Did you ever go to a camp meeting? The summertime extended revival with services nearly all day long? If so, you probably remember hot, steamy evenings, watermelon cuttings, ice cream socials, chicken-que. Camp meetings are a cultural icon of the South.
As a kid, I remember the giant, circus-sized tree set up in the pasture at the Masters’ farm in rural Kentucky. Preaching and singing every night until late was a regular feature. Our family pitched a tent for the six of us to sleep in — we were small, skinny kids in those days. My dad remembers toasting an entire loaf of bread for breakfast one morning. In the rain no less. He said he had a fire built outside the door of the tent and toasted a piece at a time until we were all happy.
The camp meeting was a THING because in the rural area few churches existed and even fewer preachers. Circuit riding preachers traveled around the country and held services in the open air and sometimes under a brush arbor — temporary shelter built from brush. Families were hungry for spiritual nourishment but also social engagement. Living in sparsely populated regions meant you didn’t see a lot of folks. So a camp meeting that required some traveling and consequently spending the night provided time for rest from heavy farm labor, social engagement, and spiritual revival all in one week.
Often denomination lines were blurred. Camp meetings featured preachers from a variety of church backgrounds focused on spiritual renewal and Christian living.
Locally camp meetings still take place. Union Camp Meeting in the Little Five Points community began on July 7. This meeting was established in 1876. Shiloh Camp Meeting in the Burwell community will be held from July 21 to July 23, for the 155th year. Evening services are at 7:30 p.m.
At some point in the camp meeting history, the campgrounds became more permanent. Large structures to house the congregation and provide protection from the weather were erected. Families wanting more substantial housing for camp meetings built small cottages (sometimes still called tents) that are passed down through the family as an inheritance. The cottages varied from near shack-like buildings to modern air-conditioned two-bedroom houses with modern conveniences.
Today camp meetings vary from location to location. Services still feature fiery preaching and joyous singing, but you might also find balloon animals, water slides, and catered meals.
My fear is that many of our southern traditions — family reunions, camp meetings, Sunday dinners at Grandma’s house — are slowly fading away. In another 20 years will our kids and their cousins still be attending family reunions? By 2041, how many folks will drive to the country for a weekend of fiery preaching and singing? When today’s young parents are grandparents, will anyone even know how to cook southern food? It’s something to consider.
Mary Reid is a Haralson County resident who dreams of writing a memoir of her family’s time in Africa.