The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Old Time Camp Meetings

By J. Carlton Smith © 1991

Issue: August, 1991

"Long ago when but a boy in old camp meeting time, how my heart would thrill with joy to hear the old bell chime."

In early times there were few churches in rural areas. To remedy this situation, brush arbors were built at a good location. This would be near a good source of water with room for camping. People who wanted to hear the gospel would gather there. They would come on the wagons prepared to stay several days. If they came from a distance, it would be too far to come and go home each day. They would bring their food and utensils to cook the food. At night they would sleep in the wagons or on the ground. The place was called a campground and the meeting was a camp meeting.

A lot of denominations held these meetings but the early Methodist Church seemed to be the leader in camp meetings. The purpose of the camp meeting was to bring the gospel to areas where there were no churches to provide this service. It was the hope of each camp meeting minister to win enough converts to establish a church. This often happened and a church would be built at the brush arbor or campground.

A Baptist minister who helped to organize several Baptist churches in our area said he was converted at Walnut Puncheon Camp in Tennessee. These camp meetings were part of Southern church history.

The camp meeting that I have such fond memories of is the Christian View Camp Meeting near Price, North Carolina and Horsepasture, Virginia. When it was decided to build a camp meeting shed or tabernacle, two men, W.W. Clifton and George Grogan, walked seventy miles to Dry Fork, Virginia to study the design of the one there and to bring back a plan to build by. When this was finished they built a kitchen and dining area and a bunk house for the men to sleep in. The women slept in the Christian View Church.

They dug a well and installed a pitcher pump in it for a water supply. It seemed that the pump was always loosing its prime and it was hard work to pump up some water. They built "his" and "her" outdoor comfort stations. As there was no electricity in the country at this time, they bought a Delco generator to generate electricity for lights. If the motor stopped, the lights went out. This was such a common occurrence that several men carried flashlights and when the motor stopped they were ready to run and get it started again.

Some of my earliest memories are sitting between my mother and grandmother in this wonderful and awesome place. The floor of the building was dirt covered by about three inches of curly wood shavings. I never saw a child that did not like to play in the shavings. I was no exception. I liked to run my feet through them to feel the shavings between my toes. I was barefoot as was most of the children.

These were the first electric lights I ever saw. They were so bright they hurt my eyes. It was interesting to watch the swarms of bugs and candleflies flying around them. It was fun to see some of the people who sat beneath the lights jump and knock them off when they fell down on them.

Christmas was the highlight of our winter. We looked forward to the camp meeting as much as we looked forward to Christmas. Not only was it a spiritual event, it was a social one. Many of the people for miles around would gather here to visit and to listen to the excellent preaching and singing. We were always delighted to see someone moved by the Spirit and rejoice in the Lord. How wonderful it would be for people to have the faith these people had and be moved by the Spirit to rejoice.

The camp meeting was held in the middle of the summer. It was planned this way because most of the community were farmers. This way it came between lay-by (when there was some spare time) and harvest (when everyone had to work long hours in harvesting crops).

There were not many places for young folks to gather that parents approved. Church was one of them. The camp meeting brought the young and old from many different communities. This was very exciting and probably most of the young people had a camp meeting romance. These were fun while they lasted but usually had faded before the next camp meeting.

One camp meeting I especially remember was when Reverend J.W. Nash from Georgia was the invited speaker. He brought his wife and three sons with him, the youngest named Marshall, called Punkin, who we thought was a spoiled brat. Years later he married Oral Roberts daughter. They were killed in an airplane crash leaving some small children.

The oldest son, named James was my friend. He especially liked my sister who had long blond hair. It was so funny. Each night he would try to sit with us. Each night his mother would come back and get him and make him sit with her on the front. He never gave up, but neither did she. He had to sit with his mother every night of the meeting.

Many years later at an Oral Robert's meeting in Greensboro, I saw James Nash and recognized him instantly. He looked like his father had years ago. He was in charge of photography. I went up and spoke to him, never dreaming that someone who had traveled all over the world and been in contact with untold thousands would remember the country boy of many years ago. Not only did he remember but knew where I lived and remembered coming to my house to go swimming in the Mayo River. A few years later I learned that James Nash had died with a heart attack. I was saddened but was glad that I saw him again and what a fine man he became.

Another camp meeting I remember was one when storms seemed to come each night during service. We had to crowd in the center to keep from getting wet. Sometimes the lights would go out. It was fun sitting in the dark with a camp meeting romance. At another camp meeting, about service time, a very dark storm was in the Southeast. The invited speaker asked the resident minister if he thought it was going to rain. "No," said the resident minister, "We never get our rain from that direction." A few minutes later we had what old timers call a "gully washer." When things had calmed down, the visiting minister said he was glad we did not get rain from the right direction for we might need a boat.

This outdoor camp meeting was the only religious meeting a lot of people would attend. They felt comfortable in its informal surroundings. It has been a great influence for good in our community. Today folk will come back for services because of fond memories and because it is part of their heritage. It is the only such facility in Rockingham County [North Carolina], and is of historical interest. We feel fortunate to have had this institution for good in our community. Ministers, missionaries, teachers have gone from here to keep the command, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature."

I wish everyone could have grown up attending camp meeting. I try to attend some services each year. Often I think of the many wonderful people I have met and known because of the camp meeting. They have enriched my life. I would like to have an ice cream cone that tasted as good as those I bought with pennies saved for this purpose at the camp meeting when I was a child.

One thing is the same - never have I heard such a chorus of katydids. They seem to be having a camp meeting of their own and it will last until a killing frost.