Camp meeting tradition strong in the Lowcountry
By Renae Brabham
Images by Brandon Coffey and Renae Brabham
The numbered tents are all the same, each with a porch and communal dining section in the front that faces the tabernacle and cook station in the rear.
For 358 days of the year – except for eagles, buzzards, snakes, coons, possums, spiders and the occasional curious photographer – Indian Field Campground lies dormant. For the other days, however, families filter in before the last week of September to sweep out, lay hay, dust, and stock cooking wood and supplies. Such was the case, recently, for the beginning of the 222nd session of the religious and community gathering held here each year known as camp meeting. It always runs from Monday on the last week of September and ends on the first Sunday in October.
Memories came flooding back as we parked near my friends tent at the campground, guests once again of my best friend and her family who have had this tent in their family for generations. They are all the same, numbered, each with a porch and communal dining section in the front that faces the tabernacle and cook station in the rear. With each tent comes its own numbered outhouse, and, yes, they are used.
It was 1973 when I hopped off a school bus with my friend to stay the weekend at camp meeting. I had never seen anything like it in my life. If not for the fumes of the school bus, I could have just as easily stepped off a horse drawn carriage in the 19th century. Albeit my friend and I would have looked a little odd in our platform shoes and hip-hugger bell bottoms. The smokestacks were churning out mouthwatering aromas from wood stoves. We headed straight upstairs to do our homework; it was quite drafty, but we had to leave the single window open to see inside. Eventually, we were called down to eat and afterwards went outside to promenade the circle and talk to friends.
When the horn was blown, we headed back to her tent. After giggling and hoping we did not have to use the outhouse that night, we hit the sack beneath a pile so big of quilts and blankets that we could barely roll over. Others hidden under mounds of quilts were my friend's sisters and brother. Her mother came up the steps with a white basin and water for us to brush our teeth the following morning. Of course, when we got up, the cold was a shock, and we couldn't use the water in the basin because it had frozen. We may have headed to the woodstove with chattering teeth, but I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It was a weekend I will never forget.
That strong spirit of community and tradition is encapsulated in this circle of a bygone era.
Now here I was again 49 years later with my husband to enjoy dinner and the company of friends at camp meeting in Tent Number 47. Catching up, introductions and laughter filled the air. The weather was perfect with a light breeze that raised the chins of adults who recognized the effects of Hurricane Ian hundreds of miles away. Children continued playing oblivious to our concern. Soon there was a call to supper and the meal was blessed – and what a meal it was. Pork chops, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, rice, macaroni and cheese pie, green beans, sweet potatoes, potato salad, slaw, relish, lemon cake, pecan cake, strawberry cake, spice cake and more covered two communal tables. The faces around the table had changed, some were no longer here, although you could almost see them because nothing else inside had changed at all. Once we were able to move, we headed out to promenade around the circle. The tabernacle was empty. The second service had ended, and the sounding of the horn announced the evening gathering.
Historically in the Old Testament a shofar, (ram’s horn) was blown before tabernacle services and other significant events. At Indian Field, it is a six-foot-long tin horn that a man named Shell blew for years before he recently passed away. I challenge anyone to walk the promenade circle and not have a conversation. And when you’re not communing, you're waving back at people or nodding to those outside their tents. That strong spirit of community and tradition is encapsulated in this circle of a bygone era. The service concludes on Sunday, and the grounds go silent for another year. It is a cherished tradition and one that I am grateful to have shared with my friend to begin our golden friend-versary.
To my knowledge there are five camp meeting campgrounds in South Carolina, nearly all of them in the Lowcountry: Indian Field, Cypress, Shady Grove, Cattle Creek and St. Paul. Evidence of the preaching and eating and loving at these campgrounds goes way back. I admit I used to do a double take while driving through this state in the early 2000s when I would see a work zone safety sign that read: "Let em work, let em live." I was hoity toity then and find that after 13 years living here, I too drop the "th" and replace most words ending in "er" or "ar" with "ah." I would petition now to have camp meeting signs made that say, "Let em eat, let em pray, let em love."
The service concludes on Sunday, and the grounds go silent for another year.
Camp meetings are rooted in the Methodist faith, a Christian denomination that evolved from the colonial period during the birth of our nation but was scoffed at by Anglican colonial churches. As a result, parishioners were called "dissenters" and their places of worship were considered "meeting places" where John Wesley and his protege Bishop Frances Asbury would spread the gospel. Sometimes these meetings were held in a large tent while others were held in so much as a lean-to. During the American Revolutionary War when everyone else was high tailing it back to England, Asbury toughed it out and helped strengthen the denomination’s foundation.
The first Indian Field Campground meetings off of Hwy US 15 in Dorchester County were held in a field on the farm of Enoch Pendarvis, possibly behind today's structures. Bishop Francis Asbury recorded in his journal that he preached at Indian Field in 1801 and 1803 a little over a quarter-century before any structures were built. The 99 tents and tabernacle at Indian Field Campground now are derived from a description in the Book of Leviticus of the Harvest Festival of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The dwellings are "Tents," though made of wood, and arranged in lines about an octagon representing some of the tribes of Israel. The meeting house is called the "Tabernacle" with services traditionally announced by the shofar (ram's horn) instead of a bell. The present Tabernacle was built in 1848 just outside of St. George, SC. Services have continued annually except during the Civil War when they were abbreviated for several years, and then, possibly abbreviated or cancelled again during Hurricane Hugo.
The author and her friend pictured at this year's camp meeting.