period of the Second Great Awakening of religious spiritualism following American Independence, the Camp meeting was originally an annual spiritual revival held outdoors in a “brush arbor” and presided over by itinerant Methodist and Presbyterian preachers. The atmosphere was emotionally charged at the early meetings, which had a notably charismatic character. Campers appear to have measured the success of these early meeting by the number of worshipers who were literally struck down by the Holy Spirit.
There are currently over two thousand Camp Meetings in the United States. Each summer for one week in July or August these camp meetings draw the faithful back to the camp ground to reunite with extended family members in what has become a fusion of a family reunion and a spiritual revival meeting. The following account of the shaping of autobiographical memory through regular participation in Camp Meeting is drawn from fieldwork done at Salem Campground in central Georgia over a period of five years. Salem is an old and relatively well known Camp Meeting. Campers have been coming to Salem every summer since 1828. Of the current crop of campers, many have been coming for their entire lives. And their families have been camping at Salem for five or six generations.
Part Family Reunion, Part Spiritual Revival
While not everyone who attends Campo Meeting is related, the Campground is considered to be in some sense a single spiritual family. The idiom of family reunion, literally true for each “tent” (cabin), filled with extended family members, infuses the the campground as a whole. “The Salem family” they call it. The annual reunion of campers is consciously viewed as one enormous family reunion. Here’s how one young man put it:
Salem is a miracle. It’s a miracle in that it’s like something you look forward to. It’s just like you’re going to visit your cousins you haven’t seen for a long time. Only they’re not your cousins, man. So it’s a miracle in that in the Bible it says we are one body and we are brothers and sisters. I believe that. I believe that Mr and Mrs Englehardt are my brothers and sisters. To me what I would say is, it’s like a spiritual family reunion.
Another Camper, an older woman, said, echoed these sentiments. But she was at once more direct and more cryptic: “The people who stay here,” she said, “are like family. And I don’t know how to explain that.”
The camp meeting tradition has always responded to the American need for reaggregation of families, families who have always been on the move. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries family dislocation was embedded in a settler society where many were drawn westward to resettle themselves in the wilderness. Today the Camp Meeting still responds to a mobile society, but now it’s a society of middle-class families whose notions of upward mobility and career mean frequent moves and no fixed sense of home. Sitting on rocking chairs in front of their small wooden cabin (campers prefer to call it a “tent”) on the Campground, provides a mother and her grown daughter an opportunity to reflect on the frustrations the frenetic pace and incoherance of their work lives.