A community is a composite of the efforts of many people who came before us. We are indebted to those who laid the foundations of who we are as a community. Like the old parable of the seeing a turtle on top of a fence post, you know it didn’t get there on it’s on.
Among the first European settlers of what would become Newton County was George Cunningham. He served on the first Grand Jury ever held in our county. He was the father of George Jr, who was the first child born in the newly created Newton County.
Near the western boundary of Newton is the historical Salem Camp Ground. Founded on its current site 1828, a Camp Meeting has been held every year except during the War Between the States. George Cunningham was among those who founded Salem. Both he and his son served as the Chair of its Board of Trustees. George Cunningham was the great-great-great grandfather of former Mayor Sam Ramsey. Six generations of Sam’s family have served on the Board of Trustees of Salem. He is the current Chair of the Board of Trustees.
Sam’s Grandfather, C. D. Ramsey who also at one point chaired the Salem Board was the Tax Commissioner for Newton County. This was under a system where the Tax Commissioner was a single commissioner system of government. He was elected to that position in 1898. He died of heat stroke at Salem in 1931 as he was helping prepare the grounds for that summer.
Camp Meetings were vital to the Christian faith early in our national history. With people living scattered along the frontier, camp meeting was a time to gather as a community for worship and Bible study. For many it was the one time a year they could do what we do today on a weekly basis -- sit our churches. . Salem is one of the oldest “Camp Meetings” in our nation.
Those who came would either sleep in their wagons or pitch tents. Later they would build cabins on the grounds that would be passed down from generation to generation. The modern “world” really came to Salem when electricity and plumbing came to the grounds in 1939.
One change that has evolved over the decades is the part of summer for “Camp meeting” to happen. It was originally fell on the days after the crops were “laid by.” Thus the gathering fell in August. But the world has changed around Salem. The farms are now mostly subdivisions and shopping centers. Also the school calendars have changed with school starting much earlier than in the past. For now the dates fall in early to mid-July.
The Tabernacle at Salem was built in 1854. It is on the National Building Survey of the Library of Congress as one of America’s historic buildings. The entire Campground was put on the National Historic Register in 1998. The floor of the tabernacle is still made of wood shavings. It was from such a setting that it was said of those coming forward to pray at the altar, that they were hitting the saw dust trail.
Many return every year to Salem to see family and friends. Sam Ramsey has been in attendance at Salem for every one of his seventy seven years. He even adds on to his years, as his mother was pregnant with Sam when she attended Salem the summer before he was born in December. Sam served in the Air Force for three years but arranged for his leave to allow him to be home for Salem each of those years.
This year you can experience the “sweet, sweet spirit” that makes Salem so special. Camp meeting starts on the evening of Friday, July 8th and closes at a traditional candle light service on Sunday, July 17th. For a complete schedule for this year check out www.salemcampmeeting.org.
The two preachers for 2016 are Dr. Bill Burch, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville, Georgia; and Dr. Bill Carl III, pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Prior to moving to Birmingham, Dr. Carl was President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and pastor the First Presbyterian Church of Dalla, Texas. Dr. Birch has also been the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in West Point, Georgia and the Sam Jones United Methodist Church in Cartersville, Georgia.
Other staff leadership includes Thomas Roberts, the Music Director since 1989. Twin sisters Alice Walker and Becky Ramsey have been the pianist at Salem since 1972. Alice is the organist at Covington First Presbyterian and Becky at the First United Methodist Church Also Andrew Covington, the pastor at the Connexion United Methodist Church in North Covington leads the youth ministry along with Jonathan Andersen.