Camp Meetings: A Continued Tradition
After our recent trip through Virginia and the Carolinas, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience. We visited historic homes, mills, museums and private collections, seeking to learn more about the American South and its layered histories. I was both nervous and excited to explore this particular region. My family traces its origins back to the Gulf States, an area that includes Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Texas. Given my experience of living in and navigating this region, our field study expanded my understanding of the South, southern experience, and identity: pieces of knowledge that I was eager to share with my family.
View from outside Dorothy Shuler’s “tent”, Shady Grove Methodist Campground.
One destination that my family and I spoke about was a visit to Shady Grove Methodist Campground in St. George, South Carolina. Organized in 1870 by former slaves after the Civil War, Shady Grove is one of the few remaining camp meetings in Dorchester County, SC. The campground is associated with Shady Grove United Methodist Church, the congregation that uses the site annually. The grounds are for camp meetings, religious services held outdoors, or in a tent or central building, typically lasting several days. The camp meetings’ origins date to the Second Great Awakening, a nineteenth-century religious revival of Protestantism. Camp meetings provided a sense of community to local and traveling worshipers, expressed through the design of each campground.
The wooden, concrete, and brick cabins (by tradition these are all referred to as “tents” regardless of building material or permanence) at Shady Grove are arranged in a square plan, built close together to maximize space. A wooden tabernacle sits in the center of the square. The tabernacle’s sand-covered floor, wooden pews, and wooden pulpit create a permanent religious space for an annual event. The tents housed families attending the annual camp meeting and are still used for cooking and fellowship. Dorothy Shuler, a member of Shady Grove United Methodist Church and longtime camp meeting attendee, mentioned that most families constructed their tents/cabins, which were passed down generationally. The families are responsible for maintaining their personal property and renovating them in time for annual camp meetings. Since the congregation and campground are local, the camp meetings function as a family and community reunion that gives out-of-towners a chance to reconnect with their family regularly.
Speaking with my family, I was surprised to learn of their memories of camp meetings. They did not visit similarly-constructed sites like Shady Grove, but the concept of visiting tents and tabernacles for days-long worship services was not new to them. In fact, the camp meeting tradition continues today. Just recently the Dominion Camp Meeting was held in Columbus, Ohio. Instead of staying in family-constructed buildings, people rented out hotel rooms to visit the local host church. The central wooden tabernacle or tent is replaced with a modern church filled with a diverse group of worshipers from across the nation. Few of the old-style camp meetings remain in full use in America. However, the camp meeting’s sense of community and primary purpose survives through this event. Participants attend several worship services, fellowship with others, and listen to praise music during the weekend.
Visiting the Shady Grove Campground site allowed me to explore the black American experience and southern culture through the lens of religious practice. I truly appreciated hearing Dorothy Shuler describe her long history of attending camp meetings, touring inside her family’s tent, and learning about the welcoming spirit felt at the annual events. Hearing about my family’s own experiences helped bring our visit to Shady Grove full circle. Today’s campgrounds, conferences, and church conventions work to sustain the tradition of camp meetings in a variety of ways, practices, and environments. However, all the religious services work to uphold the longstanding legacy of community fostered through religion, leaving many of its participants with memories they continue to cherish.
By Elizabeth Humphrey, WPAMC Class of 2019