I’m a Camp Meeting reenactor,  are you?




I have a college buddy, Ken O’vell who is a Civil war reenactor.  He spends summer weekends dressed up like a Union soldier and shoots his musket as he and others reenact old Civil war battles. As for me, I’m a Camp Meeting reenactor.  Most every summer since I’ve been a lad I attend camp meeting services and get to experience camp meetings pretty based on the pattern of the 1800s.  Camp Meetings are just a hair over 200 years old and their history is rich and informative.  Actually experiencing an Old Fashioned Camp Meeting tells me more about who my denomination is than reading about a 1700’s up tight Anglican cleric, John Wesley. So I like camp meeting reenactments.


But all camps don’t offer this “time travel” experience. Some sponsoring organizations have “upgraded” their facilities with modern conveniences like swimming pools, air conditioning and motel-type rooms.  These are great camp meetings (they call them “Family Camps”) to stay all week at, but I’m glad there are some real 1800’s-style camp meetings left to see too.


My own camp, in Fairmount Indiana is such a “living history.”  It is a real camp meeting grounds 1800’s-style.  Sure they’ve strung electricity to the cottages and have paved a couple of roads, but essentially you can see “camp meeting the way it was” at Fairmount.  I have a grandson, Max who is still too young to “get it” if I take him now but I plan to take him when he’s old enough.   I want to be able to show him what camp meeting was like when I was a kid, and Fairmount camp is one place I still can do it.  Here’s what I’ll show him: 

  • We’ll start by attending an evening service at camp meeting so he can get a taste of camp meeting flavor right off the bat.
  • We’ll sit on wooden benches and count the people who brought their own cushions.
  • We’ll fan ourselves in the sweaty tabernacle with those camp meeting fans sponsored by a local funeral home (they had them last night when I attended). I’ll show Max all the things you can do with those fans during a long sermon.
  • I’d prefer a sawdust or straw floor, but Fairmount camp already left that long ago, so I’ll just tell him about it. I might get some straw from a nearby field to show him how to make a “Byron Crouse straw trombone” if the service gets really lengthy.
  • I’ll explain to him that we are about to attend three services in one: the camp meeting liturgy includes: 1)the “song service” 2)the Preaching service” and finally the “altar service.” 
  • While a college group sings or a music minister leads the music I’ll tell him about the “song evangelists” of the past who toted their accordions, trombones and a huge marimba in their trailer which pulled around by a fancy Buick.  I’ll tell him how these musicians folk used to actually make a living doing this and how they often dressed snazzier than preachers. During a rousing choir presentation of the “battle Hymn of the Republic” I’ll tell Max how the song evangelists used to whip people up like shaking a Coke® until the people’s emotions exploded and some would “get blessed” and start to “run the aisles” in an expression of their emotional exuberance.  In answer to his question I’ll explain how my denomination used to be “charismatic” in a way but we have quieted down like all denominations eventually do. 
  • When the camp evangelist gets up to preach I’ll tell him how these guys used to be the big dogs of our denomination—they were like famous gunslingers who came to town and everybody  was in awe.  I’ll tell him that (before we switched to large church pastors, denominational officials and college professors) the traveling evangelist often commanding the most money and respect n the denomination.  I’ll tell him that the 40 minute sermon he just heard was about a third as long as the old camp meetings sermons. I hope there will be some “amens” during the message so I can explain that too—he already understands applause.
  • When they give the altar call I’ll describe why they did this and I hope we’ll be there on a night when “the altar is lined.”   We’ll talk about revivalism and how even Billy Graham had a radio program called “The Hour of Decision” back then.   I hope we’re fortunate enough to have some adults go to the altar too—so he doesn’t think that camp meeting altar calls were only for the teens.
  • After the evening service I’ll take him to the lunch stand (now called the “snack shop”) and we’ll get a hamburger and root beer and we’ll eat it to the background noise of laughing people and crickets.
  • After eating I’ll show him how to stick a splinter in the water fountain so that they shoot 20’ high and get all the older folk wet.
  • When it is dark I’ll show him the nearby woods where we used to kiss girls.
  • Then I’ll try to rent one of the oldest dormitory rooms to sleep in one night—a room that still has a “slop jar” in it.  We’ll stay there and be able to hear people all down the corridor through the paper-thin walls.
  • The next morning we’ll go to morning prayer meeting at 6 AM and I’ll tell him that there used to be scores of people—mostly men—who attended these.
  • After the morning service I’ll tell him how there used to be three regular services a day and they weren’t Bible studies or seminars but “preaching services” with three preachers rotating like professional pitchers who throw their best shots then are replaced by others.
  • I’ll hope they have the book store open too, not so much to show him my own books on sale as to buy him one of those finger puzzles and maybe even two magnetic Scottie dogs to play with during the services.
  • I’ll take him to see the camp bell they ring for services just like they used to before wristwatches and pocket watches—they still ring it.
  • We’ll ask someone who has an unimproved cottage to let us see inside and we’ll smell that “camp meeting musk” that comes from 50 year old mattresses.  I’ll tell him how the mattresses used to be “ticks”--cotton containers filled with straw to use only one season.
  • We’ll walk down the rows of campers all hooked up to full utilities but I’ll tell him how it used to be a row of wall tents people could rent for a dollar a week. 
  • We’ll eat in the dining hall with huge fans blowing on us as if we’re in a speedboat.  We see the cooks and food servers dripping their sweat into the food as they serve.  I’ll tell him how they never used to charge money for meals on Sunday instead suggesting a “free will offering” 9sometimes even suggesting the amount to put into the basket—and a stern woman to watch you do it out of “free will.”   I’ll give him my old meal ticket with meals punched out like a train ticket.
  • If we are there on the right day I’ll get to show him an afternoon ring meeting where a dozen people gather in a lay-led service-before-the-service out under the trees.
  • We’ll stay for the second night’s service but we won’t sit inside the tabernacle that night—we’ll get lawn chairs out of our trunk and sit with the hundreds of people of lesser commitment who sit “outside the target area” where they can watch the service from a safer distance (at least it used to be more dangerous inside the tabernacle).  I’ll tell him how some lay people used to do “personal work” during the altar calls and would wander about seeking someone “under conviction” then they’d try to persuade that person to go to the altar to pray, sometimes tugging at their arm and even several ganging up on the convicted sinner.
  • That night we won’t stay on the grounds but we’ll go home in our air conditioned car and sleep in our air conditioned home like just about all the other people who attend these reenactments do.  We’ll stay up late talking about what the camp meeting accomplished in its day and how it could accomplish more today or if it even should. I’ll start dozing off eventually and my grandson will nudge me and say, “You ought to go to bed now grand-dad, I’ve got some video games to play now anyway.”


I’m glad that Fairmount camp will still be around when Max is old enough for this trip.  It’ll be like watching the Gaither videos—only better since the Gaither’s video backdrops are always tacky (even though at least one of them was actually filmed at Fairmount). Fairmount camp is the real thing—an authentic re-creation of the 1800’s camp meeting.  It will be better than going to a Civil war reenactment by far!


Of course by calling camp meeting a “reenactment” I’m not suggesting that all the preachers and musicians and DSs are pretending and just playing a part.  I’ve been a “camp evangelist” at more than 60 camps in my lifetime so far and sometimes I used live ammunition myself.  ;-)





By Keith Drury, August 1, 2005

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