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COVID-19 forces change to annual religious campmeeting tradition

Salem Camp Ground was established in 1828. Here is a view of the Tabernacle, where services are held. People come from all over the nation to participate in this religious revival.
Salem Camp Ground was established in 1828. Here is a view of the Tabernacle, where services are held. People come from all over the nation to participate in this religious revival.

Sam Ramsey met and proposed to his future wife, Becky, at the annual Salem Campmeeting.

This year, the two planned to celebrate their 50th anniversary at the summer spiritual revival, which has drawn families from across the United States to the Newton County campground for generations.

Instead, the nondenominational event, which began in 1828, will go online July 10 through July 17 with pre-recorded sermons, music and devotionals for the first time ever — one of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s the first time the gathering has been interrupted since the Civil War.

“It hurts, but we knew it was the only sensible thing to do,” said Ramsey, chairman of the Salem board of directors and the great-great-great grandson of one of its founders. “We would feel terrible if someone had gone out there and gotten the virus. The way we’re set up, the choirs coudn’t come and we’d have to set up the tabernacle for spacing and we’d only get about a third of the people that we usually do. It just wouldn’t have been a campmeeting like we think of it being. It just wouldn’t be right.

Ramsey hasn’t missed a Salem campmeeting, one of the oldest in the nation, in his 81 years. He said he plans to return to the campground in 2021.

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Health officials have warned about the spread of the highly-contagious virus in large gatherings. Festivals and other large-scale events like concerts have also been canceled or rescheduled.

Several outbreaks around the nation, including here in Georgia, have been tied to church or religious gatherings.

In the early weeks of the pandemic many churches, mosques and synagogues closed their buildings and went to livestream or held drive-in style services.

The campmeeting brings Christians together for a week of faith, fellowship, family and spiritual renewal.

Dozens of families stay in simple cabins, referred to as “tents,” surrounding an open-air tabernacle built in 1854, where worship services are held.

Ramsey said former President Jimmy Carter once led the morning prayer when he was governor of Georgia. And according to Ramsey, it was at one campmeeting that Carter privately asked Ramsey to pray for him because he had “just about decided” to run for president.

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Across the state, other campmeetings, which have become institutions in the faith arena, are scaling back or canceling altogether. For many, it’s the first time the events have been interrupted since the Civil War (and even then, some people showed up).

Officials at Indian Springs Holiness Campmeeting in Flovilla, southeast of Atlanta, which is usually held over 10 summer days, is looking now to 2021.

Over the course of that gathering, which began 130 years ago, officials estimate that more than 5,000 people attend the revival.

“We made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s gathering, said Matthew Gambill, who serves on the board of trustees and who has attended every campmeeting for nearly 39 years. “It’s devastating in many ways. For a lot of us it’s such an important part of our lives. It’s just sad.”

His uncle former Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris attended the campmeetings. The family has a cabin there.

“It’s not like church, yet it is,” Gambill said. “It’s an unique experience. People have literally quit their jobs over campmeetings when their employers didn’t let them off when it was time to go. It’s going to be a tough not to have it this year.”

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Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

Credit: Sandra Parrish/WSB Radio

Not all, however, are pulling the plug.

The nondenominational 183rd Marietta Campmeeting won’t be fully back for 10 days. Instead, it will be an abbreviated “mini-campmeeting” July 17 through July 19 in Cobb County.

The first Marietta Campmeeting was held in 1837 under a brush arbor with pine fires providing light at night, according to the campground’s website. The next year the oak open-sided tabernacle, still referred to as the arbor, was built and is used to this day. The property also has 23 cabins.

This year, the Marietta event will offer four services spread throughout the weekend. Canceled are the children’s church, the revival picnic and feeding of the ministry teams.

Following CDC guidelines, masks are recommended, sanitizing stations will be provided and social distancing is to be practiced under the arbor, although family groups can sit together. Hymnals will not be distributed.

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It’s undecided when — or if — the annual memorial service will be held, said Cheryl Lassiter, president of the Tentholders Association.

“In light of everything that’s going on, I think its at least an attempt to do the right thing,” she said. Lassiter is one of those at risk. She’s 67 years old and had a heart attack last year.

She recently heard from the 84-year-old organist, who decided not to attend this year.

“We’ve got some of our younger members and families who said they’re going to be there no matter what,” she said. “I think they just don’t want to give in to something like a virus. I understand that when you have these big group gatherings, you’ve had a spike in the county. I’m between a rock and a hard place. Maybe we’re giving the people a little bit of what they want.”

The Salem Campmeeting will be a virtual event this year with pre-recorded sermons, music and devotionals, along with video conferences for Bible study and fellowship. Follow along online at www.salemcampmeeting.org.