Friday, July 17, 2009

A Truly Inspiring Tradition

When we moved here (19 years ago), we were vaguely aware of a place about 2 miles down the road from us called "The Salem Campground". It was a landmark of sorts, but we didn't know much about it. There are little shack-type houses that line a large, central grassy area and a strange looking building in the center. The center building is a roofed pavilion with open sides. A small wooden stage sits at the front of several rows of wooden seating. But now we know what it is because there is a write-up in the paper every year about this time.

And every year I am touched again by this wonderful tradition. To give you a brief history, the "camp meeting" is a venerable tradition of Methodist and Presbyterian churches. This particular one is Methodist, but the camp meeting itself is interdenominational. It is a place of peace where worship, reunion, and spiritual renewal can be found. The earliest camp meeting recorded took place in Kentucky in 1800. The Salem Campground meeting started in 1828, and except for the period of the Civil War, has taken place every year since its inception. Salem is one of the oldest existing, thriving camp meetings in the nation.

In its early years, the camp meeting took place in the summer after the crops were "laid by". Families from several surrounding counties loaded their wagons with a week's provisions, brought along a cow for milk and headed to Salem for a week's holiday, usually their one vacation of the year. Campers in those early years generally slept in or under their wagons. Some used wagon sheets as tents, and to this day the term "tent" has been reserved at the campground for the cottages in which current campers stay. Poorer families stayed in actual tents while wealthier families began to construct crude wooden shanties with dirt floors. Though electric lights and plumbing were added in 1939, many of today's more up-to-date "tents" retain the dirt floors and are deliberately kept quite spare and reflect the style and spareness of those early years.

Camp "tents" are built by individual families on campground land and may be held by families as long as the tents are occupied each year. Each house is strongly identified with a family name, and family members gather each year from all over the country at Salem to talk, play and pray together. A single house may contain as many as 30 people or more. Prominent families are known by the number of generations they have been camping at Salem, but also by the size of the family groups they attract each year. Families tend to use camp meetings as a way to mark the passage of their lives. Camp tents sometimes display the "depth" of families in signs which name the family and the date at which the tent was first constructed. Recently one family marked the passing of one of their members who, it was said, never missed a camp meeting in the more than ninety years she lived.

One of my fondest memories from childhood is our family reunion each summer. We called it the "Family Picnic". It was my mother's side of the family. Even though most of us lived in the same town and saw each other frequently, it was something that everyone looked forward to. A whole day of playing with your cousins, eating great food, and just enjoying each other. After most of my mother's siblings got older and the families got larger and more scattered, attendance dwindled and the second- and third-cousins were practically strangers. Now there is only a rare occasion when several of these beloved people will gather as many as they can muster for a lunch or some little time together as a group. I think that is probably a natural thing.

How amazing, then, to think that the Salem Camp Meeting is still thriving! Imagine in this day and age that families are willing -- eager, even -- to put aside things like air conditioned comfort, t-ball games, busy schedules, (dare I say, "cell phones"?) etc. to spend an entire WEEK together. Sharing what I remember from my youth: playing with your cousins, eating great food, enjoying each other, AND being refreshed and renewed by worship, singing and prayer. No wonder the bond is so strong and has continued for 181 years!

What a truly awesome tradition and what a wonderful legacy to leave for families from generation to generation. I can't think of any gift or heirloom to hand down that would have more value. You can go to and read more.

1 comment:

Mellie said...

You really do need to be a writer for a living! You captured the wonderful essence of Salem campgrounds and family reunions. They are one of my favorite childhood memories too.