We welcome people of all denominations who wish to join with us to worship God as we continue our annual camp meeting tradition in Central Arkansas. The annual community-wide camp meeting is held under an open-air arbor (tabernacle) featuring old-fashioned church services for 7 nights. Each night a different group provides special music from 7 PM to 7:30 PM followed by the congregation singing old hymns and a sermon by camp meeting evangelist, Rev. Chester Jones. Wednesday night is youth night. A nursery is available for children 5 years old and younger. There will be a special program for children 7 through 12 years old, and activities for youth 12 years and older. Sunday night only, homecoming supper will be served in the fellowship hall at 6 PM.
The Salem campground is just north of Benton, Arkansas and a few miles southwest of Little Rock Arkansas. We no longer camp out for a week or two in tents or cabins, and we only have one service in the evening, but we still enjoy worshipping God and celebrating the tradition of camp meeting.
Let everyone join in singing the old hymns! At 7:30 PM the congregation sings several old familiar hymns. Some people come to the platform to form an impromptu choir.
At 8 PM hear the sermon by guest evangelist Rev. Chester Jones. On Wednesday, youth night, Rev. Greg Schick will provide the special music and sermon.
From 7 to 7:30 PM special music is provided each night by a different group representing a wide range of musical styles and different churches and denominations. Some of our favorite groups will be singing, and maybe a few new groups too.
Last year the youth enjoyed coming to the front and participating in Greg's fun and sometimes funny routines and music. This will be his third year to share his musical ministry with us. Greg is Pastor of Contemporary Service at Saint James UMC in Little Rock.
Watch this space for updates on our special music schedule.
If you have any camp meeting memories, stories, comments, or pictures; please share them with us on our Facebook page where you will find pictures from recent camp meetings and a few older ones. If you have questions that are not answered here, please call the Salem UMC at 501-316-2282.
The open arbor (tabernacle) where camp meetings are held is a tangible and functional reminder of the days when people actually camped for a couple of weeks in the fall after the crops were harvested. Although the arbor is owned by the Salem United Methodist Church, and the evangelist is a Methodist, we hope that all Christians will feel welcome to come to camp meeting and worship God as a community the way our forefathers did. We still need and desire to experience God's forgiveness and life-changing power.
Volunteers set up the piano and sound system every evening prior to the service and tear it all down afterwards -- it cannot be left under the open arbor. Special thanks to Mike Green for providing an excellent sound system for camp meeting. Most of the singing groups use Mike's system since it is more than adequate for their needs. Volunteers also work prior to camp meeting making plans and arrangements for the next upcoming meeting, fixing up the arbor, and praying for God's blessings on the camp meeting and everyone who attends.
The camp meetings are organized and run by the Salem Camp Meeting Association which meets each year on Sunday afternoon following the last service. Anyone who wishes to attend the annual meeting is considered a member. The association elects a board which meets several times a year to conduct camp meeting business. The camp meeting association pays all expenses of the camp meeting. Thanks to everyone who has contributed their talent, time, and efforts to the annual camp meetings, and a special thanks to those who have generously contributed to recent improvements such as the concrete floor, seat cushions, improved lighting, additional ceiling fans, and some nice church pews donated by the Vilonia, UMC.
"In the early days of Saline County's history the settlers would gather here after the crops had been "laid by" for rest, relaxation and to give thanks to The Lord. The early camp meetings were held under brush arbors lighted by pine knots and included daily preaching and singing services. The Salem Camp Meetings were first organized soon after 1830. Annual meetings have been held continuously on this hallowed spot since 1867. During its history many renowned ministers of Methodism have inspired those attending with their great preaching."
The 2015 camp meeting marks the 148th continuous annual camp meeting, but there are records of meetings being held as early as 1837. The annual meetings were suspended during the Civil War, but resumed in 1867. The present arbor was built in 1913. Many people who attend camp meeting remember the era of camping on the grounds. Some of the older attendees recall when people still came via horse and buggy or horse drawn wagon, and some who lived a mile or two away walked to camp meeting. They recall attendance being close to 500 in those days, and remember hearing that nearly 1,000 had attended camp meetings in the past when some area churches would cancel their services so that their members could attend camp meeting.
In the early 1800's church on the farm consisted of families reading the Bible and singing in their homes on Sundays. Sometimes circuit riding preachers would visit different homes on Sundays, and neighbors would come to hear the preacher. In 1837 these meetings were formally recognized and organized when the Methodist Church created a Benton Circuit. Meetings were held under a brush arbor at what was then known as Scott's Campground. In later years as different denominations established churches in the area, some people began attending those other churches. But those who trace their religious heritage back to the early 19th century may learn that their ancestors attended Methodist meetings simply because those were among the first organized meetings.
After the crops had been harvested in the fall, people would come to the revival from long distances and camp around the arbor. Many of them brought chickens and other animals, and would stay for 2 weeks or so. They slept in tents, in and under wagons, and eventually some built simple cabins that were called tents.
In 1855, Sue Fletcher wrote while visiting some of her husband's relatives that lived north of Benton, of a Methodist Campground with a revival in progress. She said that it was the first time she had ever heard white people get happy and shout in church. It would later be said that people a mile away could hear the noise of the loud preaching and praying at the camp meeting, and there were reports of people praying loudly long into the night.
In 1859 Patrick Scott along with his brother and neighbors built a small log church for regular church services, but the fall camp meetings were probably still held outside under a brush arbor. Camp meetings were suspended during the Civil War, but resumed afterwards.
The campers (tenters) held services several times a day. Since many of them lived on farms with few neighbors, camp meeting was a time to make and renew friendships. Undoubtedly many courtships began at camp meeting.
The evening services were likely better attended because people who lived relatively close by in Benton would come out just for the evening service. Some people who would not go inside a church attended the camp meeting as it was free entertainment. Certainly some of those onlookers were converted to Christ.
Henry Scott's recollection of the "early days":
"I have seen the time when hundreds of people came in ox wagons, horse and mule wagons, and many walked for miles to come to camp meeting. Most of the preachers came on horseback. Down near the spring we built a corral where the preachers' horses were kept. Every camper brought a load of corn and hay to feed his stock, and all of us would chip in enough to feed the preachers' horses. I have seen as many as 25 preachers' horses in that corral at one time.
In those days everyone came to worship. When the horn blew everyone left their tents and came to the shed and stayed until the service was over. The preachers preached a convicting gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have seen mourners pour into the altar in groups of 50 at a time. Old Dr. Andrew Hunter's favorite sermon was on the prodigal son. When he reached the climax and called for mourners, they filled the aisles. Grove meetings were held each evening. About sundown the men would assemble and go to the woods north of the campgrounds, and the women would go to the south woods where each group would hold prayer meetings. I have seen as many as 10 men converted kneeling at a log in one meeting. Both groups would return to the shed for preaching. Sometimes they would come in singing and shouting, and it looked like the fire of the Holy Spirit burned through the whole congregation until it would be impossible for the preacher to hear himself preach. He would just call mourners and proceed with the service as if he had already preached.
I have seen them shout until way into the night. Many times after the congregation had been dismissed and the people had gone to their tents for the night, somebody would get happy and break into a shout. Then another on the other side of the encampment would start, and soon another and another would join in until there were people singing and shouting at almost every tent until the early hours of the morning. The next morning however, everyone was up and ready for the sunrise prayer service, the 9 AM service, the 11 AM service, and on through the day.
It used to be quite a job to keep order here. Once, a quart of whiskey was found hidden under a log near the grounds. It was turned over to Dr. Hunter who held it up at the next service and told the congregation if anyone would claim it he could have it. A big fellow rose up in the back and said, 'That's my whiskey'. Alright, said Dr. Hunter, come and get it. The man came forward and got it, but upon returning to his seat he was arrested. He was tried during a recess and had to pay a fine."
The schedule of services later changed to 10 AM, 3 PM, and 7 PM. From the book "Lest We Forget Our Character, Gems Gleaned From South Arkansas" by Rev. J. H. Riggin D.D., Rev. W. F. Evans, collaborator. Published about 1910 by Norton-Vail Printing Company about the meetings following the civil war:
"In 1867 G. W. Primrose, preacher in charge of Benton Circuit, C. O. Steel at Little Rock, and Andrew Hunter, presiding elder of the Little Rock District, established a permanent campground in Salem some 4 miles northwest of Benton. Six acres of land were donated near the log cabin church that had been built some years before, and a shed 30 X 52 feet with brush extension was erected.
The Scott boys, B. F. Zuber, J. D. Cameron, Samuel Cameron, Solomon Snow, and others engaging in the work and erecting tents (cabins) to be occupied by their families and guests. From Little Rock came W. F. Fields, the Fones Brothers, Woodall, and others tented. Some from Benton, and from the country far and wide came people with wagons and equipment for a few days' encampment, so that there was a large attendance.
Dr. Hunter was in his prime, Dr. Winfield, the man of spiritual fervor and eloquence, C. O. Steel, G. W. Primrose, Patrick Scott, and others made a rare company of preachers. The Spirit of the Lord attended the Word, and a great number of souls were converted and added to the Church. Andrew Hunter soon settled in the neighborhood and for many years held a sort of fatherly oversight of the meetings. A score of young men were converted there who became preachers, some of whom are of large reputation. The annual meetings were a source of quickening for the churches in Little Rock and Benton and the country all around.
This with Sardis Campground, soon after established some ten miles away, was of inestimable value in conserving the pristine values of the fathers and founders of all that community, for a host of souls brought into the kingdom of God have scattered abroad to become preachers, lay leaders, and saintly mothers to the glory of God. The godly men and women who founded the camp meeting have gone to their reward. May their children and children's children conserve their inheritance and transmit the holy fire to generations yet unborn, that they may praise the Lord."
In the late 1800's a tabernacle was built that was about eighty square feet and open on all sides. The first seats were split boards and puncheons laid across logs with no backs. The pulpit was at one end of the shed with a platform for singers and other preachers behind the pulpit. Since electricity was not yet available, the evening meetings were lighted in the following manner. Scaffolds about four feet high were built on the four sides of the shed at a safe distance and covered with dirt. Fires were built here with rich pine knots which provided the light.
At some time in the early 1900's, a generator (small power plant) would be set up on the campgrounds to provide electricity for lighting the arbor. This probably continued until about 1940 -- well after Little Rock and Benton residents had electricity. Rural areas such as the Salem Community had been neglected by electric companies until after the government established the Rural Electrification Administration.
In the early 1930's ticks were said to be so bad that a person could not walk out the door without getting covered with ticks. A new law required all cattle owners to get their livestock dipped or sprayed with a solution that killed ticks. In the Salem community, the vat where cows were dipped was located on the extreme southwest corner of the campground property near a spring where the Gregory branch (creek) started. Mr. Noah Couch dug out the spring, and in 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a star shaped curb around the spring. When Rev. W. Roy Jordan was pastor of Salem Church, circa 1956 - 1958, he bought the lot next door to the church with plans to retire there. The church agreed to also sell him the area containing the spring. However, rather than retiring, he accepted the pastorate of another church and sold his land including the area containing the spring.
By the 1950's about fifty cabins had been built surrounding the campgrounds. There were likely several different brush arbors that preceded the church building. Since the church was established at the campgrounds, three different arbors and four different church structures have been built. The first arbor was brush and the first permanent structure was made of logs. The second arbor was also brush, but the second church was a frame structure. Sometime around 1909 or 1910 a fire started in the church and soon spread to the tabernacle which stood against the church. Both were quickly destroyed. In about 1913 the present tabernacle was built to replace the one that burned. Lloyd Ulmer stated that his Uncle Levi Ulmer and Noah Couch built it. In 1955 the tabernacle was moved from alongside the church to its present location.
Some recent recollections:
John Zuber: Every year prior to camp meeting, I would go with Hugh Bragg to Pine Bluff in a pickup truck to haul several loads of wood shavings (sawdust) to cover the floor of the arbor and cabins. Hugh would ring the bell about 15 minutes prior to each of the three daily services, and then again just as it was time for service to start.
John Pelton: I remember the presence of the Holy Spirit as the camp meeting choir sang and worshipped God. As a youngster I was in awe of the pretty teen aged girls all dressed up and walking to the arbor. Even though they were older and out of my league, I could still appreciate their beauty.
Anne Beyers: We would have to make a trip to the far well because the main well might be too busy, and we could walk by where the good looking boys were hanging out. If one of the boys spoke to me, I would act surprised.
With improving roads and transportation, fewer people actually camped on the campgrounds during camp meeting, so day services ended and camp meeting was eventually shortened to a weeklong event. However, there are several people who still fondly recall camping at camp meeting, and who are happy to share their memories with anyone who asks. The long tradition of having a fall season camp meeting was changed recently, and now camp meetings are held in June to avoid conflicts with school sporting events.
Many people remember the sawdust floor of the tabernacle. The sawdust had to be changed out each year, and was becoming quite an expense due to the diminishing availability of sawdust. In 2011 members of the camp meeting association contributed money to pay for a concrete floor. A brief history of the Salem UMC and campgrounds.
Thanks to Shirley Gregory for researching and documenting the history of the Salem Camp Meeting, a small part of which appears here.
If you are looking for church campgrounds that still has campers in the summer as well as nightly services under an open arbor, check out the Davidson Campground near Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and the Ben Few Campground near Fordyce, Arkansas where simple cabins remain, but many campers sleep in the air conditioned comfort of an RV or travel trailer parked by their cabins.
history of camp meetings in Arkansas
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