HOWARD COUNTY — Before automobiles and air conditioning, thousands of Arkansans would flock to camp meetings each year, gathering to pray and fellowship and enjoy the shade on a hot summer day.
Today, the tradition lives on, although the people are smaller and the accommodations are not as primitive.
Sunday morning, in Howard County, about 70 worshipers gathered at Ebenezer Campground, summoned by a church bell in the tabernacle, an open-air structure with a tin roof and a simple wooden wall behind the preacher
Carlton Cross, this year’s camp evangelist and the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, called the camp meeting “a time of conversion; a time of change; a time of change.”
While the food was good and the company enjoyable, “It was, first of all, a revival,” he said.
About 12 miles northwest of Nashville, Ebenezer is one of at least four Arkansas camp meetings still in existence that date back to the 1800s.
“Ebenezer” comes from the Hebrew for “rock of help” and is the name of a place where the Israelites pitched their tents before fighting the Philistines.
Since 1976, the campground has been listed on the US Register of Historic Places.
Parts of the tabernacle pre-date chain saws, according to Rusty Jones, a preacher from Gurdon who performs baptisms at camp meetings from time to time.
“The wooden squares here were broadaxed just after the Civil War,” Jones, 58, said.
The exact date of the establishment of the current camp is a matter of debate.
The sign on the entrance way says it was established “circa 1822,” although the original Ebenezer Campground was reportedly located in Hempstead County, some 30 miles away.
According to a 1943 article in the Arkansas Gazette, Ebenezer Campground in Howard County was established in 1837 and was known as Center Point until a fire destroyed the site in 1856.
It moved to its current location in 1857.
“To the rare newcomer, the first glimpse of the camping ground is always a surprise. After scrambling over a quarter of a mile of some of Arkansas’ worst roads, one comes to a clearing in a grove of magnificent oaks and sycamore,” the article. stated.
WHAT HAS CHANGED
As of 2022, the road remains unpaved although other improvements are visible.
There is electricity now and the outhouses have been replaced with porta potties.
There is also running water.
“We used to go down the hill to the spring and bring water up the hill in buckets. We finally drilled a well,” said Merilyn Jones, 85.
The old wood stove was replaced by a modern electric oven.
Kerosene lamps are no longer needed.
Some of the cabins are enlarged.
In the dining room, screens 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 of the participants are descendants of the original founders, a point Cross acknowledged Sunday morning.
“Over the years, the camp has grown and generations and generations have been here,” he told the campers. “At this point, you’re not just friends, you’re family.”
Although no longer officially affiliated with any denomination, the camp has Methodist origins; Methodist ministers were still tapped to give sermons.
The first camp meeting in Arkansas was before statehood. Held in May 1822 “near Mr. James Pyeatt’s dwelling,” near Crystal Hill; this will be the first of many.
Often affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, they later proved popular with Adventists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes and other followers of the holiness movement.
Baptists even held some, though they were uncommon.
Sometimes, the organizers encountered resistance. A “largely attended” October 1897 camp meeting in Randolph County “was the scene of much trouble,” according to a dispatch at the time in the Arkansas Gazette. “At almost every service eggs and vegetables were thrown at the preacher and on several occasions women’s clothes were damaged by breaking rotten eggs.”
Things are quieter in Ebenezer; this is 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.
Sunday, most people sit inside on the wooden benches. Others set up lawn chairs along the perimeter, wiping sweat and singing a 19th-century hymn to the heart: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
Camp meetings are pet friendly; many worshipers bring their dogs. On the perimeter, there is also wildlife.
In recent years, deer and armadillos have been seen, as well as water moccasins and copperheads.
“One year, they killed a rattler on the way in,” said Mandi Spier, 50, a camper from Louisiana. “It was big enough that, for dinner in the yard, they fried it and we partook.”
The snake was huge, recalled Jeff Holcombe, 53, of De Queen.
“It’s stretched to the sides on both sides of a truck bed,” he said. “It’s a big boy.”
Sunday’s service was critter-free and, with the temperature speeding toward the triple digits, mercifully short: just 35 minutes long.
Service length is influenced by heat and humidity, a camper explained afterward. “If we have a nice, cool day, then some preachers will run for an hour,” he said.
While everyone else was bent over, Jones stayed focused in the kitchen, making sure the freshly baked rolls didn’t burn and the cornbread was cooked to perfection.
Others brought fried okra, green beans with bacon and broccoli casserole.
The beef brisket, slow-cooked, is tender and juicy, as is the turkey, roasted and freshly cut. The tomatoes are home-grown and fresh-picked.
Thirty-nine people showed up for Sunday dinner. Jones, the matriarch of the family, made sure none of them went hungry.
At dinner time on Sundays, the guest evangelist is always the guest of honor.
It has been so for generations; Jones’ father, LO Lee, was a longtime Methodist pastor who always enjoyed camp meetings.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “My grandparents camped here and then my dad took us out, and now I bring my kids and their families here.” he says.
“Now we have it easier than them. Many people come in with air-conditioned rigs,” she said.
Jones’ older brother, Bob Lee, began attending camp meetings as an infant during the Great Depression.
Many of the participants were too poor to own cars, 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. … There were so many people.”
These days, about 100 people show up, said Jerry Kennedy, 80. To count, visitors have to spend 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 of the other camp meetings were lost, Kennedy said he was confident in Ebenezer’s future. “This whole place is going to stay alive, one way or another. It really is,” he said.
Lee also shared that sentiment.
“I think there are too many young people around here to let it die,” he said.