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Spiritual tradition: Churches turn to camp meetings to spread the word

POSTED: July 27, 2008 5:01 a.m.
/The Times

Charles Chandler, 74, and his wife, Doris, of Gainesville have participated in the Lebanon Methodist Church camp meeting for the past 56 years. Here they pose in their cabin, a humble shelter with no air conditioning and straw-lined floors.

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The tradition of camp meetings goes back to the early 1800s, when early farmers and their families would gather at a location for a time of spiritual renewal.

It occurred at lay-by, the time when crops were in the ground and fertilized and all that could be done was to wait on the harvest.

Today, the timing has more to do with when school starts.

On Tuesday, about 100 faithful gathered under the arbor at Lebanon Campground near Gillsville. With temperatures nearing 90 degrees, fans scattered among the pews were put to use.

A few modern conveniences have found their way into the camp meetings, but it hasn’t changed dramatically.

There are electric lights and, to the delight of everyone, electric ceiling fans hanging in the arbor, which seats several hundred. The preacher and singers use a modern sound system to amplify their voices.

But the living for the week-long events is spartan. The 43 families at Lebanon live mostly in "tents," actually ramshackle wooden cabins with a fresh coating of hay on the floor. A few are modernized with air conditioning, but most are the same as a half century ago.

The Rev. Marshall Dale is the host pastor at Lebanon. He has seen a few of the changes.

"There are a lot more TVs and video games," Dale said. Cell phones have also eased contact with the outside world.

Some of the campers can’t afford to take off time from work and live at the campground and attend the evening services while continuing to work at daytime jobs.

The Rev. Dr. Gerald Thurman, superintendent for the Gainesville district of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference, said the camp meeting tradition remains strong.

"It is a time of retreat and a time for family reunions," Thurman said. "The fellowship among the families that continue to gather is about as important as anything to the participants."

Thurman, who has preached at camp meetings in the past, said the task of preaching every day for a week can take its toll.

The Rev. Dr. William L. Coates Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church on Green Street, will preach next week at the Mossy Creek Campground in White County.

"Some of the most memorable preaching experiences I’ve had were at camp meetings," Coates said. "I love the atmosphere, the singing. I like the fact that people want to be there, and the food is out of this world."

While steeped heavily in Methodist tradition, many of the camp meetings in this area often feature both Methodist and Baptist speakers.

The Rev. Bill Calhoun, pastor of Gillsville Baptist Church, is sharing the preaching duties with the Rev. Elton Maddox.

Calhoun spoke Tuesday using Psalm 23 as his text, with his message being that God is always with us.

Other camp meetings in the area include Antioch, Loudsville and Lumpkin.



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