Sometimes I wish that I could slip back in time for just a little while to see and experience some of the interesting things from the past.
Imagine for a moment walking toward an outdoor meeting being held in your community. As you walk up into an open field you see in the distance a rustic shelter and coming from that place you hear the strains of When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder being played upon stringed instruments or a pump organ that has been brought by wagon. A large crowd is gathering beneath bows of greenery that block out the sun, giving the place a yellow-green color as the branches filter the light. A slight breeze wafts across the crowd on this hot summer day as you find a place to sit on one of the long benches that were hastily constructed for the meeting. You can’t help tapping your foot to the sound of the music as everyone anticipates what is to come because you have just entered a brush arbor meeting.
Religious freedom has always been a part of our American heritage. There were many churches in the east but when our country began moving toward the south and west there were very few formal churches.
Brush Arbor meetings, sometimes called protracted meetings, or camp meetings, began in the late 1700s and continued into the mid 1900s. Itinerant ministers or circuit riding preachers would travel from place to place and would often send word ahead of their approximate time of arrival in a community. If there was no building, the people there would quickly erect a brush arbor for a meeting place. It was usually located in a well-traveled area along the side of a road and everyone was welcome.
Rev. James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, is said to be the one who came up with the idea of the brush arbor meetings but many denominations began having them around that same time. Rev. McGready was said to be a tall muscular man with a powerful voice that thundered out across the crowd as he preached.
Some people came from a quite a distance. People often lived in isolated places and the chance to hear a preacher was a great event. It took some people two or three days to arrive. They came by horseback, covered wagons, or walked and would come for miles to hear someone speak the Word of God. They would camp near the brush arbor where there was plenty of room for everyone.
These arbors were rough shelters made by driving upright poles into the ground and then weaving longer poles across the top to support brush made up of green leafy branches that would be placed on top to make a primitive shelter. At the front of the arbor there would be a pulpit in the center that someone would have made for the occasion.
The brush arbors provided shade and at least some protection from the rain. The communities that had permanent church buildings looked forward to the brush arbor meetings in the summer because any meeting inside of a building was stifling due to the heat. There was no air-conditioning at that time and the only fans were of the hand-held variety that was often given out by businesses or politicians. They were made of cardboard and usually had a religious scene printed on one side.
Oftentimes the brush arbor meetings lasted all day and then into the night. The day might begin with Bible school in the morning for children and singing in the afternoons. Sometimes a choir would be made up of folks from many different denominations. There weren’t any hymnbooks to hand out. People learned the hymns from one another and memorized them. Sometimes the only instrument might be a tuning fork to begin a song. There were a variety of hymns that would be sung such as Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown, Amazing Grace, Bringing In The Sheaves, and Shall We Gather At The River. The talented and the not so talented would bring special music in solos, duets, and quartets to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
When folks came to the brush arbor meetings, a lot of hymn singing and fellowship took place. Since many came from a distance in wagons and buggies, there wasn’t time to go home and prepare a meal so tablecloths or sheets were spread on the ground and meals were brought and shared together. This is probably how the term “all day singin’ and dinner on the ground” got started.
In the evenings a visiting minister would speak to a crowd that was often so large that it spilled out from under the brush arbor. Some of those meetings went on well into the night and children would fall asleep on pallets made for them on the ground. Sometimes the crowd would grow larger with each evening as folks heard about the meetings. If the crowd grew, they had a simple building program, they would simply add two or three more arbors to make more room.
Almost everyone in the community would attend the meetings no matter what their denomination. People did only their necessary chores and made the meetings a priority and sometimes they lasted for weeks.
Some of those who remember those old brush arbor meetings say that those meetings were probably why the jails were smaller in those days than they are now. At least there was opportunity in these open meetings for everyone to consider the condition of their souls.
Some folks wrestled with turning their lives over to God. It was at those old rustic altars that many people came to pray and walked away brand new, their lives forever changed by receiving Christ as their Savior. They went away knowing forgiveness and peace with God.
In 1834, an eighteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Cummings kept a diary. She probably lived in the Ozarks and part of her diary included attendance at a brush arbor meeting. People at that time often wrote words the way that they sounded to them. This is an excerpt of her diary. The spelling is as it was in the diary:
Brush Arbor Diary
July 12 – My life aint to intresting I dont think but I guess Poppa does. He left day afore yesterday and took the wagon into town to get suplize. Poppa told me hed bring me a suprize when he come back but I didnt no what he ment.
It was round dinner time when he come riding up all excited. Momma was fixing dinner and I was doing my best to hep her and keep the younguns away from the kitchen. Momma told Bobby whose 9 and Sarah whose 5 to go outside and play and to stay out of the barn where brother Jake was a milking and feeding.
We herd all kinds of comotion and looked out. There come Poppa up the yard karying Sarah with Bobby taging long behind. He was smiling as big as a possum when he seen us. Corse he knew somebody was missing so he sent Bobby down to the barn to fetch Jake.
Jake come a running up. Jakes only 16 but Poppa says he looks like a man. Hes big and strong like Poppa but hes also stubborn and hot headed which gets him in trouble lots.
Poppa told Jake to hep unload the wagon. They brot in all the suplize but Poppa brot in something under his arm. He give it to me afore dinner. This diary is for your birthday, he said. Your geting to be a lady and I think you be needing something to write in when we go to the meeting up north middle of the week.
He smiled at me and winked and I think hes got something on his mind. Hes bin wanting me to git married off but there aint no one round here to marry. He always winks when hes got something up his sleeve.
I didnt know zakly what a brush arbor meeting was until Poppa said that it was like Sunday meeting like we had when we lived back east. The only difrence he said was that the meeting was helt outside for 2 weeks.
July 14 nite – We left home early this morning. We rode all day and the trail was ruff and dusty. Im tared alredy but we should be there day after tomorry.
July 16 nite – We arrived not long before the sun went down. I never saw so many people together since we left Tennessee. Folks was all round, some still in there wagons like we decided to do but some put up tents. We found us a dandy spot next to the crik and Momma and Sarah and me got some stuff together for a fare for dinner while Poppa and Jake took keer of the horses. .
July 17 – After breakfast Poppa and Jake heped build the arbor. I watched a while then kept an eye on the younguns whilst they waded in the crik.
The preacher come in bout noon. Hes a young Babtist circut rider name of Brother Daniel Truelove. After he heped with the arbor he come round and Momma and Poppa talked him to staying and eating with us. After supper Poppa and him sat round and talked. Hes young and nice and he likes to visit. He told Poppa hed only been spreading the gospel for 2 year. He ust to be a real ruff fell before he seen the light. Then after he did he herd the Lord a calling to him so he had to go out and preach.
July 18 noon – We had our first meeting in the arbor this morning. Brother Truelove didnt seem nervous none.
The meeting lasted most all morning and even tho I was gitting tared seting there, I didnt say nothing cause Poppa shore wouldnt have liked none of us younguns being rowdy.
July 28 – We went to the meeting this evening and I got real excited. Brother Daniel walked around the arbor afore we started and he was so kind and friendly to everone. He was shaking hands and smiling up a storm. He come over and shook hands with Poppa and gave a nod and smile to Momma. When he come to me I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye as he said howdy do, Miss Beth. Nice to see you here. There was lots of singeing afore he started with his message. There was songs like Shall We Gather At The River and Momma’s favorite Amazing Grace. Everbody was happy.
Then we had some praying and Brother Daniel come up front. Everbody set still and wasnt no word spoke at all. His face had no expresion except that it was strong and gentle. After standing there a while absorbing the silence of us he began to speek. As he kept preaching I could tell he ment and believed ever word. I still remember most of what he said:
“Brothers and sisters I stand afore you to tell whats in store for you. Sinner your days are numbered. I can say for some of you that the Lord has bin tolerant with your wicked sinnings for long enuff. Hes going to come for you some day. Right now he might be coming. Will you be redy? Repent brother. Repent. Come up to the front and ask forgiveness. God will write your name in His eternal book. The Lambs Book Of Life will hold your spirtual birth sertificate with your new name so you will be assured a place in Heaven. Repent. You will be a new creature when Jesus touches your heart. The dog’ll even no you bin saved. Repent and Heaven will rejoce.”
July 31 nite – Today was the last day of the meeting. Brother Daniel give his last sermon this morning and in the middle of the evening he had babtizing in the crik. Jake was one of the first ones. They stood out in the middle where it was about wast deep. Brother Daniel dunked Jake in the water then brot him right back up. The light in Jakes eyes was something to see.
I think Jake is realy serious about this cause we had a long talk last night. Hes changed in the last few days and I think its good the way him and Brother Daniel have been talking together.
Everbody was clearing out not long ago when we left. Jake was a real help to Poppa gitting packed. He didnt ask no questions and he wasnt stubborn like he used to be.
I got to where I realy liked Brother Daniel. Hes kind and honest and real rightous. I thot it would be the last time I saw him today but he came over smiling as usual and kind of made me happy by what he said. I herd your Poppa say you was starting back home today and I said well seems to me that Im a heading that same way. Your Poppa then said, well come and ride with us. So I said, shore would love to and now I guess Ill be riding a spell with you.
He winked at me like Poppa does when hes got something up his sleeve. Now I think that Daniel has something up his sleeve to.
(Used by permission, Bittersweet Inc.)
From Elizabeth’s diary, we can see much of what it was like to attend a brush arbor meeting. The diary continues on after the brush arbor meeting and later records the marriage of Elizabeth to Rev. Daniel Truelove.
We don’t see many brush arbors anymore. Today there are many ornate churches and places of worship with every comfort from air conditioning and padded pews to sound systems and orchestras. Perhaps it would do us all some good to revisit, at least within our hearts, a brushy cathedral of green boughs once more and kneel before our God in an old brush arbor.
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About Pamela: My husband and I live in Missouri. I enjoy writing, music, and country living. I write “Pam’s Corner” for the local newspaper and many stories have been published on the internet as well as in several books.
I have loved music and writing ever since I can remember. I play piano at church and I’m an avid reader. One of my goals is to be able to write for my children and grandchildren so special memories will not be forgotten. We have a CD entitled “I’ll Walk You Home”. If you would like one, they are available by freewill donation. More information as well as a clip from the CD is on the website at:http://www.blaines.us/PamyPlace.htm
“Security is not the absence of danger,
but the presence of God”
“NO ONE IS USELESS IN THIS WORLD
WHO LIGHTENS THE BURDEN OF ANYONE ELSE”