Bethel United Methodist Church in Elysian Fields will celebrate its annual Camp Meeting services at Bethel Camp Grounds Aug. 11-18.
The Aug. 18 service will be the annual Homecoming Sunday, with dinner on the grounds following the 11 a.m. service. Each weeknight service before Homecoming Service will begin at 7 p.m.
Sometime after the organization of Bethel Methodist Church in 1850, the first Camp Meeting was held. The church and the Camp Meeting were located on the same ground, about three miles west of Elysian Fields on West Road. Later the church was moved, but the Camp Meeting is still held every year in the place where it first began.
The pastor at the time the Camp Meeting was organized was Rev. W. H. Ardis. The first year there were only four or five families who tented because of a fever, according to the late Mrs. A. C. Tiller. The tents were made of jute bagging, and the meals were cooked on outdoor fires. Services were held under brush arbors until 1880. At that time the first tabernacle made of lumber was constructed. It burned in 1919 but was rebuilt in time for the revival, which was held in August. This tabernacle burned in January 1982. A metal tabernacle was constructed in time for the August services.
As many as 36 cabins, or tents as they continued to be called, were on the grounds at one time or another — many of them with one to four families in each cabin. Some of the campers stayed in the church. At times there were as many as 10 or 12 visiting preachers; in later years, seven or eight preachers. The visiting preachers would come in buggies, and some of the church members would take care of the feeding and watering of their horses. Everyone enjoyed wonderful, cold water from a local spring. A big wooden barrel was filled with the water and placed on a wooden platform attached to one of the trees still at the campgrounds.
The meetings usually lasted ten days. Services for the day began with a sunrise prayer service, a 9 a.m. service, and an 11 a.m. service. In the late afternoon they began at 3 p.m. The lights for these early Camp Meetings were on elevated platforms scattered about the grounds. The source of these lights was pine knots. Later these gave way to kerosene lights, then gasoline and now electric lights furnished by the Panola-Harrison R.E.A.
During the years there have been several couples who married at Camp Meeting. Two deaths occurred on the camp ground—Dr. Downs in 1886 and Jim Mitchell in 1912, and the funeral services for Margaret Metcalf Tiller were held at the camp grounds in 2000.
Dirt floors were used in the first camp houses built out of lumber. Water was furnished by the spring that remains there today. The tabernacle floor was of sawdust, as it is today. One of the things that has remained the same is the joy that the children have in playing in the sawdust after the evening service.
When people began to have cars, the camping stopped but the revival continued, beginning the second Sunday in August and ending on the third Sunday, which has been designated as Homecoming Sunday. Dinner is served on long tables under the sycamore trees immediately following the 11 a.m. service.