Where Southern Tradition Thrives

Initiated in western Newton County in 1828, the Salem Camp Meeting has changed, evolved and stood the test of time as the longest continuous gathering of its kind in the country.

by Darrell Huckaby

Summertime and living used to be easy. If not easy, it was at least a lot simpler in the South. Southern summers—pre-air-conditioning—were once given to long evenings on the back porch, shelling peas or butterbeans or husking corn while watching children playing in the yard or chasing lightning bugs. Actual conversations were had without the need for television or computers or the bane of modern civilization: the iPhone.

It was a rather mundane existence, but it was a good one. 

Toward the end of the summer, usually around the first of August, there was camp meeting to look forward to, an interruption to the monotony. Folks dressed up. It was a step down from Sunday-go-to-meeting-attire, but they dressed up for a summer evening nonetheless. They gathered under an outdoor tabernacle, visited with friends, sang old-time Gospel songs and listened to good-old-fashioned “Are you washed in the blood?” preaching. There were passionate prayers and promises of salvation, answered altar calls and traditions born that have survived our ever-changing society—and air-conditioning—even into the 21st century. 

Sam Ramsey, when he was 7 in 1946
Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, New190–83
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The first camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801. It was an extraordinary revival meeting that was presided over by Protestant ministers of varying denominations—a part of the Second Great Awakening—and attended by as many as 25,000 people. Within 20 years, more than 1,000 such annual meetings had popped up across the country, mostly in the South. They were generally held during laying-by time, that period of relative light work for the agrarian community between the time the crops were high enough to thrive without plowing but not yet ready for harvest.

Folks within a community loaded their children and their chickens—they needed fresh eggs and Sunday dinner—into covered wagons, with a cow or two tied behind, and proceeded to the nearest campground, usually situated near a fresh water spring because folks needed drinking water. They pitched tents or slept in the wagons themselves. The men built a brush arbor to protect worshippers from the elements, and religious services were held several times a day, with plenty of time in between for the men to gather and swap stories and chew tobacco and for the women to visit while doing their chores and preparing the evening meals. The children had the run of the campground to play and explore. For many, it was the social high point of the year. 

“Many took the preachers’ messages to heart and walked the sawdust trail to the altar, kneeling and publicly accepting Christ for the first time. This drama played out summer after summer, all over the South.”

Darrell Huckaby

In the evening, the “tenters” were joined by folks from all over the community for the most elaborate service of the day. Many took the preachers’ messages to heart and walked the sawdust trail to the altar, kneeling and publicly accepting Christ for the first time. This drama played out summer after summer, all over the South. Usually, the various groups began to set permanent dates for their annual meetings, brush arbors were replaced by permanent outdoor tabernacles and temporary tents were replaced by more permanent rustic cottages—they were still generally called tents—that could be used from year to year.

One such gathering was initiated in western Newton County in 1828, near a fresh water spring on Salem Road. The Salem Camp Meeting has been going on every year ever since, with the exception of two years during the unpleasantness between the North and South, when war prevented the meeting from taking place. 

Salem Campmeeting, 1931 
Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, New192–83
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Salem Camp Meeting has changed, evolved and stood the test of time and is not only the longest continuous camp meeting in the country but is considered to be among the best in terms of facilities and programs. For decades, Salem began on the Friday before the second Sunday in August, but with schools starting earlier and earlier, the trustees of the camp meeting had to change with the times. The 2019 meeting will begin on Friday, July 12 and run through the following Friday, July 19. 

Sam Ramsey

It is quite a production. The Salem hotel offers breakfast, lunch and supper (with advance reservations) and is an ideal venue for church groups looking for a unique outing at an affordable price. There are three services a day: 7:30 a.m. morning watch, 11:00 a.m. worship and, as always, the evening worship service at 7:30 p.m. Beautiful Gospel music enhanced by some of the best choirs in the area sets the stage for down-to-earth preaching. There are Bible studies for all ages—from the Cradle Roll to the those ready for the final Honor Roll—at 9:30 a.m. each morning, and in the afternoons, well, there is still plenty of visiting and socializing for the adults and more planned activities for the youth and children.

The weekend is a special time. From the opening service on Friday night at 7:30 p.m., a sweet, sweet spirit permeates the campground. Saturday begins bright and early with a 5K road race that is open to all, followed by the Bobby and Karen Milton Wide World of Salem Sports for children. Following the morning worship, there is an open house so people can visit the rustic tents and see how the campers live all week, with a Gospel singing at 3 p.m. and more preaching at night. Big Sunday features worship at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and leads into a full week at Salem, just like it has for 191 years.

Y’all should come. It might change your life. It sure couldn’t do it any harm. 

Click here to read more stories by Darrell Huckaby.

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