Hundreds of adults and children gather in Gillsville each year for the annual Lebanon United Methodist Church camp meetings, not just to experience spiritual revival, but to reunite with family.
This week, the tradition turned 175 years old.
“It’s just a wonderful thing,” 94-year-old Carolyn B. Griffin said while looking at her great-grandchildren. “I love all the friends and relatives, the activities and the worship part of going to the arbor.”
Virginia Watson, who turns 84 in August, said she can’t remember a time without “camp meetings.” She grew up attending the week-long revival, and today meets with four generations of her family inside their cabin, which they call a “tent.”
Watson said she is a descendant of Ezekiel Buffington, who gave the land to establish the campground in 1846.
Watson said she can recall many memories from her childhood of participating in camp meetings.
“Our tent had two bedrooms, and there were six of us children,” she said. “One bedroom had Mom and all the girls, which was five of us. We had hay on the bed with quilts over it.”
Watson said most families who attend the meetings have their own cabins, which they are free to modify. Her “tent” now has a second story to accommodate her growing family.
Back in its early days, Watson said the arbor, where services are held, didn’t have electricity, nor did the cabins.
According to the campground’s 175th anniversary cookbook, the arbor was illuminated at night by “pine knot fires” burning on either side of it. In order to read scripture, the pastors who delivered the 8 p.m. sermons read their Bibles by candlelight.
Many of the cabins that surround the arbor have been standing for over 70 years, including Griffin’s building, which her husband built in 1946.
Griffin said she’s seen a lot of change over the decades, including the comfortability of the facilities. Today, there are ceiling fans on the arbor, lights and some of the cabins have air conditioning.
The floor of Griffin’s place is covered with hay, but the kitchen is equipped to serve dozens of people.
“At one time, we didn’t have electricity or water,” she said. “We got water from the spring. You had to go at least three times a day because the pail you brought it in didn’t carry that much water.”
Although the camp meetings started in the 1800s with mostly Methodist attendees throughout Hall, Watson said the revival today also draws in local Baptist church members.
The week-long camp involves two sermons a day, from different pastors, and a time for fellowship, worship and youth services.
“And, we have really good food the whole week,” Griffin said, commenting on her famous brownies.
To kick off the camp meeting Sunday, July 18, Tara Vandiver, Watson’s niece, said around 350 people gathered for a large dinner. Vandiver said each year she looks forward to breaking bread and growing stronger in her faith with her loved ones.
“It’s just a good time to get filled with the (Holy) Spirit,” she said. “ … It’s holy ground.”
Vandiver’s daughter, Heidi, spent around a year organizing the revival, which also involved putting together a cookbook with family recipes from camp goers and a section highlighting the history of the 175-year tradition.
“I wanted it to be more than a recipe book, so people could pass it down to their families,” Heidi Vandiver said. “I just want it to be something special for people to have.”
The cookbooks can be purchased by people who don’t attend the camp meetings for $20. Those who want to buy one can contact Heidi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of the book, people can find the lyrics and notes of the song, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” Griffin said this hymn is traditionally sung on the last day of camp meetings, a time of heartfelt goodbyes.
“There’s a lot of tears shed on this song,” she said.