WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
In a letter to a Methodist preacher dated December 2, 1802, Asbury wrote, “I wish you would also hold camp meetings; they have never been tried without success. To collect such a number of God's people together to pray, and the ministers to preach, and the longer they stay, generally, the better.”
It is not known when or where the first camp meeting occurred because the definition of camp meetings cannot be clearly stated, but outdoor preaching has been vital to the Methodist movement since John Wesley took up George Whitfield’s advice in 1739 and preached on a hillside to 3,000 people in Bristol, England. From this time forward, John and Charles Wesley preached wherever they could, including their own father’s grave, reaching thousands of people during their ministry. Outdoor preaching became an integral part of the early Methodist movement, a period known as the First Great Awakening.
Within 50 short years, America had won the revolution and Francis Asbury became bishop of a brand-new denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, but these new Methodists stayed true to their Wesleyan roots and outdoor preaching. The South Georgia Conference was one of the earliest areas in American Methodism with its own camp meeting site. The Effingham County Campground was created in 1790 by local Methodists and is one of the oldest outdoor preaching areas in the denomination. Despite the fact that the site has changed locations due to changing times and the introduction of the railroad, camp meetings are still held annually with their strong oral tradition both in preaching and in hymn singing. The South Georgia Conference was one of many Methodist areas to create camp meeting sites in this new country, and outdoor preaching became a key component to a tremendous religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening.
Prior to the Civil War, camp meetings had fallen out of favor, but in the new, post-war South, with the difficulties of life for all, camp meetings made a strong comeback and flourished. The Dooly County Campground was created at this time, in the mid-1870s, for just these reasons. Rev. G. T. Embry, preacher for the Vienna and Dooly Mission, was traveling south when he found a piece of land that was high and dry, surrounded by trees with a nearby spring, and thought that it would make a wonderful camp site. As he traveled the circuit preaching, he shared this idea with all who would listen. This led locals to create the Dooly County Campground exactly where Rev. Embry had envisioned. The first camp meeting was held Sept. 10, 1874, and lasted four days. The second meeting occurred in August 1875 with Dr. Joseph S. Key as presiding elder and later preaching bishop. Two young ladies were converted, with one becoming a deaconess and the other becoming a missionary in the foreign field. Some historians have called this post-Civil War time period the Third Great Awakening.
I cannot imagine why, after a long, hot summer filled with online video meetings, I have wistfully thought of camp meetings. Maybe it’s the cooler temperatures and lovely breezes that have found their way to South Georgia or the thought of meeting friends and family without the added protocol of face coverings, or maybe it’s just lunchtime and the thought of a potluck dinner sounds delicious. Whatever the reason, I propose when the time comes that we can again gather within six feet, see each other’s smile, and give a hug or hearty handshake, that we meet on land that is high and dry, surrounded by trees, near a fresh spring to sing joyously and listen intently.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at email@example.com.