The Old-Time Camp Meetin'
The old-time camp meetings in Alabama and Georgia were seasons of great social as well as religious enjoyment. They were annual reunions of families and friends, coming as they did when the crops were “laid by,” and farmers were at leisure for a few weeks. A cool, shady grove in the country, where there was plenty of good water for man and beast, was selected for the camp ground.
Rough cabins were constructed, or tents spread, for the accommodation of the multitudes who attended these occasions, and the meetings would continue two or three weeks, according to circumstances. No locks or bars were used on the doors; in fact, many of the tents had no door shutters at all, curtains were being used as screens.
Hospitality by common consent was extended alike to all visitors who chose to attend these religious meetings. No hostess ever knew just how many guests would at any time sit down to her bountiful table, or how many tables full there would be before the hungry throng was fed; therefore, ample preparations were made at each tent for any emergency.
The “stand” occupied the center of the grounds. It was an immense shelter, with pulpit at one end, and rough pine benches with wheat straw spread on the ground underneath. Chairs were reserved near the pulpit and in the “Amen corner” for the preachers who took part in the services.
Everybody in Coosa Valley settlement went to camp meeting – old maids, old bachelors, widows, widowers, the young people and children. People came in crowds for miles along the river and tented, and others camped at their wagons outside the grounds and sold watermelons, ginger cakes and cider, and didn’t go to meeting.
Between the fretting and squally children, loud-talking boys, fighting dogs and braying mules, you could hardly hear a word the preacher said.
Camp meeting is a fine place for something good to eat, for couples to court and for old people to get together and talk over old times; but as Caledony says, “It hain’t no place fer babies, an’ I know in reason ef babies had ther druthers they’d never ’tend no camp meetin’s.”
The little things are often lugged about in the hot sun, whining and fretting all the time, and fed on ginger cakes and green apples, or put on an old quilt spread on the ground; and while the mothers attend the preaching they are left to the mercy of the dogs that come along and snatch the chicken legs out of their hands.
The camp ground was only a few miles from Squire Hamilton’s, so Betsy, Caledony, Cousin Pink and Buddy walked; the old folks rode in the ox wagon. Along the way the over took Miss Patience Potter riding her little bob-tail, sorrel, pacing nag.
Miss Patience is a tall, lean, lank old maid, and has ridden that poor old “critter” so long that people say they look alike. Caledony said they both looked like they had been raised on nubbins. She rigs herself out in all colors of the rainbow, and wears her dresses short to look young.
It was the talk at camp meeting that year that she was trying to catch old Brother Cole, a widower preacher. But he didn’t seem to suspect it, and was running around with the young girls.
Miss Patience had a way of going to him every morning before preaching to talk with him, as she said, about her “speritual welfare.” When others remarked on it she told them he was her Pas-ture and she reckoned as how she had a right to talk to him about her soul, and it was nobody’s business but hers.
She told him she was a sinner, and a benighted sinner at that. But he assured her she wasn’t any worse than thousands who walked to and fro upon the earth. She went to him regularly every morning, and each time told him the same thing, while he continued to praise her and tell her she was as good as anybody.
Oh, if he could have seen deep down into the bottom of her heart how she loved to have him tell her she was good and was no sinner at all, but all the time was getting riper and riper for the Kingdom.
“Yes, I am a sinner,” she said, “at heart I am a sinner, a turrible, benighted sinner, an’,” pausing to wipe a tear from her eye, “a lone, lorn cree-ter, an’ I needs somebody to lead me down the dark, thorn besot path o’ life in this benighted, sin-struck, untimely world.”
The old man had said all he could to console her, and was at his row’s end and didn’t know what else to say. At last he made up his mind the next time she called herself a sinner he would agree with her.
Early one morning when she went to talk with him she found him alone, sitting on a log outside his tent door. He offered her a seat beside him, and asked her how she felt. She blushed and twisted the corner of her apron.
“I got a lonesome sorter feelin’,” she answered; “I don’t feel no better’n I did yistidy. Yo’ thinks I ain’t no sinner, but ef yo’ calls a-settin’ up of an idol on the earth like hit was a golden calf, an’ a-fallin’ down an’ a-worshippin’ of hit a sinner, then I knows I am a sinner an’ a benighted sinner at that. Leastways the idol I worships ain’t no calf, nor is he – is hit, I mean – anyways liken unto a calf, but I worships hit all the same as ef hit was a calf.”
Miss Patience then opened her snuff box, took a dip and waited for his reply.
Parson Cole pulled off a big quid of tobacco and put it in his mouth, chewed it a little while, and then said:
“I’ve said all I kin say, Sister Potter. I don’t pertend to know the workings o’ no man’s heart, ner ’oman’s nuther, fer that matter, and ef yo’ thinks yo’ air a sinner, an’ in course yo’ knows the in’ardness o’ your own heart better’n me, and hit hain’t fer me to ’spute your word nohow, long as yo’ air a ’oman, an’ a ole ’oman, hit do look reasonable to ’spose as how yo’ knows your own heart, so ef yo’ maintains that yo’ air a sinner, I reckon as how yo’ air.”
By the time the big tears were standing in poor Miss Patience’s eyes – tears of disappointment – and the “benighted sinner” was mad. She wasn’t expecting him to agree with her; she thought he would keep on saying she was good, and perhaps tell her that he would be glad to take her by the hand and lead her down “the dark, thorn besot path o’ life.”
But instead of that, he had agreed with her that she was a mean, miserable sinner. She didn’t like it, and was making up her mind to tell him she was as good and even better than some who set themselves up as Christians – some of the widows and young girl he was going with. But by the time she had choked up so she couldn’t speak. So he continued:
“A Christian is a monstrous hard thing to find. I tell yo’, Mother Potter, a Christian, a real sho’ nuff Christian, is hard to find; powerful hard to find, an’, Mother Potter, yo’ don’t hardly know a real, sho’ nuff Christian when yo’ meets one, an’ all that’s left now fer me to do, Mother Potter, is to -- ”
But the old maid rose in her wrath. She could have stood his agreeing with her and calling her any sort of sinner, but when it came to calling her “Mother Potter” it was a little more than she could stand. She was hopping mad. She raised her voice high and talked fast.
“You needn’t Mother Potter me! I’m no mother! I’m not the mother o’ nobody! An’ I’m not the stepmother o’ nobody! An’ ef yo’ mean -- ” here she broke down when she thought how she would like to be the step-mother of his children.
“An’ ef yo’ mean to hint I’m old, I know I ain’t so powerful young, but yo’ hain’t no spring chicken yo’ own se’f!”
She then hurriedly arose from the log, put her snuff box in her pocket and walked off, leaving the poor old man to wonder what he had done.
That night after Brother Brown had preached a real good sermon, Brother Cole, in conclusion, took for his text: “A Christian Is a Hard Thing to Find.”
Now Mrs. Cass is a widow, and always sit up near the pulpit ready to shout if Brother Cole preaches. She doesn’t shout for any of the “town preachers,” but as sure as Brother Cole begins she sets in to shouting, and sometimes goes off in a trance.
“My bretherin an’ sisterin,” said Brother Cole, “a Christian, a real, sho’ nuff Christian, is a monstrous hard thing to find.
“A counterfeit dollar er a spiled aig looks as good as any till yo’ comes to examine one an’ bus’ t’other–ar; then you’ll find, my bretherin, a mighty sight o’ difference–ar; an’ so hit is with a Christian, er folks what calls they-selves Christians–ar.
“My bretherin an’ sisterin, ef I was called upon to shoot a Christian–ar, whar do yo’ s’pose I’d go to find one–ar? Why, I’d take per-tick-ler aim–ar, an’ I’d pint my gun all around–ar, at fust one an’ then t’other–ar,” (everybody dodged) “to see who I’d shoot an’ who I wouldn’t–ar.”
Mrs. Cass was listening and waiting for the time to shout. Miss Patience Potter fanned herself with her turkey-tail fan, hoping he would point at her for a Christian.
“An’, Brother Roberson, I wouldn’t shoot yo’–ar, an’ Brother Thompson, I wouldn’t shoot yo’–ar, an’ Sister Pinkney, I wouldn’t shoot yo’–ar, ner likewise yo’, Sister Jenkins–ar,” (Mrs. Jenkins dodged behind Mrs. Pinkney), “ner likewise yo’, Sister Haskins–ar, ner none o’ yo’ worldly mindings on that bench over thar,” (Mrs. Haskins wore a new Sunday bonnet).
“I tell yo’, my sisterin, fine clothes can’t take nobody to heaven–ar, an’ folks can’t go to heaven with yerbobs in ther yers–ar; an’ Brother Johnson, I wouldn’t shoot yo’–ar, ner Brother an’ Sister Simmons, I wouldn’t shoot nairy one o’ you’uns–ar, an’ Sister Patience Potter, yo’ know I wouldn’t shoot you’–ar; no, that I wouldn’t–ar.” (Here everybody smiled.)
“An’ likewise also I wouldn’t take aim at nair one o’ them onconsarned sinners on them back benches–ar, what comes here to meetin’ to laugh an’ talk–ar. Oh, you onworthy, onconsarned, benighted sinners, yo’ needn’t dodge, kase I wouldn’t shoot a hair o’ yo’ heads–ar. Yo’ that has backslid, an’ backslid, till yo’ done got plum on them back benches–ar; I say hit, an’ I say hit ag’in–ar, I wouldn’t shoot nairy one o’ you’-uns–ar.
“As I was a-gwine on to say–ar, a Christian is a powerful hard thing to find–ar, an’ when yo’ starts out to shoot one hit hain’t like shootin’ o’ squirrels that yo’ kin find anywhars on the spring branch–ar.
“Christians, my bretherin, is as skase as hen’s teeth–ar; an’ when yo’ tries to find a Christian to shoot–ar, hit’s pint blank like huntin’ fer a needle in a hay stack–ar.
“As I was a-gwine on to say–ar, ef I was commissioned to shoot a Christian, bretherin, I’d load my gun–ar, an’ I’d put in a good load o’ buck shot–ar, an’ I’d ram the load in good–ar, an’ I’d take per-tick-ler aim–ar, an’ as I said afore–ar, I wouldn’t aim at none o’ you’uns–ar, I’d pint it right down thar at Sister Cass–ar, an’ Sister Cass, I’d pull the trigger an’ fire the whole load into you–ar!”
Sister Cass set in to shouting and meeting broke up. Miss Patience mounted her little bobtail sorrel packing nag, and rode sorrowfully home.
Source: Hamilton, Betsy Ward. Southern Character Sketches. Richmond: Dietz, 1937. 42-48.
Nicola Hart prepared and proofread this typescript.
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