Salem Camp Ground in Covington, site of one of the country’s oldest Christian revivals, started out as a brush arbor—a few poles draped with tree branches to give worshipers shade from the summer sun. That was in 1835. The Civil War was still a generation away. Covington was a new town with a fledgling square a few miles down the road from Salem. There was no railroad. Atlanta was a full day’s ride by horse. Worshipers would sleep under the wagons they rode there or use the wagon sheets as tents, their horses tethered nearby.
Times have changed. On a steamy Sunday morning in July, it took me just 35 minutes to get there from Atlanta. The campground sits a stone’s throw from Salem Road, which isn’t as quaint as its name suggests; this stretch of highway, with its O’Reilly Auto Parts and its QuikTrip and its Kroger and its Family Dollar, is indistinguishable from any other suburban highway in the South. So indistinguishable, in fact, that I missed the entrance to the campground and had to turn around.
Salem means “peace” (think shalom in Hebrew, or salaam in Arabic), and the campground, despite its proximity to the soulless highway beyond the tree line, is nothing if not peaceful. “We live in a world that is so busy. Salem operates at a completely different pace,” says Tom Elliott, a Methodist minister who teaches at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He has been coming to Salem his whole life.
The campground spans some 60 acres, half of it old-growth hardwood forest. On the other half is a horseshoe of 28 buildings, including a 32-room hotel with a wraparound porch built 76 years ago to house preachers and other dignitaries during campmeeting, as it’s called. The other structures are rustic cabins constructed many decades ago, some many, many decades ago, by the forefathers of the families currently occupying them. Elliott’s late grandfather built a prefab two-story cabin in his backyard in neighboring Conyers, then assembled it at Salem.
A series of sidewalks, mercifully shaded by giant oak trees, intersects at the campground’s focal point—the open-air tabernacle. Built 162 years ago, the structure is constructed of hand-hewn timbers and has a gable roof and an earthen floor covered in sawdust that shows up in shoes and pants cuffs long after the revival ends. The clang of the big brass bell by the tabernacle signals that it’s time to gather for the 11 a.m. service.
Salem campmeeting runs one week every summer. “Big Sunday,” as it’s known here, is the only day people dress up. Men in collared shirts, women in sundresses, and kids in freshly combed hair and scrubbed faces emerge from the family cabins—the rights to which are handed down from generation to generation—and make their way into the wooden pews as overhead fans spin tirelessly. Some of the cabin dwellers come from as far as Brooklyn and Dallas and San Francisco, others as close as a mile down the road. They come because their families have always come. Because they mark the year not by the traditional calendar but by Salem campmeeting. The week here each year, says Elliott, is “time apart.”
In a pew near me is Eleanor McArthur Hamlett, who’s been a regular here for 70 years. Her ancestors were among the first families to establish Salem. She and the other families still refer to themselves as “tenters” and to their cabins as tents. There are a few newcomers, like the Rogers family, who have been attending campmeeting only since the 1960s. The Rogers have contributed two generations of Methodist ministers who have preached here. They’ve also produced a doctor who grew up here and now stitches foreheads and treats scrapes when things get a little too rambunctious at the daily softball game or down by Salem’s natural spring.
I have settled in beside the Elliotts, who have invited me to a family lunch (for 40) following the service. The family introduced the hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” to the musical repertoire here, and it’s become Salem’s theme song of sorts. It is played at every service, and if you don’t know the hymn, you will by the time you leave Salem:
Sweet Holy Spirit,
sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us, filling
us with your love.
And for these blessings, we lift our hearts in praise;
without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
when we shall leave this place.
I confess, it had been a long time since any spirit had moved me. I grew up in a religious family—we were, I mean are, Catholic—but I think I was always a bit of a doubting Thomas. As a second grader at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke, Virginia, I’d sit in my plaid parochial school uniform in the back of the church and stare at the statues on the altar, waiting for some sign that God was really and truly real.
As a grownup, I buy the idea of a higher power, given the blessings of my own life, not the least of which are my beautiful, surly teenagers. But the overarching message of Christianity—that God and his goodness are everywhere—is a little tougher for me to square with all of the crazy sadness that tests everyone eventually, so much of it done in the name of the Lord.
Here beneath Salem’s tabernacle, I see in others the faith that eludes me, and I’m envious. There at the pulpit, greeting everyone, is Sam Ramsey, the stately, white-haired owner of the local furniture store, former Covington mayor, and chairman of the nonprofit board that runs Salem. This is Ramsey’s 78th campmeeting; he’s actually only 77 but, like so many folks here, counts the year he came in utero.
Ramsey can tell you about the starry night in the 1950s when the Soviet satellite Sputnik flew over or the morning in the 1970s when a governor named Jimmy asked for prayers because he was thinking of running for president. Ramsey can recall the sermons of more than a hundred Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers who showed off their preaching chops here. He can show you the spot where he first laid eyes on his wife, Becky, who for 45 years has played one piano at every service during campmeeting while her identical twin, Alice, plays another.
The reason some families remain so faithful to Salem is simple, Ramsey says. It is all about God. He counts at least 17 people who grew up at Salem and are now in full-time ministry. One is Alice Rogers, senior minister at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church and an elder in the faith’s North Georgia Conference. And now her nephew, 29-year-old Jonathan Andersen, is an associate pastor of a Methodist church in Dacula and a youth minister at Salem. “The central part of Salem campmeeting is the worship,” Ramsey tells me.
Salem offers three services a day, plus Bible classes. If you attend all of them during campmeeting for three consecutive years, you get a Bible. Some worshipers here have earned so many that they donate them to prisons and nursing homes.
Sure, you can find a few 20-somethings during the week lounging in hammocks staring at their phones, checking Instagram, or texting friends. (A few years ago, the campground installed Wi-Fi so people who have to be plugged into work can still make campmeeting.) But the restive souls are also clear that they’ll be bringing their children to Salem once they have them.
Andersen, in addition to being youth minister, is a Salem trustee, an appointment made with a clear nod to the future. I catch up with him by the spring, where he has just helped baptize the infant son of a friend he’s been coming to campmeeting with since they were babies. In a blue button-down shirt, khaki shorts, and bare feet, Andersen calls Salem an incubator of faith—certainly the incubator of his. He first heard a call to ministry in the seventh grade, and Salem seemed a safer place to share that information than middle school. “I gave my first sermon here,” he says. “Most of my mentors in the ministry are here.”
I ask him if Salem still has a place in the modern world. “With all the cool, fun stuff going on out there, this place makes zero sense,” he says. “Why would someone take their vacation and come here to spend a week in the scorching heat?” God is a big part of that answer, he says. But there’s also something else at play at Salem. “This is home for a lot of people. This is the constant in an ever-changing and fragmented world.”
There was a time when places like Salem were everywhere in the South, the result of a Protestant revivalist movement called the Second Great Awakening. These religious gatherings helped ground early American settlers, says Claudia Head Brathe, a historic preservationist who has studied Georgia’s campmeeting movement. She grew up going to Mossy Creek Campmeeting in Cleveland, Georgia, which she still attends.
About 3,000 worshipers attended Georgia’s first recorded campmeeting in 1803 on Shoulderbone Creek, about 100 miles east of Atlanta. The campmeeting period fostered the development of three major Christian denominations—the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches—resulting in the Bible Belt.
At first, campmeetings traveled from place to place before settling into permanent digs. The campgrounds, characteristically in wooded settings by a water source (for physical sustenance as well as for baptisms), were established all across the state, with some counties accommodating as many as four. Eventually the urbanization of religion caused the campmeeting movement to wane. Still, a few survive. In Georgia, some 30 of the historic campgrounds are still active.
Salem Camp Ground is fairly typical of those that have endured. Started by Methodists, it expanded in 1939 to include other denominations. The nonprofit owns all of the property, while the cabins are held in trust by individual families, who maintain the dwellings and pass them down. The only way to get your hands on one is to marry into it, or for a family to vacate one for three years running, or for a family to die off. “You might be waiting a long time,” says Ramsey with a laugh. His extended family has four tents, including the green one that his great-great-grandfather built in 1840.
Salem is home for Lucy Elliott Roberts. The doctoral student in psychology hasn’t missed campmeeting once during her 27 years. Growing up, her father, Tom Elliott, was a pastor, and her family moved from church to church. “Salem is the foundational part of my life,” says Roberts, who was baptized here, proposed to here, and married here in May. Every year at the close of campmeeting, Roberts and her dad kneel at the tabernacle’s altar rail and pray for God’s blessing. “That is the start of our year,” she says.
Sitting with her and her husband during Big Sunday service, surrounded by her grandmother and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, I can’t help but think of my own family. My mom was one of 10 children who had five kids of her own. Growing up, it seemed like half of the congregation at the yellow-brick Catholic church in my Southern hometown was related to me. After Mass we’d all converge at my grandmother’s for ice cream. We’d play tag and catch fireflies and just hang out. Now my family, like so many families, is scattered all over the country. I don’t see my siblings often. I rarely lay eyes on my cousins, and I don’t even know their kids.
At Salem, you can’t help but be connected. Following Big Sunday service, I head over to the Elliott tent for lunch. We gather around tables and feast on ham and creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, green beans, potato salad, watermelon, banana pudding, sweet tea. And fried chicken, the staple of Salem. (At another service, we’ll pray for all of the fowl that lost life and wing during campmeeting.) These family meals take place all week long in cabins where lines on the walls record kids’ heights from year to year and old photographs are ubiquitous reminders of all the kin who are no longer here.
Since about half of the cabins aren’t air-conditioned, the throngs head to their covered front porches to catch up for hours over the squeak of rocking chairs and swings. At night, when things cool off, the Salemites cram back into those frame structures, where mattresses are smushed together or bunked in bedrooms with flimsy curtains for doors. Last year one cottage, nicknamed “the orphanage,” boasted “19 under 19”—19 children under the age of 19.
In keeping with tradition, a handful of cottages have sawdust floors, which is a plus if you spill something. Just scoop up the shavings and toss them outside.
It all makes me nostalgic. But for what? I share those feelings with Bradd Shore, chairman of Emory’s anthropology department. He learned about Salem more than a decade ago. At the time, he was overseeing the MARIAL Center, short for Myth and Ritual in American Life, exploring how families form their identities through their traditions and culture and celebrations.
Shore was so moved by what he experienced there that he ended up making a documentary, which can be found on Salem’s website. “I was struck by the kind of power that this place seemed to have over the people who were there,” he says. “It seemed to have a dual purpose. One was obviously the spiritual renewal. The other purpose has been a family renewal at a time when American families are scattered. It was designed brilliantly so people understood themselves and their families not only at any one time but throughout their lifetimes.”
Shore, who is Jewish but not religious, admits that Salem left him feeling nostalgic, too. “There are two different types of nostalgia,” he says. “Most typically, there’s the sense of wanting to go back to something that you’ve experienced but is no more. The other kind is the desire for something you never really had, the absence of something. Certainly I have had small moments at family gatherings, but never with the intensity of this place.”
It’s Friday evening and time for the final service under the tabernacle with a roof and no floor. The Rogers family is here, as are the Hamletts and the Elliotts and, of course, Sam Ramsey, his wife, Becky, seated at one piano, her sister, Alice, at another. The preacher is talking about how we need to be all in for Jesus. Right now, if Jesus had a Facebook page, he says, we’d “like” it, but that’s not nearly good enough. We need to wear our religion on our sleeves and be vigilant about opportunities to bring people into the fold. He then invites everyone to the front for the closing prayer. Tom Elliott motions for me to come closer. Gathered at the altar, Salem families sing the hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” I don’t know the words, but I start to tear up anyway. What is that about? Maybe it’s the absence of something. Or is it the presence? Who knows? I do know that I’m not all in. But I guess I’m not all out, either.