Church of the Week: Indian Fields Camp GroundBy Bill Segars
In last week’s article I mentioned a term that many of you may not be familiar with: camp meetings. Those of you that are somewhat familiar with camp meetings, you may not be aware of the history of these gatherings. Most denominations have places or services for intense inspiration: retreats, conference centers or revivals. Many Methodist find that inspiration in camp meetings. For some reason, most of these South Carolina campgrounds are located in the Dorchester area. Of the seven that I know of in South Carolina, four are found in Dorchester County.
Campgrounds had their origin in the early 19th century as a place to hold special services conducted by circuit riding preachers. Very often their “fire and brimstone” sermons would bring in more people than a house or a church building could handle. People would come from the surrounding area for the services that would last for several days. The participants soon began putting up tents to stay overnight. These events not only met the citizen’s religious needs, the attendees also found social enjoyment in the gatherings. As an overnight stay increased to several nights, the tents gave way to crude wooden structures. Families built these buildings on the campground property, with the builder retaining ownership of the building for their annual use.
The excitement of emotionally charged prayers and long drawn out hymns accompanied by home trained musicians produced many “amens” and long services. These services would sometime last all day and into the night. With these long services, one can’t live off of religion alone; they must have food. Everyone seemed to strive to outdo their neighbor with a heavy laden table of food. When this excitement is combined with fine southern food and Christian fellowship, it’s no wonder that Methodism grew exponentially in South Carolina.
One of the leading camp meeting locations in the early 1800s was Indian Fields Camp Grounds. Francis Asbury preached at Indian Fields on December 21, 1801 and January 13, 1803. Even after many churches were established, Indian Fields and its camp meeting style of revivals continued to be a tremendous influence in the development of the religious life in rural South Carolina. The original Indian Fields Camp Ground was located about two miles from the present Indian Fields. More and more buildings, known as “tents”, were built here with very little planning or order. In 1848, a ten-acre tract was obtained just off of US Highway 15 near St. George with the stipulation that a meeting be held once every two years. That has not been a problem since then.
The layout of Indian Fields is based on the biblical story of the Israelites erecting tents, representing the tribes of Israel, and encircling a tabernacle. So today, there is a 690 foot diameter circle of 99 tents surrounding a 68 foot by 95 foot open-air tabernacle in the center. The tents are identical in basic design. Although they may vary in details and most have been repaired over time, they continue to retain their original rustic unfinished weatherboard appearance. Each has a shed roof on the front supported by three rough-hewn wooden posts. Doorways are typically placed on the extreme left or right, with the remainder of the front facade having spaced wooden slates for ventilation. The only other ventilation or light sources are small shutter covered window holes in the gable of the second floor walls. Notice I didn’t used the word “glass” – there is no glass in these window holes.
On the rear of the tent is another shed roofed area which houses the brick wood burning stove. In recent years, sinks have been added for washing hands and washing pots and plates. Do the words “stove” and “sink” sound like kitchen words? That is because this is where the kitchen area is. Many families will bring their own cook to help prepare the meals that can feed as many as 20 or more people at each meal. There are stories told of cooks that have been coming to Indian Fields for 40 years. Think about it: experienced cook, large group of family and friends, the smell of hickory wood burning and cornbread frying on a black iron skillet; can’t you just imagine the meal that you’re getting ready to eat.
A sense of close community living is heightened due to the fact that these tents are only two to three feet apart. Each year the owners of the tents look forward to seeing their “week-long neighbors” and visiting with their invited guests. All campers encourage inter-mingling in the center of the circle, as each front porch has two wooden plank benches for sitting and talking. The simplicity of the rough-hewn tents and the open-air tabernacle is a part of the unpretentious style of evangelism that brings friends back year after year.
Socializing in the center courtyard is done not just because there’s more room there, but also because it’s normally cooler outdoors than inside at this time of the year. The Indian Fields camp meetings are held during the first week of October. This week was established because in this farming based community, this was typically the time that crops are gathered and it was time to give thanks for their harvest.
The interior of the tents consist of two eight by ten rooms on the first floor, and one room on the second floor. Some larger families have three rooms on the first floor and two rooms on the second floor. A few items that the interior does not have are doors, furniture, or flooring on the first floor. Privacy in the family unit is not important, seemingly nor is comfort. The feather mattresses that are brought from home fit on a wooden bed frame. The first floor is dirt covered with freshly laid straw for each year’s religious experience.
The only tent in the 99-tent circle that varies significantly from the others is the preacher’s tent. This one is larger, and has glass in the windows and wooden doors. Do these incentives encourage anyone to become a preacher?
Has anyone noticed a subject that hasn’t been mentioned about “tenting” yet? Well there’s not much to discuss about the outhouses. It’s a simple fact: there are 99 tin roofed four-foot square functional outhouses on the property, one for each tent. I’ll allow you to determine what “functional” means.
Why have families enjoyed doing this for almost 200 years? Why do tent owners leave their tents to loved ones in their will? Many words come to mind: social life, traditions, fellowship, self-sacrifice and love of family. But these words cannot withstand the test of time without divine intervention and the desire for one human to share his faith through actions with another human. Have you been yet?
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821. He uses his 40-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 750 religious edifices throughout the state. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to contact him at: email@example.com.
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