Salem Camp Meeting is where our Spiritual Heritage Past and Future Come Together?
Each year the week spent at the Salem Camp Meeting starts with the singing of “There is a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place.” The spirit they sing of is of the God that those gathered have come to worship. It is the spirit of years of memories. It is the spirit of family and friends that reach over many generations. It is the spirit of heritage is the best sense.
Less than seven years, after Newton County was created, there came into being the Salem Camp Meeting in 1828. Covington was a young city of less than six years old when the first meeting was held. The Salem Camp Meeting is the oldest institution in these parts. It has been at least a week of preaching and singing every year for the past 187 years.
The grounds themselves are on the National Register of Historic Places. The beautiful wooden tabernacle on the grounds is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Salem is located where it is because of the Salem Springs. It is now connected to the Newton County Water System for fire protection. The springs provide thirty gallons of water every minute at a cool sixty five degrees. In the early years of the Camp Meeting water was essential not only for all the people that came, but the animals that got them there.
Camp meetings played a very strategic part of the spread of the Christian Faith in the early years of our national history. People scattered on the frontier of our nation, such as in our area in the early ninetieth century, would come together for a week or so of preaching and teaching. For many this was the only time they had for what churches today do on a weekly basis. And for others it was the only opportunity they had to receive the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
The time most camp meetings occurred was in what was called the “lay by” time when the crops on the farms were at the point they could be left for a few days. There was time for “spiritual matters” as families and friends gathered at Camp Meetings. For our area this fell in August. Salem and other camp meetings have changed to July because of the change in school calendars. And very few of those attending are active farmers.
For Sam Ramsey, the chair of the trustees of Salem, it is always a very special week. He is the fifth generation of his family to be a part of Salem. There are families who have cabins on the camp ground. The one for Sam’s family is the Goodwin-Ramsey Cabin. The Goodwin family had the first child born after the founding of Newton County.
Also on the grounds is a twenty two room hotel with a dining room that serves three meals a day family style. There are also hook-ups available for recreational vehicles. The Ramsey Pavilion will seat 130 persons.
But don’t think of Salem only in terms of history. This year for example a 5k race was added to the list of activities. Yesterday the runners ran the course laid out winding through the camp grounds. The Spirit is very much alive at Salem. In the past twenty years, seventeen people have been called into the ministry during Salem.
Decades ago one of the great traditions of Salem was the Methodist Ministers from the Churches of the Atlanta Decatur Oxford District would form the choir for the opening service on Friday night. This followed a delicious fried chicken dinner at the hotel on the grounds. When it came to talents, the Lord did not bless me with the ability to sing, in fact I am pitch deaf. So for the eight years I was serving as pastor at the Kelley’s Chapel Church that happens to be in the Atlanta Decatur Oxford District, I was a part of that choir. The only choir I have ever been allowed in as an adult.
Throughout its 187 years some of the outstanding preachers of our nation have filled the pulpit of the Salem Camp Ground. The current pattern is to invite two “preachers” each year. The two will rotate on who preaches each morning and evening. Each year one of the ministers is from the United Methodist Church and the other from the Presbyterian Church or the Baptist Church. Every Methodist Bishop in Georgia since Salem was founded has preached at Salem.
The preachers for this year are Dr. Stephen Rankin and Dr. Benny Tate. Dr. Rankin is currently the Chaplin at the Southern Methodist University. Dr. Tate is the Senior Pastor of the Rock Springs Church in Milner, GA. Other parts of the leadership team include Thomas Robert as music director. He has held that position since 1989. Alice Walker and Becky Ramsey, both of Covington, are the Duo Pianists. Johnathan Anderson and Andrew Covington are the Youth Ministers. And I will join Dr. Dave Benson, Senior Pastor of Conyers First United Methodist Church, is leading the two morning adult Bible Studies.
There is still time this year to experience that “sweet Spriit” that blessed Salem. There will be worship in the Tabernacle at 10:45 a.m. and 7:45 p.m. each day through Friday, July 17 as well as a full week of Bible Study for all ages at 9:30 a.m.