Family and faith fire the spirit of camp meetings | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Family and faith fire the spirit of camp meetings

Each year at hundreds of sites across the United States, devotees flock together to share a time of singing, sermons and fun

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"Part revival, part family reunion and distinctly American," writes author Bonnie Angelo, "camp meetings were the inspiration of hardworking farmers, mostly Methodists, in the rural South and along the expanding frontier." The first meeting took place in 1786 at Cattle Creek in South Carolina's Low Country. Soon the outdoor gatherings ignited religious fervor in backwoods America. Today the tradition continues. Across the nation, tens of thousands of Americans trek to quiet woods and serene seashores each year to attend camp meetings. At the Salem Camp Ground in Newton County, Georgia, families such as the Ramseys, Vaughns, Elliotts, Hickses and Ogletrees, along with 200 or so other kinfolk and friends gather in August for the annual Salem camp meeting. The campground was founded in 1828, and its oldest cottage or "tent," as it's called dates back to 1840. Today a horseshoe of these modest dwellings rings the central tabernacle, or "arbor." Here family and friends share a time of faith, fraternity and fun a week of morning devotions, daily Bible study, sermons, singing, socializing and an "eating frenzy" of good old Southern cooking. It's also a "good place to meet a sweetheart," says 98-year-old Mary Sue Ramsey. "I met my husband here on the campground in 1917."

"Shared genes, shared history, shared values, all come together each summer at camp meeting," writes Bonnie Angelo, "bringing a sense of belonging to a family, a faith and a place in a rootless world.

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