by Case Thorp
Moderator of the 39th General Assembly
The sweet fragrance of sawdust simply does not translate online. Sawdust—the wood shavings of my youth, and now my adulthood—were originally an innovative flooring solution for nineteenth century Christians worshipping in open-air pavilions called tabernacles. They needed a way to keep the dirt and dust down during the heat of summer and the heat of religious fervor. The floors in these historic structures christen the path the Sawdust Trail, which itinerant preachers travel as they evangelize at camp after camp. I could not take my annual pilgrimage to camp meeting this year due to the pandemic. I long to feel that holy sawdust under my feet.
Due to pandemic quarantine, the Salem Camp Meeting east of Atlanta did not meet. This is the first cancellation since the Civil War, and only the fifth time since its founding in 1828; the other four being during the aforementioned conflict.
Camp meetings are a 200-year-old Christian tradition begun during America’s Second Great Awakening. From the first Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801, this method of religious fervor spread quickly in remote Protestant communities. The sawdust trail was well-worn, both by pilgrims like me and famous itinerant preachers like Francis Asbury and later Wilbur Chapman and Billy Sunday.
At a camp meeting, people seek the saving faith of Jesus Christ, spiritual renewal, forgiveness, the sweet spirit of fellowship, and more. Campers gather from all over the country for several days in the heat of summer. The tabernacle is the architectural center of the grounds. A cathedral of oaks and elms shade the nearby fresh-water spring once used to both baptize the converted and refrigerate the eggs and milk.
Part of the appeal of camp meeting are those things that never seem to change. Preachers work up a sweat from the heat in the air and a word of conviction from the Bible. Old ladies and children intermingle in ways rarely seen today. Southern hymnody echoes from the platform as we sing along with pianists Becky Ramsey and Alice Walker. They are twin sisters who wear matching outfits for the thrice-daily worship services. Next year will be their fiftieth anniversary of praising God through song at Salem.
Through the years, however, this historic tradition has no doubt evolved. Tents, the traditional name for rough-hewn cabins encircling the tabernacle, now have plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning. The excitement recently at Salem Campground has been the new wifi and security cameras. We have been mostly United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, but today all are welcome. I am still awaiting a reply from the Vatican inviting Pope Francis to be our annual preacher.
In spite of the coronavirus keeping us from gathering, the mission of our camp meeting, and many others, carries on: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. We zoomed with one another for trivia night, worship, and Bible study. The campground trustees convened to discuss the budget and plan for 2021, and donations are received through electronic means. Through it all we ensure that a 200-year-old unique expression of Christianity continues.
As sawdust was an innovation to keep the dirt and dust down in a hot and humid environment, the internet is now part of the camp meeting experience. I am grateful that the sweet, sweet Spirit will remain in that place, and in our hearts.
Case Thorp is a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Florida and the Caribbean. He serves as Senior Associate Pastor of Evangelism for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando. He also is a member of the board of trustees for the Salem Campground in Covington, Ga.
Your recounting of “Still traveling the ‘Sawdust Trail’” warmed the cockles of my heart! Some of my most significant life decisions were made in the (Oregon) Free Methodist camp meeting tabernacle just out of Portland. Your description really warmed my heart, and wish for days long gone by.