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Roughing it for God, camp meeting style

POSTED: July 22, 2012 12:30 a.m.

This is the season of camp meetings, a protestant religious exercise that dates back to the early 1800s when Methodists and Baptists were just beginning to set up shop here in the U.S.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about camp meeting is that it hasn’t changed much in 200 years.

A few notable changes: No one brings their cow, hogs or yard chickens to camp meeting these days. In an earlier time, the cow was brought along to provide a source of fresh milk and the chickens either provided fresh eggs for breakfast or the main course for supper.

The hogs came along because there was no one left at home to feed them. Trust me, no one would have a hog killing in the dog days of summer.

For a week or 10 days, the participants live in “tents” or ramshackle houses that lack most of the conveniences of home.

Some of the modern conveniences of camp meeting today are electricity and running water. The electricity is used to power a light fixture with a pull chain, as well as a box fan to stir the humid air.

Depending on the schedule, the worshippers gather between three and four times a day for preaching and singing under an open-air arbor that seats a few hundred folks. It is not air-conditioned and may have a few ceiling fans to stir the air.

There is usually a good supply of funeral home fans scattered on the pews. The fans consist of a piece of cardboard mountain on a giant tongue depressor stick and usually have a picture of Jesus and some children or lambs. On the back is the name address and phone number of a local undertaker.

Some politicians have also gotten into the fan game and have provided fans that either directly or indirectly suggest, “Vote for Me.”

The program usually includes the congregation singing some old gospel songs out of some well-worn songbooks. Then, a choir or an individual will sing what is often referred to as a “special,” a song they have prepared just for camp meeting.

After that, one of the preachers will come and preach a powerful sermon. Around here, they usually have two preachers, because the sheer volume of services would wear one guy out.

I have heard a lot of camp meeting preacher’s talk about the choice of going to heaven or going to hell. Hell is a concept that one can grasp more readily when you are setting outdoors in an arbor and it is 95 degrees in the shade. It is the low-hanging fruit of sermon topics.

Why would folks leave their air-conditioned homes, flat-screen TVs and other comforts to rough it for 10 days? For some, it is a tradition that their ancestors have practiced for nearly two centuries. Many of the camp meetings around here date back to 1830 and continued meeting despite the War Between the States.

Some tents have grandma’s old electric stove and stir memories of family suppers before heading out to the evening service.

It is a great tradition and the regulars welcome visitors to come an experience camp meeting for themselves.

While I didn’t grow up in the camp meeting tradition, I’ve been a regular visitor over the years and will be again this year.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.


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