Are camp meetings an irrelevant, American practice from centuries past? Buddy and Carol Smith offer reasons why they are needed now more than ever. They include rest, community cultivation, reorientation toward God, the passing on of tradition, and profound Christian formation.
It is that time of year when Carol and I do something strange by most American standards: we spend one week with our children and grandchildren all crowded in our little cabin at South Union Campground, we go to four worship services each day in an open tabernacle that is over one-hundred years old in Mississippi during late July where humidity often almost mirrors triple digit temps. The songs we sing are the same as those sung by our grandparents, and the preachers challenge us with ancient Christian living themes based on unchanging Bible truths. We are so excited that it is camp meeting time at South Union United Methodist Campground near Ackerman, Mississippi.
Camp meetings are uniquely American institutions that were developed during the early years of the Second Great Awakening. At the time, they were a new method for evangelism and revival that sprang up all across America. Camp meetings often provided a place for those who lived in unsettled areas to worship and gather as a community for a short period of time - typically during the late summer. They began with very temporary arrangements such as tents, wagons, and brush arbors to worship under. Over time, these gatherings established more permanent structures and began to draw people from all over the surrounding communities.
Francis Asbury once called camp meetings “a battle ax and weapon of war” that broke down walls of wickedness throughout America. He believed they were a great means of God’s grace. And in 1811, he estimated that these spirit-filled gatherings brought together one-third of the total American population.
More than 200 years later, thousands of people continue to make the pilgrimage each summer to camp meetings that have withstood the test of time.
Why do we still need camp meeting today?
Camp Meeting provides an opportunity for true Sabbath rest.
The experience of camp meeting is difficult to describe, but Eugene Peterson’s description of Sabbath does a phenomenal job: “uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.”
The first thing most people feel when they attend a camp meeting is that the setting helps them pass from busyness to tranquility. Nestled away from billboards and rush hour traffic, part of the beauty of modern camp meetings is that most have literally been set apart from the world and inherited the simplicity of the times in which they were started. For a few days, the digital age is paused and in its place are porch swings, laughter, a leisurely walk down the hill for a refreshing drink from the ever-flowing underground spring and fellowship around a freshly cut watermelon. For the most part, others view camp meeting as a much needed break from the world’s hectic pace where no one else is worrying about being productive or efficient. The good news is that you will feel the same freedom and immediately appreciate the noticeably different quieted and slower pace.
Carol and I will be forever grateful to our late grandparents - Arnold and Jennie Lee Bruce and Casey and Grace Smith - for introducing us early in life to the life-giving spirit of South Union Camp Meeting. They told us stories of coming to South Union Camp Meeting on horseback and buggies, before electricity and indoor plumbing. Before ice was available, they would go together and kill a beef and what was left over would be salted heavily and put into a hole in the ground behind the wooden tents. They had chicken coups behind the tents and would get a couple out each morning to slaughter for cooking. They had an underground box behind the tent in which they would place a 50 pound block of ice from the ice delivery wagon from town. A one-horse drawn wagon would deliver 100 pound blocks of ice from Ackerman to South Union at 15 cents a pound. Why did they do this? They left their farms and homes for days after their crops were 'laid by' to experience spiritual renewal. Living in tents and meeting under the tabernacle, they gathered for prayers, worship, Bible study and fellowship. They spent this time apart, seeking to know God and to deepen their relationship with Him.
Camp Meeting reflects true community.
Carol and I have missed some camp meetings in our adult life, but together this summer makes well over thirty that we’ve attended through the years. We’ve shared the crying years of infancy, the awkward years of middle school, the growing years of being a young adult and now the twilight years with an inter-generational community that hasn’t gone anywhere. Each year in this community babies are celebrated, deaths are mourned, people with cancer are cared for, and wayward children who once attended are lifted up in prayer.
Our cabin at camp meeting holds three generations of our family but generations of others have helped raise us and shape who we are. And they’re not all from the same church. As in the beginning, camp meeting at South Union continues to be a place where Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Church of God and others truly come together for the Gospel.
Camp Meeting is a foundation that helps with re-calibration.
Questions like “Who am I?,” “Where am I headed?,” and “What’s the purpose of all of this?” aren’t anything new. Yet in a society that for the greater part has forgotten God, these questions are more challenging than ever and it’s easy to lose one’s bearings. The camp meeting experience at South Union is the antithesis of our godless age and the only antidote toward salvation and wholeness. Although South Union Camp Meeting is 143 years old, the tradition still exudes steadiness, embodies life-shaping rituals, and offers simplicity.
The altar calls, Sabbath time, and community that surround camp meetings provide just the kinds of opportunities through which one can easily explore the deep questions of life and experience the Holy Spirit move in a powerful way. Camp meeting at South Union also comes with the advantage that you can count on it every year.
J. Ellsworth Kalas once preached, “As marvelous as grace is when it invades our life, grace needs many continuing opportunities to invade our lives if we are to go on marching.” South Union Camp Meeting provides the time and place for this abundant grace to invade.
My (Buddy’s) late grandfather, Casey T. Smith (Paw Paw to me), was saved at South Union when he was 9 years old. The year was 1905. When Paw Paw was in his nineties, he told me he was so excited about his newfound life in Christ afterwards that he couldn't eat for a day and half. His mother was troubled that he wasn’t eating but he couldn't explain to her why he wasn’t hungry. Paw Paw said, "It troubled momma (the fact that he wouldn't eat anything) to the point that she threatened to whoop me." It was apparent by my Paw Paw’s heart-felt testimony that his decision to trust Jesus was life altering for him.
Camp Meeting serves as a reminder that we don’t have to make faith up as we go.
As Christians we’ve been called “to contend for the faith that was once and for all entrusted to the saints.” Yet as contemporary Americans, we often act as if we can make Christianity up as we go along.
Sitting under a one hundred year old tabernacle constructed in part by our family members, walking with friends where others have walked for many years, sleeping on grounds that have been with families for generations, singing old Gospel hymns, and listening to someone preach with the fervor of a second great awakening preacher each serve as a reminder that we’re part of something that started well before us. And the fact that South Union Camp Meeting continues in our world today also serves as a testimony to the unstoppable nature of the Gospel. Countless institutions have closed down since the turn of the 20th century, but for some reason God has preserved this sacred place.
Carol and I were powerfully influenced by our beloved high school principal and patron saint of South Union, Miss Erin Moss, who made the following observations in a Memorial Day address at South Union in 2001:
“ …Now we can't talk about everything that happened in the past, but let us look back to the time when South Union first became a place of worship. None of us, of course, knew personally our founding fathers, but in that group was my great-grandfather, the Reverend Archie Moss, a circuit rider, who with another circuit rider, the Reverend Humphrey Buck, and a layman, Carl Pollard, met, had prayer, and started South Union Camp Meeting, the first of which was held in 1872. Before that time there was a South Union Methodist Church. The three men that I just mentioned and their wives were members of that first church, a log church built about 1840. Now, of course all in that first generation have passed on but they left to those coming after them South Union, a place of worship. The second and third generations added their touch to South Union history. They added their touch for the lives that followed them. And in this second and third generation, all those people kept and used South Union as a place of worship and now they have passed it on to us who are following them. My generation, the fourth, is the oldest generation now living. We have moved to the front line and are fast crossing over to the other side. But we have with us about three generations of people who are younger than we are who also love South Union and we are looking to them to keep coming here after we are gone and to keep this a place of worship, never turning it into anything else.”
By God’s grace, Carol and I accepted Miss Moss’s charge and will do our part to see that South Union doesn’t end anytime soon.
Camp Meeting forms Christians in a deep way.
So, why do we still need South Union Camp Meeting today? Now, as then, camp meeting is uniquely designed to move us out of our schedule and distractions to experience time in a spiritual environment apart from the world. The experience of South Union Camp Meeting has been a unique gift first offered to us by our grandparents that we are extending to our children and grandchildren. It's still a rare opportunity to reflect, refresh and rebuild our personal relationship with God.
At South Union Camp Meeting, you can experience powerful worship services based on unchanging Biblical truths from faithful preachers of righteousness. Your children and grandchildren can experience the best of ministry opportunities that will introduce them to Christ and help prepare them for a lifetime of godly living.
You can experience personal growth in your relationship with God and participate in leisure activities with your family and friends. For almost a century and a half, South Union’s ministries and programs have been relevant to all aspects of contemporary spiritual life. We hope you and your family will experience camp meeting at South Union this year! Visit us on Facebook at South Union Campmeeting and on the web at SouthUnionCampmeeting.org.
**************************Buddy and Carol Smith grew up in Ackerman. Buddy is a retired United Methodist minister and serves as Senior Vice President of American Family Association. They live in the Plantersville (MS) area and have two grown children and four grandchildren.