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Methodists Return Again to Woods Settled by Ancestors 150 Years Ago

September 09, 1990|DAVID L. LANGFORD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SHILOH, Miss. — Each year they come with their Bibles and bedding, cooking utensils and Methodist hymnals, food for the body and sustenance for the soul.

As they gather in late summer for the Shiloh Camp Meeting, a throwback to the days of Methodist circuit-riding preachers, someone is sure to tell the story of how it began more than 150 years ago.

Here in the piney woods of south-central Mississippi, church history relates, a wagon train stopped at a cool spring, a needed rest for the wandering Protestant pioneers and their oxen and slaves. The journey along wilderness trails out of the backcountry of South Carolina had been arduous and the prairie of Texas was still a long way off.

During the pause at the spring, the story goes, a young girl whose name has been lost wandered into the woods to play. Swinging on a grapevine, she fell and broke her neck.

Delayed by a day for a proper Christian burial, which was watched from a distance by a group of curious Choctaw Indians, several of the families decided that these gentle, wooded hills offered as good a place as any to start a new life.

The year was 1828.

As the wagon train pushed on, the lingering families began felling the ample pine trees to build cabins and a church, which they named Shiloh for the church they had left behind in the Orangeburg District of South Carolina.

Four years later, they held their first camp meeting, a convenience for frontier preachers on horseback who served widely scattered congregations.

To this day the descendants of those original settlers--mostly of German, Scottish and Scottish-Irish stock--return to Shiloh each August for 10 days of concentrated old-time religion.

They share a sense of history, family pride and a love of the Methodist tradition.

Shiloh, which for years was called the "Dutch Colony" because of the Germanic background of many of its settlers, is located about eight miles south of the town of Pelahatchie. It is still little more than a settlement, with a church and cemetery and an open-sided tabernacle surrounded on three sides by crude, weathered cabins they call tents.

The tents have no windows, only vents. Until recent years they had no floors. Sawdust sufficed, as it still does on the front porches and in the aisles of the tabernacle.

There is no air conditioning, no television, no radio. The campers would have it no other way.

At midafternoon on a recent day, during a break in the prayer meetings and worship services that go on from morning until well into the night, the campers have taken refuge from the 95-degree heat in the shade of their sawdust front porches. This is a time for visiting relatives (most of them are kin in one way or another), gossiping and shelling beans for the evening meal. Some kids are shooting baskets outside the tabernacle.

Katherine Varner, mother of a 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, is sitting alone reading. The wife of a Jackson business executive, she says she has not missed a camp meeting since she was 2 months old.

Not one?

"That's unheard of," she says. "This is better than Christmas. Christmas is just one day. This is 10 days."

Mrs. Willa Dean Perkins, one of the women shelling butter beans they had picked from their gardens that morning, says she has missed only one camp meeting in all her 70 years. That was 38 years ago when her husband's job took them too far away.

That's not a record, either. They say Mabel Sowell, church historian, has a perfect attendance record of 80 years, but she was away this day tending an ailing sister in Meridian.

How do the children feel about it?

"They wouldn't miss it for anything," Varner says.

Since her home is only a few miles away, close enough to commute to the services, why would Varner subject herself and her family to the deprivations of the Spartan cabins?

"Until you sleep with sawdust in your bed, you haven't experienced it," she says. "It's hard to express the feelings I have."

At 3 p.m. the church bell peals, summoning the campers to the afternoon service. The butter beans and basketballs are put away and the porches empty as the campers file into the tabernacle.

Down a slope in a clump of woods behind the tents is the clear spring still used by the Shiloh settlement today, shielded by a gazebo and surrounded by a garden.

Those early emigrants from South Carolina were said to be fleeing political turmoil brought on by that state's defiance of federal law, a defiance that eventually led to secession from the Union. The Rev. M. R. Jones, writing 100 years later, said:

"When the Legislature of that state passed what was called the Nullification Act, nullifying some of the laws of Congress, many of the citizens of the state became apprehensive that there would be serious trouble with the United States government. Therefore, many of the South Carolinians sold out their possessions, loaded their ox wagons, and started westward."

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