Nearly 180 Years Old, Bible Camp Still Has Spirit

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Two children help Rev. Case Thorpe bless the water ahead of a baptism

Two children help Rev. Case Thorpe bless the water ahead of a baptism at the Salem Camp Meeting. Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Evie Stone, NPR
Campers turn out for Sunday morning service

Campers turn out for Sunday morning service at the open-air tabernacle that's at the center of the Salem Campground. Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Evie Stone, NPR
Young girls compete in the egg and spoon race, part of the "Wide World of Salem Sports."

Young girls compete in the egg and spoon race, part of the "Wide World of Salem Sports." Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Evie Stone, NPR
Families at the camp stay in rustic A-frames with a central hallway and small bedrooms off of each s

The Ramsey family cabin is typical: It has a central hallway and small bedrooms off each side. Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Evie Stone, NPR

Camp Tales

Campers share stories from Salem:

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In the 1800s, American frontier towns and agricultural communities far from churches and organized religion saw the rise of summer revival camps. Traveling preachers would bring evangelism to the countryside. The tradition is still going strong at a bible camp in Georgia dating back to 1828.

Many of the families attending the weeklong Salem Camp Meeting have done so for generations. They live in rustic A-frame cabins — the oldest was built in 1840 — arranged in a semi-circle around a tabernacle. Sam Ramsey, vice chairman of the camp's board of trustees and a 66-year veteran of the Salem meeting, says his family's cabin was built by his great-great-grandfather.

Traditions at the camp meeting run deep. Among them is the Wide World of Salem Sports, where everyone from toddlers to teens competes in events such as the "egg and spoon" race, the Frisbee toss and the broad jump.

Meals consist of heavy and hearty Southern fare: fried chicken, creamed corn, butter beans and banana pudding. It's stuff "you just wouldn't dream of having at home," says camper Jim Hicks Forward.

Despite the various social activities it offers, Salem's primary focus remains spirituality. Started by Methodists, the camp meeting is now interdenominational. A bell calls families to services three times a day under the tabernacle, and children are encouraged to be part of services.

Eleanor McArthur Hamlet has attended the camp meeting for more than 50 years and is the granddaughter and grandmother of campers. For her, Salem is about spiritual revival.

"This is my renewal every year," she says.

"It's just me and God here, and just a oneness with God that I don't find anywhere else."

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