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Going Tenting an Experience

ST. GEORGE—”You have to experience it. Life at Indian Field Camp Meeting defies description,” it’s said.

That experience includes seeing friends, sitting with family enjoying gentle chatter, or gathering around the supper table; observing children tossing balls, gaggles of girls running to surround a just-arrived football player who was wooing another lass beside a tree; a place insular yet welcoming to strangers, all about traditions but with changes.

Indeed, Indian Field camp meeting is a “concoction” of things, as St. George Pastor Dennis Mardis’s wife, Treva, put it.

And not incidentally, there’s religion, although not as much as there used to be. There were services every night, with preaching this year by the Rev. George Mathison of Auburn United Methodist Church in Alabama, and morning prayers and Bible study each day.

The setting is just down the road from Indian Field United Methodist Church that plays host in many ways, including Pastor Fred Buchanan finding someone willing to invite reporters to supper. Legend says it’s where Indians camped, but no one remembers what tribe.

The buildings are the first clue that this is a different kind of place. There is a circle – in some campgrounds an octagon – of 100 “tents,” which to the newcomer look like mostly two-story huts made of pine boards, built so close to its neighbor it’s hard to get to the cars or the outhouses in the back unless you cut through someone’s “tent.” In recent years, tents are sporting two new-fangled gadgets: refrigerators and a few ceiling fans. Fresh hay is strewn on the ground inside.

Somewhat building upon Exodus and Leviticus, [insert Scripture] in camp design, many a pig and chicken has been sacrificed as a burnt offering for this biblical “Harvest Festival,” sometimes offered to the Lord and participants in the form of Pig Pudding, a mixture of things you may not want to think about.

{mosimage}A long table, covered in decorative oilcloth, welcomes as many as it can, groaning with grits, ham, fried chicken, tomatoes, hot biscuits and gravy. Such a menu was “nothing special” because it was just the first night, the hostess said. Homemade desserts, that are definitely special, follow. (See Hospitality Pie recipe!)

Campers tell about the old days when there were tall fire stands, a wooden top covered in sand to contain the fire. The fires would be built at night for warmth and light – and maybe to please parents whose children were “promenading” after the services. “Many a young person has met their future wife or husband here,” they will tell you. “We’d walk around and get us a sweetheart,” Mary Grace Peters said.

{mosimage}Pick-up line of that day: “You like chicken? Well, grab this wing,” a young man would say as he offered his elbow.

Peters daughter, Carol Wagers, remembers chickens in the back and hand-pumps for water in the front. “I loved it,” she said, noting the good food. “It was like a vacation. On Sunday afternoons, it was like a fashion parade.” Women wore their good shoes, hats and gloves as they made the social circle.

{mosimage}Indian Field is one of a half dozen or so remaining Methodist campgrounds which some say grew out of a trail of preaching stops by Bishop Francis Asbury on his way to Charleston and perhaps accompanied by the outstanding black preacher, Harry Hosier, beloved by both races.

Also active are the oldest, Cattle Creek Camp, Bowman, begun in 1786, and Cypress Camp, Ridgeville, begun in 1794, which meets three weeks after Indian Field.

Cypress is the most primitive of the camps, having no electricity, using blocks of ice in old freezers to hold the week’s supply of perishables, gas lanterns, wood cook-stoves and stoves made from metal drums for heat.

{mosimage}Shady Grove, meeting in late October, started in 1870 after freedom came to the slaves on property promised to African-Americans for helping a farmer get his cane crop in. “Old folks describe its meeting dates as ‘the week bracing the fourth Sunday’,” the Rev. John Elliott said. Shady Grove is “the grandest in the Southeast,” he said. It has maybe 20 preachers with two or three every night.

Elliott has served the Shady Grove parish for 23 years. His home church, Prospect UMC, had a camp meeting, so he grew up “tenting.” Now some churches have “basket camp meetings,” with food at the churches, he said.

With the families coming for miles around to hear the bishop or others and filling up houses and barns with growing numbers, establishing the campgrounds was a practical move as the number grew into perhaps thousands. Even so, not so many years ago, dozens might sleep in one tent.

Indian fields began in 1801, maybe with real tents and a brush arbor for a tabernacle. Tents, passed down through families, are seldom sold. When they are sold, they might go for as much as $40,000 or $50,000, someone discreetly whispered.

Each owner is assessed $100 a year to keep the camp going. The offering helps to pay for the out-of-state preachers. There are camp rules as well.

As families have expanded, sisters and brothers inheriting the same tent have had to take turns, or rent from someone who can’t come or share as best they can. Now many go home at night to get a bath, go to work in the daytime and come back the next evening. Schools used to close on Thursdays and Fridays for the event, but only private schools can do that now.
In these farm communities, camp meetings were indeed a “harvest festival,” a break from farming after the crops were harvested. “It was where the community came together,” George Carn said. Family from Charleston and elsewhere would make the trip.

Camp meeting was before the hog-killing had to be done or the cane had to be cut after the first big frost, said George Lloyd who still uses his grandfather’s big iron kettle to boil the sugar cane. “I wouldn’t take anything for it,” he said.

Carn, in his young daughter’s presence, believes the tradition of camp meeting will continue, despite today’s nuclear families living away from their extended families.
“It’s all about family, fellowship and friends,” a woman says in a video on several of the campgrounds and for sale from Joe Wamer (803-430-6917).

Tom Mizell, a retired educator, recalled, “they used to come in with mules and wagons and chickens in the coop.” His wife had to remind him what they did for ice: It was brought in on a truck and it was kept in sawdust in a tin tub. Now heavy coolers are unloaded from pick-ups and SUVs.

It used to be colder when the camp meeting was held, Mizell and several others recalled.
Banker George Knight said there used to be more services during the day and “the tabernacle was full.” Favorites through the years have included Dr. Reginald Mallett from England, and singer and music director for Billy Sunday, Herman Rodehaver, “when I was young,” Knight said.

“Confederates camped here,” Knight has been told. A run of smallpox was the reason some soldiers are buried at Indian Field in unmarked graves, he said. During the Civil war, camp participants had abbreviated services; they had to continue to have at least some services because the property would revert to the original owner’s family if use as a campground was discontinued.

In times past, “they would use a stump for a pulpit and have five or six preachers going at one time,” Knight said.

Another Knight was across the way, the Rev. Dickie
Knight, pastor of Lexington United Methodist Church. Knight said he grew up here in his family’s tent.

On the opening night, a long horn summoned close to 500 worshippers about dark. Parents and grandparents, children and youth showed up, but hundreds were still sitting in front of their tents talking or wandering behind the tents.

“Power in the Blood,” “Do Lord” and other favorites rang out and song-leader David Driggers reminded people, “You are allowed to say ‘Amen’ here!”

Dr. George Mathison, the year’s preacher, began his series on “Keys to Victorious Living,” which, he said, includes contagious enthusiasm, genuine compassion and real faith.
By Sunday, the worshippers had grown several hundred larger.

The Rev. Dickie Knight said, people used to wear their Sunday best, but not so much any more. Too, the crowds aren’t as big as they used to be. And although the closing service is Monday morning, by 3 or 4 p.m. Sunday, the tenters are moving out. People have to go back to work, he said.

Will it last? “I have no idea that it will ever end,” Knight said. With the children and grandchildren loving it, he believes they will come back after they’re grown.
Knight said he loves the tradition and the fellowship. “I enjoy the time with my family, the time to get reacquainted with people I haven’t seen in a while. It’s a weeklong family reunion. I love the spiritual refreshment.

Methodists ‘domesticated’ camp meetings
‘The religious revivals that swept the Kentucky camp meetings were so intense and created such gusts of emotion that their original sponsors, the Presbyterians, as well the Baptists, soon repudiated them. The Methodists, however, adopted and eventually domesticated camp meetings and introduced them into the eastern United States, where for decades they were one of the evangelical signatures of the denomination.’
– From the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Leviticus 23: 16-18 – On the fiftieth day, the day after the seventh Sabbath, present to the Lord another new offering of grain. Each family is to bring two loaves of bread and present them to the Lord as a special gift. Each loaf shall be made of four pounds of flour baked with yeast and shall be presented to the Lord as an offering of the first grain to be harvested. And with the bread the community is to present seven one-year-old lambs, one bull, and two rams, none of which may have any defects. They shall be offered as a burnt offering to the Lord, along with a grain offering and a wine offering. The odor of this offering is pleasing to the Lord.

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