COVINGTON, Ga. — One of the longest-running camp meetings in the nation kicks off its services Friday, July 9.
The 193rd annual Salem Campmeeting this year is scheduled to run July 9-16, and will be back in full swing after being limited to virtual services in 2020.
“We hated to miss last summer. We sure did,” said Roland Vaughn, who is chairman of the Salem Board of Directors, “but we had no choice under the circumstances. A group of folks made sure that we had some sort of service each night online, to kind of keep our ministry going, but this year we will be back to normal as much as possible with in-person services, classes, meals at the hotel and the real Salem experience.”
Despite a hopeful return to normalcy this year, Salem will be without one of its biggest supporters and leaders after Sam Ramsey, who was a former chairman of the board, passed away in August.
“Ramsey, former Covington mayor and businessman, devoted a large amount of time and energy to making sure that Salem thrived through the ages,” organizers stated in a news release. “His physical presence will be greatly missed, but the members of the board of directors are determined to carry on the legacy that he has brought forth.”
Camp meetings held a special place in Ramsey’s life, and he enjoyed being a part of them. In June 2020, Ramsey shared that he had attended every camp meeting since his birth in the 1930s.
In a 2013 staff report by The Covington News, Ramsey’s annual efforts in helping organize the events were described: “… Sam personally assures that the camp meeting continues to carry on traditions that have stood the test of time.”
In 2014, Ramsey spoke to The Covington News about the allure of camp meetings and why they were so special to him: ““A lot of the times I feel like it’s as close to heaven on earth as you can be. It’s quite an experience. You have to be out there and experience it for yourself.”
Camp meetings have been held at the facility on Salem Road in Covington every summer since 1828 except two years during the Civil War. According to the Salem Campmeeting’s website, Salem was a Methodist institution for 100 years, although never officially part of the church. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Salvation Army had an active role in the program. Now interdenominational, Salem features a Methodist preacher each year and rotates between Baptist and Presbyterian preachers.
The Tabernacle at Salem is on the National Building Survey of the Library of Congress, and still features wood shavings on the floor. The entire campground was put on the National Historic Register in 1998.
Each day during the eight-day event there are worship services held in the tabernacle at the historic Salem Camp Ground, located at 3940 Salem Road in Covington, at 11 a.m. (Saturday excluded) and 7:30 p.m.
There are also classes and activities each day, beginning with “Morning Watch” at 7:30 a.m. each weekday, which is a short devotional period to get the day started right, Bible classes for all ages at 9:30 a.m. at the Salem United Methodist Church, adjacent to the campground, and afternoon activities for the children.
Home-cooked meals will be served at noon and approximately 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the historic Salem Hotel. The public is welcome and can make reservations for any meal by calling 770-786-6841. Individuals are welcome as are groups, with advanced notice, the news release stated.
Camp directors said they were “excited” about a few changes made at the historic hotel and in the food service.
John Howington and Joshua Swaney, who have had a successful business catering to Hollywood movie and television show production companies, have contracted with Salem to provide meals for the camp meeting and other events held at Salem.
This year’s camp meeting leaders include the Rev. Don Martin, the Rev. Steven Barnes and the Rev. Byron Thomas.
Martin served 44 years in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, many of those years at Covington First United Methodist, as well as Alpharetta First Methodist, and churches in Clermont, Rome, and Augusta. Martin is a graduate of Emory University, Mercer University, and the University of Chicago.
Barnes has been serving as the Interim Pastor at Oconee Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville since late March of 2020. Prior to that he served as the interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Covington, from September 2018 to February 2020.
Thomas is a native of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, and a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
In 2016, Thomas graduated from the Association of Chicago Theological Schools (ACTS) program with a Doctor of Ministry in preaching through McCormick Theological Seminary. Thomas has served as senior pastor of Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta since June 2013 and was recently appointed to serve as district superintendent of the Central South District, which includes DeKalb, Henry, Newton and Rockdale counties beginning July 1.
Thomas R. Roberts will serve as platform director and music leader, a position he’s held since 1989 for the camp meeting.
Sisters Becky Ramsey, who is Sam Ramsey’s widow, and Alice Walker are set to continue in their role as dual-pianists for the event, as they have for the last 40-plus years.
“The Salem family is excited about the resumption of camp meeting and everyone in the community is encouraged to attend,” organizers said in a news release. “Those who would like to get a peek into what camp meeting is like for the tenters who annually attend Salem and spend the week are invited to a ‘Salem Tour of Tents’ from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 10.”
“Tents” is the term used to describe the rustic cabins encircling the campground, which dates back to the 1800s, in the early days of the camp meeting, when families would arrive by wagon and erect temporary tents to serve as their home during the week-long community gathering and revival, organizers said. Over time, families built permanent structures, usually with floors covered in wood shavings or hay. Although the dwellings no longer resemble what people think of today as tents, the name stuck.
“This is not an ordinary tour of homes,” said Joe Cook, a Salem board member helping organize the event. “It’s a window into the past that has played such a significant role in the religious and cultural heritage of Rockdale and Newton counties.”
The tour, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored in cooperation with the Rockdale and Newton County Historical Societies.
“Tour of Tents” attendees are encouraged to walk the campground and visit tents included on the tour, as well as the tabernacle. Refreshments may be provided at many tents.
The Ramsey-Cunningham tent, which is believed to be the oldest on the grounds, dates back to the 1840s and closely appears as it did in the 1800s. Despite being updated with electric lights and indoor plumbing, the tent still sports wood shaving floors.
The Ramsey-Cunningham tent is one of many that spectators will be able to admire Saturday, Cook said.
“Each tent has its unique character,” Cook said. “They are the sites of much laughter, tears and fellowship over the 193 years of the encampment. They are rustic, but for the tenters that come back each year, they are hallowed ground.”
No registration is required for the “Tour of Tents.” For more information about the tour, contact Cook at 706-409-0128 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional information about the 193rd Salem Campmeeting may be found at salemcampmeeting.org.