Long ago when but a boy at old camp meetin’ time
How my heart did leap with joy to hear the old bells chime
Callin’ all the saints of God onto the house of prayer
Oh such praying singing shouting for the Lord was there
Doc Watson – Old Camp Meetin’ Time
Tabernacles were part of the camp-meeting grounds built by Protestant religious groups in 19th and early 20th century rural America. As the name implies, these grounds were the sites for camp meetings.
The camp meeting originated in:
Britain and [was] once common in some parts of the United States, wherein people would travel from a large area to a particular site to camp out, listen to itinerant preachers, and pray. This suited the frontier lifestyle well, as such areas often lacked traditional churches and offered few other types of diversion from work. The practice was a major component of the Second Great Awakening, a rapid increase in the popularity of various Protestant denominations in the United States in the early 19th century, especially Methodists and Baptists.
“Camp Meeting,” Wikipedia
Camp meetings took place on permanent camp-meeting grounds. The grounds typically had an ensemble of buildings including cabins and a tabernacle (also called an arbor).
A camp-meeting ground was centered on the tabernacle, a large open-air building. The tabernacle was used for religious services during the camp meeting. It typically included rows of pews facing an altar, similar to a traditional church nave. The central position of the tabernacle signified its symbolic importance as the heart of the camp-meeting ground.
A tabernacle’s form consisted primarily of its structural system. This was typically a heavy timber “post-and-beam” (column and beam) frame. This frame was exposed, which gives these buildings a roughhewn tectonic character, similar to barns and other early post-and-beam building types.
The precursor of the tabernacle was the brush arbor, constructed of brushwood, to create a large enclosed space. The term “arbor” is sometimes used to refer to tabernacles.
Alabama Camp-Meeting Grounds
In rural Alabama during the 1800s and early 1900s, the camp meeting was a common type of religious service:
Young Methodist ministers such as Sturdevant and Gwinn rode the circuit (hence the term “circuit riders”). They wore heavy coats and wide-brimmed hats to fend off the elements, carried in their saddlebags a Bible and a hymnal, and delivered the word to the most remote parts of the frontier. Much of their labor was devoted to camp meetings or revivals, often held outdoors, that attracted much attention throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
G. Ward Hubs, “Methodism in Alabama”
Although Alabama once had a number of camp-meeting grounds, few original tabernacles remain. In addition to the Little Texas building, another early tabernacle is located on the Methodist camp-meeting ground established in 1828 in Ethelsville, Alabama. Like the Little Texas facility, it remains in use today.
Next: The Little Texas Tabernacle.
Click here to hear Loretta Lynn sing “Old Camp Meeting Time.”
Click here to hear George Jones sing “Old Brush Arbors.”
Hubs, G. Ward. “Methodism in Alabama,” Encyclopedia of Alabama http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1857
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013