goes down behind the tabernacle, the tenters gather for the last service of the day. The suburbanites cruise by and honk their horns. Some are bewildered since for the first time all year, the grounds are vibrant with life and light.
Front and center, the scene is the same as it has been for hundreds of years. The messages that are delivered from behind the old oak pulpit cannot be dodged, even by the teenagers who sit on the last row, eager to slip out any chance given. An altar call is given this night and one college boy feels the calling of God on his life to become a minister. A new passion wells up in him and the cycle continues. He will one day stand behind the same old oak pulpit while his family sits in the pews. His children will play in the spring and one day grow to hear a similar message that changes them.