Celebrating 150 consecutive years!
Spiritual renewal can be found in many places, but one such place that has existed for more than 300 years is a camp meeting. Some may consider its practice archaic by today’s standards, but at Shiloh United Methodist Church, camp meeting thrives – and it endures. In 2016, Shiloh Camp Meeting celebrates its 150th consecutive year, one of the few in Georgia that can make that claim. And even in today’s busy world, more than 100 youth campers and counselors attend each year, ensuring a bright future of camp-meeting and God-loving enthusiasts for years to come.
Reconstruction following the Civil War was well under way during Shiloh’s first camp meeting in 1867. Held in a small log cabin that was used for both the church and community school, people came from miles around to hear God’s message. Organizers quickly realized its limited space would not be practical for future camp meetings, so the next year, camp meeting was held in a brush arbor east of the present site. The meetings were held in the fall and lasted about a week, with preaching four times a day in the open-air services.
Several families “tented” on the grounds, staying the whole time, bringing along their chickens, cows, dogs and mules. Sometimes the animals were so loud people could barely hear the preaching. Large square tents housed the campers. The tents were furnished with beds and stoves brought from homes in mule-drawn wagons.
Camp meetings were held in the brush arbor until 1873 when a temporary framed structure was built. Then, in 1914, the community wanted a more permanent home and built an arbor with a seating capacity of 500. The arbor first faced east and west, but later the speaker’s platform was moved so that it now faces north and south. The floor was packed earth covered with wheat or oat straw and later, wood shavings were used until a cement floor was added in the late 1940s. Church member Lynn Tarpley hauled the last shavings used on the arbor floor.
Originally, the lighting was by “spern” candles and four large kindling fires contained in rock pits placed at the corners of the grounds. During the 1920s, oil lanterns lit the arbor for night services.
Oil lanterns and fires were no longer needed once electricity came to the area in 1939.
In 1940, running water was made available in the camping quarters, and in 1941 installation of rest rooms with showers was completed behind the church. A drinking fountain also was erected in 1941 in memory of the Rev. J.J. Copelan, pastor of the Bowdon-Shiloh charge, who was killed in an automobile accident during his term. The covered fountain still exists on the east side of the church.
In 1951 a 32 x 60 foot building with a long, narrow kitchen in the back was constructed. The building provided a dining hall on the first floor and a dormitory on the second. The estimated cost was $5,000. For several years Charles and Mae Upchurch were managers of the dining hall during camp meeting and, with a little help, cooked all the meals. In the early 1980s, the dining hall was renovated and a new kitchen added and various cooks were hired to prepare the meals. Since 2002, volunteer teams of church members have been preparing the meals on a rotating basis.
Young people of all ages have been an important aspect of camp meeting whether they were courting on the way to the Spring House, romping on the grounds or participating in organized activities. In the late 1950s, a youth director for the yearly camp meeting was hired. Activities were conducted during the day, but the youth went home at night. In 1962 the tradition of staying in “tents” on the grounds at night began with the older Shiloh MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) group. They first stayed in the former Brooks tent and in old barracks-style cabins that previously served families.
In the late 1970s, an organized youth camp during camp meeting for Shiloh youth and youth of the surrounding communities began. A youth director and several counselors lead the camp, and they serve as chaperones at night. The meals are provided by the dining hall staff or volunteers. Almost every year all the beds in the girls dormitory (above the dining hall) and the boys cabin are filled to capacity. Hundreds of young people have attended the camp, and many have received salvation or made a deeper faith commitment through the youth ministry of the camp meeting.
In 2007, a new boys cabin dedicated in memory of the late Shiloh pastor Dennis Hitchman, was expanded in 2011, replacing the two old cabins that were in disrepair. The girls dormitory was renovated following a February 2008 tornado that caused extensive damage. In addition to creating nicer facilities for both boys and girls, another key amenity was added – air conditioning!
In addition to the dining hall being affected by the devastating tornado that bulldozed through the Burwell and Bowdon areas in 2008, the historic arbor also was affected. A large oak tree fell on the arbor and although the visible damage was immediately addressed, other damage that wasn’t detected at the time later was revealed in the arbor’s growing instability. In 2012 insurance officials said the arbor’s structure required its condemnation and suggested it be torn down and replaced.
The church trustees and administrative council instead decided to raise funds to secure the historic structure for generations to come. A fund-raising campaign produced the funding necessary to not only restore it, but make it stronger for the future. All was done, at great cost, without borrowing money. All in time for its centennial in 2014!
From the late 1930s to the 1960s Shiloh Camp Meeting was managed by a Camp Meeting Committee composed of representatives from Shiloh, Carrollton, Bremen, Bowdon and Tallapoosa Methodist churches. In the 1950s and 1960s the campground facilities were used by the Rome and LaGrange Districts for youth camps. On April 22, 1960, a resolution was a adopted by the Quarterly Conference of Shiloh Methodist Church to incorporate Shiloh Youth Center. It operated with a Board of Managers with representatives from both the Rome and LaGrange Districts and Shiloh Methodist Church.
Because of a lack of interest and financial support from the district level, the camp came back under the total management of the local church in the mid 1970s. Until the early 1980s, the planning of Shiloh’s camp meeting primarily became the responsibility of the church pastor and a few volunteers. Under the direction of the Rev. Paul Davis, a camp meeting committee composed of Shiloh members who had an interest in continuing the tradition was formed.
Steeped in history, but not a relic
For generations, camp meetings were usually held on the Tuesday after the first Sunday in August for a span of eight days and one night. Two or three preachers rotated to preach at the services. Because of the importance of the youth camp ministry, changes were made to reduce camp meeting from eight to six days in the late 1990s since public schools were beginning earlier in August. Again, in 2004, earlier school schedules further pressed on camp meeting. Dates were changed to begin on the Tuesday of the last full week in June and end on Sunday night. Because of the shortened sessions, only one evangelist is now used.
When Shiloh moved camp meeting from August to June, the break with tradition was acknowledged with both sadness and excitement. For more than a century, camp meeting accommodated the farmer, his family, his crops, serving as both a spiritual tonic and social interlude. Today, camp meeting still fulfills these requirements, but with a broader focus. Fewer farm full time. Other community activities compete for attention. The survival of camp meeting depends on the willingness to accept these challenges, to find new ways to merge tradition with today’s culture. Shiloh faces this feat with eagerness and enthusiasm and is humbled by the opportunity to preserve this community tradition while promoting the kingdom of God.