DALLAS COUNTY — An article in the August 25, 1962 issue of the Arkansas Gazette referred to camp meetings as “a dying institution.”
But the four annual camps highlighted in this article are still alive and well 60 years later.
The camp meeting at Ben Few Campground west of Princeton concludes on Sunday. The revival at the Davidson Methodist Campground in Clark County has just begun.
The camp meeting in Salem, Saline County, is eight days away. About 4 miles north of Benton, it is the oldest of the three – with services held every year since 1867.
Davidson, which dates back to 1884, is by far the largest, attracting hundreds of people each year.
Ben Few, founded in 1898 and named after a well-known Methodist minister, also has a loyal following.
All three are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The Ebenezer camp meeting in Howard County, which concluded earlier this week, also has Methodist roots.
Worship services are more ecumenical these days, says Timothy Williams, chairman of Ben Few’s camp meeting.
“We have Methodists, we have Baptists, we have congregations [of God members] take part. We welcome everyone,” he said.
Jane Peters Knickerbocker von Bismarck said she’s been a regular “since I was born and I’m 79”.
When asked why she keeps coming back, she said she finds spiritual renewal at Ben Few.
“The Holy Spirit is always appearing and showing up on this campus. When you enter this camp and walk under this tabernacle, you can be assured that you are on sacred ground,” she said.
Camp meetings are a rich part of the denomination’s heritage, according to Bishop Gary Mueller, United Methodist resident bishop for the Arkansas Territory.
“They were a common feature of the Methodist churches back in the 19th century,” he said.
“It was really a time, especially for those on the border who [were] isolated to gather with sisters and brothers and grow deeper in faith and hear the word preached,” he said.
The gatherings would last for days, even weeks, and are both social and spiritual events, he noted.
That blend of faith and camaraderie was evident at Ben Few Campground, where people flocked to the Iva Jean Shaddock Memorial Kitchen on Sunday for a dinner of pork chops.
Shaddock, the camp cook for more than half a century, died in April at the age of 87.
“She was a wonderful woman. She was good at what she did,” said Cathy Owens, her stepdaughter and culinary heiress.
Shaddock left a stash of canned pears for campers to enjoy throughout the week.
About 45 people attended the revival services that night, but attendance increases on Watermelon Night. Turnout is also highest when they’re making homemade ice cream, organizers say.
The tabernacle in the heart of the campsite offers shade but is not air-conditioned. Sawdust covers the floor and portable funeral fans offer relief from the heat.
Camp meetings in the 19th century were powerful tools of evangelism, leading to conversions, baptisms, and church growth.
Baptisms are still performed at Camp Davidson. Gary McCauley’s grandson, Dax Drake, was baptized a year after professing his faith.
The family look forward to the camp reunion every summer, McCauley said, adding, “It’s just a part of our lives.”
The revival fires that were lit long ago continue to burn at Ebenezer, Davidson, Ben Few and Salem, organizers say.
“I think they carry a strong legacy,” Mueller said.
“The kind of fervor, joy and passion … that they experienced is something I would love to see at church again.”
• Davidson Methodist Campground, Campground Road, Okolona, is holding its 138th Annual Revival Camp through July 31st. Daily services are at 11:00 am and 7:45 pm, with music starting at 6:45 pm. The campground is located approximately 12 miles west of Arkadelphia at 26 Arkansas. Worship services will be streamed live at facebook.com/DavidsonCampground/. For cabin and RV information, call (870) 345-9711.
• Ben Few Campground, at 8 Arkansas, about two miles west of Princeton, is holding camp meetings through Sunday. Morning devotions at 7 a.m. Youth classes and adult Bible study at 9am Revival services at 11am and 7:30pm Worship services live streamed at facebook.com/Ben-Few-Church-Camp-85069484549.
• Salem Camp Meeting, 1647 Salem Road, Benton, held daily at 6:30 p.m. July 31 through August 4. The services will be streamed live on facebook.com/groups/136535253039326.