Camp meetings maintain traditions

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

I've been preaching at Tattnall County Camp Meeting this week, just down the road from Manassas, Ga., a wooden tabernacle in the middle of the pine trees and onion fields of Tattnall County. If you've never been to Manassas, it's right down the way from Daisy and Hagan and just a few miles from Collins and Bellville. If you're still mystified, this rough hewn place of worship is about eight miles outside of Claxton.

Methodists have worshiped there every summer since 1867. The camp ground is surrounded by "tents," but what once were real tents are now humble cinderblock or wooden cabins with room air conditioners, kitchens and screened porches with rocking chairs. Families own the same tents for decades, passing them on to the next generation or (rarely) selling them to another family on the waiting list.

When you come to camp meeting, you renew friendships with other tent holders, slow down from life's harried routine, and sing, pray and worship. And, oh, yes; you eat well. At least they feed the preacher well. I've been to a different tent every evening, sitting down to a spread that is making me a more substantial person.

Two pianists who play together at each service are the best part of worship. One of the musicians plays with no sheet music; she must know every gospel or church song ever written. The two of them have over 70 years of experience in congregational worship. I could listen to them for hours.

They hold a morning service at 11 a.m. daily, led this year by a fine Methodist layman named Tab Smith. Evening worship begins with a song service at 7:30 p.m. followed by an 8 p.m. worship service. That's the service I am preaching.

The camp meeting is primarily a Methodist innovation dating to the early 1800s. In a largely rural nation, people gathered from miles around to worship and fellowship, to be introduced to and pointed towards eternity and the Kingdom of God through the saving power of Jesus Christ.

The camp meeting tradition survives in Georgia, where these wooden tabernacles are scattered across our state; they are holy ground where sacred memories are as real as the rough hewn tabernacle timbers.

Will camp meetings survive the 21st century? I doubt they'll ever see video screens or video preaching. Air conditioning the tabernacle would be heresy. Though people complain about the gnats, one suspects they are actually part of the ambiance.

But the tradition does have some permeability. I saw energy-saving light bulbs in the tabernacle; ceiling fans (and funeral home fans) ward off all but the most tenacious gnats. Though most do not want to worship in such conditions on a weekly basis, especially in blazing July, there is something appealing about drawing apart and eschewing a few modern conveniences to reclaim, remember and reconnect with God. If my experience in Tattnall County is typical, I predict the camp meeting will have meaning for years to come.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.