Salem Camp Meeting, Covington, Georgia, USA

Salem Camp Meeting, Covington, Georgia, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Miss Myrtle
Church: Salem Camp Meeting
Location: Covington, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 14 July 2006, 8:00pm

The building

The tabernacle at Salem is on the National Historical Buildings survey of the Library of Congress – indeed, the entire campground is on the National Historic Register. It is a large field landscaped with beautiful old trees, rimmed by cottages ("tents" in Salem-speak), a hotel, the caretaker's house, a bath house, and playgrounds. The 150-year-old tabernacle sits at the center of the campground and is open on all sides, with a floor of wood shavings and a roof supported by rustic pillars. Nearby is the Salem United Methodist Church.

The church

Camp meetings had their origin in the early 1800s and are a unique bit of Southern American folk custom. They were originally a sort of week-long vacation/family reunion/evangelical revival following the "laying by" of crops. Over 30 campgrounds, some predating the Civil War, still exist in Georgia. Salem Camp Meeting has been held annually since 1828, excepting two years during the Civil War. A dozen large extended families have deep roots at Salem, maintaining the cottages and returning year after year, generation after generation.

The neighborhood

Situated about 40 miles east of Atlanta and once a part of the Creek Indian Nation, Covington is rich in cultural heritage. Carefully restored manor homes, churches and parks surround the area of town known as the Square. The television series In the Heat of the Night, based on the Oscar-winning 1967 film of the same name starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, was produced in Covington (although the film was actually shot in Illinois). The road running by Salem hasn't been a quiet country farm road in decades, but rather has become a busy bedroom community.

The cast

The Revd Dr Gil Watson, senior pastor of Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, presided. Thomas R. Roberts was the music director, assisted by identical twins playing two grand pianos (see below).

What was the name of the service?

Worship Service.

How full was the building?

Two-thirds full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were lots of welcoming smiles.

Was your pew comfortable?

The handmade pews had cushions and were reasonably confortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

For the 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start of the service, the Conyers United Methodist Church choir performed several pieces. Folks gathered at the tabernacle from all directions. Old friends waved and hugged. Children wandered in and out. All this settled down promptly when the service itself began.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome, welcome. For this is the day the Lord has made!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Christian Praise Hymnal; pew Bibles (New International Version).

What musical instruments were played?

Piano and trumpet. This rustic tabernacle boasts two grand pianos played by identical twins, Becky Ramsey and Alice Walker. Becky and Alice have been featured musicians at Salem for 35 years. They were wearing identical hairstyles and outfits but could be easily told apart – Becky was wearing a "B" broach, Alice an "A".

Did anything distract you?

It was July in Georgia so, big shock, it was hot. At 8.00pm it was 87° Fahrenheit with 71 per cent humidity. In addition to hymnals and pew Bibles, they also thoughtfully provide hand fans (courtesy of J.C. Harwell & Son Funeral Home).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This service was a pretty typical Southern revival service. It was Methodist, but more informal than usual. Revival services typically have song leaders and Mr Roberts did a great job. I think everyone in the congregation joined in enthusiastically!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Dr Watson delivers a good sermon. His posture was dynamic: striding forward on his right foot, gesturing with an uplifted right hand, left arm at his side.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The text was Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching to Heaven and of God giving the land to Jacob's descendants. Dr Watson compared Jacob's Bethel to this community's Salem Campground. Both are monuments to profound experiences of God. We need not only remember and savor these experiences, but also respond with action.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The people had a lovely spirit about them. One could tell that this place means so much to them and that they were content to be back.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Hell may be hotter, but it will be a dry heat.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Actually, we skipped this and went directly to our car and cranked up the air conditioning. I've always said that AC was ruining the South and spoiling us all.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None was offered.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – Salem is held only for one week each year. I'll probably go back next year, depending on the weather.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The lovely spirit of the place and the people.

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