Revival that began 140 years ago at the National Campground still relevant today

Melanie Tucker

For most of the year, silence befalls the National Campground in Greenback. But during one week each September, faith and history combine for an event like no other.

It’s time again for Christians to make their way to the National Campground Meeting, this year set for Sept. 8-12. As in years past, there are area pastors who lead the nightly services and musicians who lift their voices in song and praise. It’s not the work of one denomination. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and Quakers have been making their way here since 1873, 140 years ago.

The camp came into being as a way to help Greenback and the surrounding communities heal after the bitterness of the Civil War. Many families and communities were divided and it was the hope of the campground meeting organizers to bring about unity.

First time as speaker

The Rev. Ben Styles, pastor at Niles Ferry Baptist Church in Greenback, is one of this year’s speakers. His church has been involved in the annual revival for years but this is his first time as one of the worship leaders. He said standing in that historic place brings an almost indescribable feeling.

“There is just a different feel,” the pastor said. “You look at some of those nails that were placed there over so long ago. You look up into the rafters and you are outside. It does connect you with the historical faith and history of the United States.”

The four denominations that started this tradition — Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers — still participate to this day. In addition to Styles, speakers will include the Rev. Keith Ross, pastor at Oak Street Baptist in Maryville. He will deliver the message on Sept. 8. The Rev. Rich Carnes of Axley Chapel Presbyterian, will lead the service on Sept. 9, followed by Styles on Sept. 10. The Rev. Jon Faraone, pastor at Center Presbyterian in Tellico Plains, will speak on Sept. 11. The meeting will conclude with the Rev. Larry Fowler of Friendsville Friends Meeting.

Music will be, provided by First Presbyterian of Greenback, First Baptist of Lenoir City, Ball Play Friends, Mac and Becky Whitehead, Springview Baptist, Baker’s Creek, Greenback Memorial Baptist and Middlesettlements United Methodist.

Rooted in tradition

If there’s anyone who can talk about the rich tradition of the National Campground, it’s Bobby Anderson, who has been chairman of the annual revival for more than 20 years. Not only that, the first time he attended the meeting was as a baby in his mother’s arms. He’s now 80.

Anderson has been an attendee longer than anyone. He said as far as he knows, the revival has never had to be canceled for any reason. Not weather, not war.

In the early days of the annual celebration, people arrived by wagons and camped on the property for two weeks. It was held in August in years past, but September seemed a more suitable time for this outdoor gathering.

The first meeting was actually held in a tent, but the tabernacle shed was constructed a short time later. The timbers that were used came from nearby farms. The Rev. W.B. “Billy” Brown, a Presbyterian minister, held the first meeting in the new tabernacle.

The historical significance of this site hasn’t been overlooked. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation given back in 1972. The National Campground was also recognized with a Civil War Trails plaque. Some of the trustees of the National Campground were Unionists, others Confederates.

Mesh of old and new

Attendance has ebbed and flowed over the years, Anderson said. “Last year there was a good crowd,” he said.

Keith Ross is the worship leader and has done so in years past. He has been part of the annual gathering for 10 years. He said organizers want to appeal to young and old as they seek to keep the tradition alive.

“It’s been a good mix of young and old over the last few years,” he said. “We want to stretch across generations. We try to appeal to the young and at the same time keep the feel of the original campground. You don’t want to change it too much.”

Stiles agrees that how things are done should be preserved. There is electricity at the site now and portable bathrooms are placed there. Many of the worn-out wooden benches have been removed. But what has remained is the spirit of unity that brought this meeting into existence generations ago.

“I have been in full-time ministry for over 20 years now,” Styles said. “This is unique. I have never been in another setting like this.”