On the world stage, John Quincy Adams had become the sixth president of the U.S.; Charles X was crowned king of France and in England the first public steam railway ran between Stockton and Darlington.
It was 1825, and while such news of the day captured the headlines, settlers finding their way to an area that would someday be known as Rockdale County made history too. They held the first Smyrna Presbyterian Campmeeting, an event that actually predates the 1827 founding of the historic church by two years.
It all came about when the Hopewell Presbytery established a system of gatherings known as campmeetings and worshipers held the first of what has now become the 187th Campmeeting at Smyrna Presbyterian Church. This year, the week-long worship and fellowship event will be June 20-26 at the historic campground on the church campus, which is noted as the oldest Calvinist campground in the U.S., according to a published history of Conyers.
Montie Davies, who chairs the campground committee this year, grew up attending campmeetings with her family. A native of Conyers and longtime member of Smyrna Presbyterian Church, Davies said people come back to campmeeting each year for a number of reasons.
“People look forward to the messages from the preachers, the food in the dining hall, the swimming pool and, of course, seeing old friends and being with family,” Davies said.
Campmeeting services next week will include worship services Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 7:30 and a Sunday morning service at 10:30, with the Rev. William B. “Billy” Wade Jr., pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Covington bringing the message.
The retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Lithonia, the Rev. Jim Martin, will lead the worship services Monday through Thursday nights at 7:30. Eric Vess, vice president of Reaching the Remaining Unreached and director of LeaderCare in Lynchburg, Va., will lead the Monday through Thursday morning Bible study at 11. Music will be provided by Lanier Gable and Betty Sharpe.
Smyrna Presbyterian Church is part of the Presbyterian Church USA and hosts the annual campmeeting on the grounds of its sprawling campus. Worshipers of all denominations attend the event each year to hear the messages and the special music as they sit under the historic tabernacle.
Built in 1891, the tabernacle is where campmeeting services are held each year. It is also used for vacation Bible school, camps, retreats, weddings and other activities.
According to church history, obtained from the Smyrna Presbyterian website, www.smyrnapc.com, after that first campmeeting in 1825, a few years went by before another meeting was held in 1832, followed by another in 1833. The next meeting took place in 1843. The Smyrna congregation moved to is present location in 1840. In 1846, campmeeting was appointed by the Presbytery.
An open arbor, covered with boards and later covered with shingles, served the worshipers until 1891, when the present tabernacle was built.
The original tabernacle was made of wood with pinned mortise joints held together by notched braces. The structure was lit with tallow candles on stakes in three corners. Three large green timbers were brought in and arranged to make a platform 4 feet square with dirt piled in the center with a hollow scooped out, according to church history.
Boys who were 12 gathered the knots and lit the fire. People could see their way to and from the tabernacle to the tents and the semi-permanent cabins built around the tabernacle.
Families came to campmeeting in covered wagons, bringing with them the cook stove, bedding, clothes, animals, tents and equipment. Cows were milked and the milk was stored in the spring to keep it cool. Chickens were used for meat and eggs.
Meals were prepared over the open fire or in the cook stoves. Campers went swimming in the lake and the spring provided the campground with water.
Through the years, improvements were made with cabins built and named for the churches that built them. Those names include Avondale, Presbytery, Ormewood, Decatur, Central, North Avenue, Pryor Street, Druid Hills, Peachtree-McDonough, Westminister, First Atlanta (Lyon’s Den), Covington, Philadelphia, Georgia Avenue, Gordon Street, Rock Springs, Kirkwood, Capital View and Morningside.
Everyone is invited to attend the 187th Campmeeting at Smyrna Presbyterian Church, located at 2920 Ga. Highway 212 in Conyers.
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.