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Today is September 27, 2020

Historic Methodist Campgrounds harvest old-time religion

By Nancy Jo Maples

Historic Methodist Campgrounds harvest old-time religion

The historic Salem Campground tabernacle sits center of 22 tents (cabins) where Christians gather each October for weeklong revivals and fellowship. Photo by Nancy Jo Maples

Give Bill and Dixie Wilkerson “some of that old-time religion.” It’s good enough for them and good enough for thousands more who relish religious revivals at Methodist camp meetings.

“Camp meeting is a time for the family to come together and devote ourselves to worship, prayer and fellowship all the while praising God and experiencing the joy of being with each other,” said Bill, former governmental affairs assistant to the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi. His wife Dixie agreed. So did their daughter Donna.

“You know that saying ‘the family who prays together stays together?’ Well, we take that to the extreme. We pray together, worship together, play together, eat together, sleep together,” Donna said. “There’s a lot of togetherness.”

A sixth-generation campground devotee, Dixie hasn’t missed one in her 82 years. Bill hasn’t missed one since they were courting 61 years ago. Their four children grew up attending the weeklong meetings each October, staying overnight even during weekdays as school buses from George and Jackson counties picked up and delivered campground kids. Today their children schedule work vacations to coincide with camp meeting, rearing the eight grandchildren with the camp meeting spirit.

Camp meetings date to the very early 1800s when Methodist evangelists, circuit-riders as they were called, traveled to sparsely populated areas to deliver religious messages. People gathered, creating encampments, for a week or partial week of preaching that took place often throughout each day. Between sermons, they mixed and mingled leading to the establishment of societies, which organized and governed the meetings.

Salem Campground lies in Jackson County near the George County line and is the oldest existing campground in the state. It began in 1826, two miles from its current location where it moved in 1842. The annual meeting has met consecutively except for 1863 and 1864 during the Civil War, 1897 during the yellow fever epidemic and 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic.

Twenty-two “tents,” as the little wooden cabins are called, dot the landscape around the storied tabernacle, the grounds’ centerpiece. Many tents trace to Salem’s founders, the Helveston, Carter, Davis, Fletcher, Goff, Ferrill, Mizell and Wells families. Tents pass through generations. For example, Eloise Adkison, a direct descendant of founder Edmond Goff, owns the campground’s oldest tent, referred to as the Edmond Goff/Robin Parker tent. “I’ve gone every year. I was born and bred in it,” Adkison said. “I’ll be 77 on October 16. I was born on Tuesday after camp meeting closed on Sunday.” Next door, descendants of late brothers, Elvis, Lum and Hillard Cumbest, still congregate in the tent built by their family in the late 1950s. Elvis’ widow, Ida Mae, who turned 99 this year, served as Salem’s primary organist 57 years.

Lively services offer powerful preaching and old-fashioned hymns like “Love Lifted Me” and “Bound for the Promised Land.” Multiple prayer and worship sessions occur daily, with the start of each signaled by the blowing of a historic conch shell.

A few miles north of Salem, in George County, is Mt. Pleasant campground, the state’s only African-American Methodist campground. In about 1858, slaves at Salem began listening to evangelists between their sermons to the whites. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly freed slaves established a campground of their own. This was probably between 1867 and 1877. Families included the Lawrences, Streets, Blackstons, Grants, Ferrills, Bilbos, Deflanders and others. Today it has about 15 tents and meets in late October. Its culminating service features a unique bread-breaking called the Love Feast.

“The breaking of that little bread is saying ‘here is a piece of my love and welcome in the name of Jesus and in love’,” Mt. Pleasant Pastor Paula Faulks said. “What I have seen at camp meeting is that all races come together in one accord to experience the love of God. People don’t focus so much on color or denominations.”

Southwest of Salem lies New Prospect campground at Vancleave, in Jackson County. New Prospect was established in 1880 with a tabernacle and five cabins, called “tents” like the older meeting grounds. Surnames of its founders are Flurry, Rouse, Dubose, Havens, Byrd, Ramsay, Lott and Devareaux. Like Salem, its tabernacle sits in the center, and its meetings are in October. Today, New Prospect has 82 tents, including a preacher’s tent housing the guest evangelists and local pastors. All three campgrounds in Jackson and George counties are powered by Singing River Electric Cooperative.

For David and Cheryl Tootle, New Prospect is hallowed ground. Their four daughters grew up attending the meetings each fall and continue to do so as adults. David’s ancestors were tenters, and he started attending camp meeting at a young age. He inherited a tent from a relative he used many years, but due to deterioration built a new one a few years ago. Tenters don’t own the property; instead, they procure the right to own a tent from an association comprised of fellow tenters.

“It’s a family gathering, and it’s all oriented about Christ. My life was changed because of camp meeting. For me it’s real holy ground,” David said.

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