Summer approaches, and in certain parts of Arkansas that means camp meeting time.
The camp meeting tradition in Arkansas dates back to 1821, 15 years before Arkansas became a state.
According to the Old State House’s website: “The religious camp meeting movement reached Arkansas with a big meeting at Cadron in 1821. The next year there were camp meetings at Crystal Hill and at the Ebenezer Camp Ground in Hempstead County.
“A camp meeting is a one- or two-week period of preaching, testimony, Bible study and fellowship. … The whole family comes and camps out for the entire meeting. At first a campground might have a brush arbor — a wooden framework covered with vines — and family tents. As camp meetings continued year after year at the same place, there would be a frame tabernacle and family cabins. Camp meetings also became famous for music and food — lots of food.
“The 19th century camp meeting movement began in Logan County, Ky., about 1801. A large group of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian people met near Cane Ridge for two weeks in late August. That first meeting had many of the characteristics of later meetings, including the brush arbor and the family camps.
“The idea spread rapidly, especially through rural areas and the frontier states and territories of the South and West. It was part of what people called a Great Awakening of religious and reform enthusiasm.
“Arkansas locations of camp meetings included Sardis, Warnock Springs, Magnesia Springs, Midway, Gravelly, Mt. Pleasant, Pump Springs, Bailey, Bethel, Red Colony, Keener, Lost Creek, Sulphur Springs, Falcon, Liberty, Union, Clear Lake, Thornberry, Macedonia and Greathouse Springs.
“Some camp meetings continued into later times, including those at Salem, near Benton; Davidson, near Hollywood in Clark County; Ben Few, in Dallas County; and Ebenezer, near Center Point in Hempstead County.”
The Davidson Campground in Clark County will hold its 127th annual encampment from July 22-31. This is the most famous of the camp meetings still going on in Arkansas. The campground is just off Arkansas Highway 26, about 12 miles west of Arkadelphia.
The opening prayer service will be July 21 at 8 p.m. The actual camp meeting begins the next day with daily services at 11 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. Singing groups will perform each night beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Davidson is one of the oldest continuously operated camp meetings in the country. There are almost 100 wooden cabins on the grounds, and many people spend the 10-day camp meeting in recreational vehicles. There are usually up to 600 people staying on the grounds at any time.
Those desiring more information on the Davidson encampment should contact my old friend Blake Batson of Arkadelphia at (870) 345-9711. He can answer your questions and tell you about RV space availabilities.
The campground bears the name of the site’s donor, Jerry Davidson. Services are held under a large shed that’s located in the center of the campground. The first shed was built by W.B. Pullen and his wife (the Pullen Camp, by the way, was the name of a well-known hunting camp in the area when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. Members didn’t just gather for deer season. There also was an annual squirrel season gathering).
A new shed was completed in time for the 1911 camp meeting. Lighting was provided by burning pine knots atop four-foot towers at each of the four corners. This method of lighting the shed gave way to oil lamps and then in the 1920s to generators. The campground is now served by the South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative.
The numerous springs in the area were among the initial attractions of the site.
An 1888 story in the Southern Standard at Arkadelphia (which no longer exists but gave me my first newspaper job in 1976) described it this way: “Mr. J.J. Davidson donated five acres of land to be used exclusively for a Methodist campground, and anyone has a privilege of building a tent on the ground. It was named Davidson’s Camp Ground as a compliment to the generous donor, Uncle Jerry Davidson. It is a beautiful place for a campground, situated in a lovely grove of trees and surrounded by 15 to 20 mineral springs consisting of sulfur, iron and calybeate.”
For years, campers obtained their drinking water from a spring about 50 yards from the shed. An electric pump was installed at the spring in the 1950s. In the 1960s, deep wells were dug.
The largest of the annual gatherings was believed to have been the 1925 camp meeting when almost 8,000 people showed up on a Sunday to hear W.G. Hogg from Texas preach the gospel.
The full meeting has been called off only once. In 1905, Terre Noire Creek overflowed its banks and inundated the campground.
Here’s how the Davidson Campground website (www.davidsoncampground.com) describes the annual gathering: “While children enjoy bicycle riding and water balloons to stay cool, adults relax on the front porch swings of their cabins. Youth can be found playing volleyball, pingpong and basketball throughout the day. Cool drinks and hand-dipped ice cream cones are always close by at the camp’s commissary.
“While rest and relaxation is a major activity of the camp meeting, spiritual revival is the focus of the encampment. Visitors are always welcomed and encouraged to bring their RVs. … Albeit a Methodist campground, all Christian denominations are welcomed and campers represent many faiths.”
The Ben Few Campground, meanwhile, is located two miles west of Princeton in Dallas County. The camp meeting first was organized in 1898 by Rev. Benjamin Asbury Few. This year’s camp meeting, which is sponsored by the Sparkman United Methodist Church, will be held from July 22-31.
The Salem Camp Meeting near Benton will be held June 19-26. People no longer camp out in tents or cabins at this meeting, and there are only evening services. Still, the crowds come.
The camp meeting’s website states: “We still enjoy joining together in singing traditional hymns and hearing inspiring sermons. Camp meeting is held under an open-air arbor (tabernacle). Dress can be casual. Ceiling fans circulate the air, but it still may be hot. You are welcome to bring lawn chairs and sit outside the arbor if you wish. Concrete now replaces the sawdust floor.”
The marker in front of the Salem United Methodist Church notes: “In the early days of Saline County’s history, the settlers would gather here after the crops had been laid by for rest, relaxation and to give thanks to the Lord. The early camp meetings were held under brush arbors lighted by pine knots and included daily preaching and singing services. The Salem Camp Meetings were first organized soon after 1830. Annual meetings have been held continuously on this hallowed spot since 1867. During its history, many renowned ministers of Methodism have inspired those attending with their great preaching.”
Early camp meetings in Arkansas traditionally were held in the fall after the crops had been harvested. Once public schools became widespread, the camp meetings were moved to the summer.
Shirley Gregory has researched the history of the Salem Camp Meeting.
She writes: “In 1859, Patrick Scott, along with his brother and neighbors, built a small log church for regular church services. But the fall camp meetings were probably still held outside under a brush arbor. Camp meetings were suspended during the Civil War but resumed afterward.
“The campers (tenters) held services several times a day. Since many of them lived on farms with few neighbors, camp meeting was a time to make and renew friendships. Undoubtedly many courtships began at camp meeting. The evening services were likely better attended because people who lived relatively close by in Benton would come out just for the evening service. Some people who would not go inside a church attended the camp meeting as it was free entertainment. Certainly some of those onlookers were converted to Christ.
“In the late 1800s, a tabernacle was built that was about 80 square feet and open on all sides. The first seats were split boards and puncheons laid across logs with no backs. The pulpit was at one end of the shed with a platform for singers and other preachers behind the pulpit. Since electricity was not yet available, the evening meetings were lighted in the following manner: Scaffolds about four feet high were built on the four sides of the shed at a safe distance and covered with dirt. Fires were built here with rich pine knots, which provided the light.
“At some time in the early 1900s, a generator would be set up on the campground to provide electricity for lighting the arbor. This probably continued until about 1940 — well after Little Rock and Benton residents had electricity. Rural areas such as the Salem community had been neglected by electric companies until after the government established the Rural Electrification Administration.
“In 1935, the Works Progress Administration built the star-shaped well around the spring, which is still in existence. By the 1950s, about 50 cabins had been built surrounding the campground. There were likely several different brush arbors that preceded the church building. Since the church was established at the campground, three different arbors and four different church structures have been built. The first arbor was brush, and the first permanent structure was made of logs. The second arbor was also brush, but the second church was a frame structure.
“Sometime around 1909 or 1910, a fire started in the church and soon spread to the tabernacle, which stood against the church. Both were quickly destroyed. The date of reconstruction is placed sometime between 1909 and 1919. Sometime around 1955, the tabernacle was moved from alongside the church to its present location.
“With improving roads and transportation, fewer people actually camped on the campground during camp meeting so day services ended and the camp meeting was shortened to a weeklong event. As the farm lifestyle became rare, the dates of the camp meeting were moved forward. For the past few years, camp meetings have been held in late June to avoid conflicts with school sporting events.”
It’s almost summer.
In a handful of places in Arkansas, that still means it’s almost camp meeting time.