HOWARD COUNTY — Before automobiles and air conditioning, Arkansans flocked to camp meetings in their thousands each year, gathering to pray, socialize and enjoy the shade on a hot summer day.
Today, the tradition lives on, although the crowds are smaller and the accommodations are no longer so primitive.
Sunday morning in Howard County, about 70 worshipers gathered at Ebenezer Campground, summoned by the ringing of a church bell to the Tabernacle, an open-air structure with a tin roof and wooden wall rustic behind the preacher.
Carlton Cross, this year’s camp evangelist and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, called the camp meeting “a time of conversion; a transformation time; a time of renewal.
Although the food is good and the conviviality pleasant, “it is above all a revival”, he said.
About 12 miles northwest of Nashville, Ebenezer is one of four surviving Arkansas reunion camps with roots dating back to the 1800s.
“Ebenezer” comes from the Hebrew for “helping stone” and is the name of a place where the Israelites pitched tents before fighting the Philistines.
Since 1976, the campground has been listed on the US Register of Historic Places.
Parts of the tabernacle predate chainsaws, according to Rusty Jones, a Gurdon preacher who occasionally conducts camp meeting baptisms.
“The square beams here were cut right after the Civil War,” Jones, 58, said.
The precise date of the foundation of the current camp is debated.
The sign at the entrance says it was established “circa 1822”, although the original Ebenezer campground was in Hempstead County, in an area about 30 miles away.
According to a 1943 article in the Arkansas Gazette, the Ebenezer Campground in Howard County was established in 1837 and met at Center Point until the site was destroyed by fire in 1856.
It moved to its current location in 1857.
“For the rare newcomer, the first glimpse of the campground is always a surprise. After traveling more than a quarter mile of some of the worst roads in Arkansas, one comes to a clearing in a grove of magnificent oak trees. and sycamores,” the article stated.
In 2022, the road remains unpaved although further improvements are evident.
There is electricity now and the outbuildings have been replaced with portable potties.
There is also running water.
“We used to go down the hill to the spring and bring the water up in the buckets. Eventually we drilled a well,” said Merilyn Jones, 85.
The old wood-burning stove has been replaced by a modern electric oven.
Kerosene lamps are no longer necessary.
Some cabins have been enlarged.
In the dining room, mosquito nets cover the windows to let in the breeze and keep the flies out. Electric fans keep the air circulating and there’s an endless supply of iced tea.
Many participants are descendants of the original founders, a point Cross acknowledged on Sunday morning.
“Over the years the camp has grown and generations and generations have passed through here,” he told campers. “At this point, you’re not just friends, you’re family.”
Although no longer officially affiliated with any denomination, the camp has Methodist roots; Methodist ministers are always called upon to give sermons.
The first camp meeting in Arkansas predated statehood. Held in May 1822 “near the residence of Mr. James Pyeatt”, near Crystal Hill; it would be the first of a long series.
Often affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, they would later prove popular with Adventists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, and other followers of the Holiness movement.
Baptists even held a few, although they weren’t as common.
Sometimes the organizers encountered resistance. A “widely attended” camp meeting in October 1897 in Randolph County “was the scene of much disorder”, according to a contemporaneous report in the Arkansas Gazette. “At nearly every service eggs and vegetables were thrown at the preacher, and in several instances ladies’ dresses were ruined by the breaking of rotten eggs.”
Things are calmer in Ebenezer; it’s a family reunion, not a food fight.
This year people came from as far away as Las Vegas in the west and Charleston, SC in the east.
On Sundays, most were seated indoors on wooden benches. Others set up lawn chairs along the perimeter, wiping away sweat and chanting a 19th-century hymn by heart: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a taste of divine glory.”
Camp meetings allow pets; many devotees bring their dogs. On the perimeter there is also wildlife.
In recent years, deer and armadillos have been spotted, as have water moccasins and copperheads.
“One year they killed a rattlesnake on the way home,” said Mandi Spier, 50, a camper from Louisiana. “It was big enough that, for dinner in the field, they fried it and we ate.”
The snake was sizeable, recalled Jeff Holcombe, 53, of De Queen.
“It extended over the edges on both sides of a truck hood,” he said. “He was a big boy.”
Sunday’s service was critter-free and, with the temperature in triple digits, thankfully short: just 35 minutes.
The length of service is influenced by heat and humidity, a camper explained afterwards. “If we have a nice cool day, some preachers will run for an hour,” he said.
While others bowed their heads, Jones remained focused on the cooking, making sure the freshly baked buns didn’t burn and the cornbread was baked to perfection.
Others brought fried okra, green beans with bacon and broccoli casserole.
The beef brisket, slow cooked, was tender and juicy, as was the turkey, roasted and freshly sliced. The tomatoes were grown on site and freshly picked.
Thirty-nine people showed up for Sunday dinner. Jones, the family matriarch, made sure none of them were left hungry.
At Sunday dinner, the guest evangelist is always the guest of honor.
It’s been that way for generations; Jones’ father, LO Lee, was a longtime Methodist pastor who always enjoyed camp meetings.
“I’ve been here all my life,” she said. “My great-grandparents camped here, then my father brought us here, and now I have my children and their families here.” she says.
“We have it easier than them now. A lot of people come with their air-conditioned devices,” she said.
Jones’ older brother, Bob Lee, began attending camp meetings as a child during the Great Depression.
Many participants were too poor to own a car, so they found other means of transportation.
“I remember when wagons and horses and mules were the thing,” he said. “When I was young, this place was crowded. … It was so crowded then.”
These days, about 100 people show up, said Jerry Kennedy, 80. To be counted, visitors must stay at least one night, he added.
The event attracts children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“There are kids everywhere, which is great,” he said.
While most other camp meetings have faded, Kennedy said he was confident about Ebenezer’s future. “This whole place will stay alive, one way or another. It really does,” he said.
Lee also shares this sentiment.
“I think there are too many young people here to let him die,” he said.