Salem Camp Meeting

June 8 - June 12, 2025

6:30 pm nightly service

Saline county is full of history with the Salem Campground and the heart. Annual camp meetings are a type of outdoor revival meeting that various denominations gather to fill ecclesiastical and spiritual needs for different populations as they moved west. In the Salem community, the Salem Campground has been home of the Salem Camp Meeting as early as 1837. We are home to an open air arbor that has been a part of Saline county history. 

For a full history of Salem Camp meeting and details be sure to check out the website and Facebook group.

Salem Camp Meeting History

Author: Charles Young

The Salem Campground is about 4 miles north of Benton at 1647 Salem Road, Benton, Arkansas 72019. The historical marker says,

"In the early days of Saline County's history the settlers would gather here after the crops had been "laid by" for rest, relaxation and to give thanks to The Lord. The early camp meetings were held under brush arbors lighted by pine knots and included daily preaching and singing services. The Salem Camp Meetings were first organized soon after 1830. Annual meetings have been held continuously on this hallowed spot since 1867. During its history many renowned ministers of Methodism have inspired those attending with their great preaching."

The 2019 camp meeting marked 152 years of continuous annual camp meetings, but there are records of meetings being held as early as 1837. The annual meetings were suspended during the Civil War, but resumed in 1867. In 2020 camp meetings were cancelled due to the Covid-19 Virus. The present arbor was built in 1913. Many people who attend camp meeting remember the era of camping on the grounds. Some of the older attendees recall when people still came via horse and buggy or horse drawn wagon, and some who lived a mile or two away walked to camp meeting. They recall attendance being close to 500 in those days, and remember hearing that nearly 1,000 had attended camp meetings in the past when some area churches would cancel their services so that their members could attend camp meeting.

In the early 1800's church on the farm consisted of families reading the Bible and singing in their homes on Sundays. Sometimes circuit riding preachers would visit different homes on Sundays, and neighbors would come to hear the preacher. In 1837 these meetings were formally recognized and organized when the Methodist Church created a Benton Circuit. Meetings were held under a brush arbor at what was then known as Scott's Campground. In the 1850's Patrick Scott donated land for the Church and campground at its present location. By 1859 the church and campground had adopted the name Salem. Another source says that a deed for 6 acres was recorded in 1877. In later years various other churches were established, but those who trace their religious heritage back to the early 19th century may learn that their ancestors attended Methodist meetings simply because those were among the first organized meetings.

After the crops had been harvested in the fall, people would come to the revival from long distances and camp around the arbor. Many of them brought chickens and other animals, and would stay for 2 weeks or so. They slept in tents, in and under wagons, and eventually some built simple cabins that were called tents.

In 1855, Sue Fletcher wrote while visiting some of her husband's relatives that lived north of Benton, of a Methodist Campground with a revival in progress. She said that it was the first time she had ever heard white people get happy and shout in church. It would later be said that people a mile away could hear the noise of the loud preaching and praying at the camp meeting, and there were reports of people praying loudly long into the night.

In 1859 Patrick Scott along with his brother and neighbors built a small log church for regular church services, but the fall camp meetings were probably still held outside under a brush arbor. Camp meetings were suspended during the Civil War, but resumed afterwards.

The campers (tenters) held services several times a day. Since many of them lived on farms with few neighbors, camp meeting was a time to make and renew friendships. Undoubtedly many courtships began at camp meeting.

The evening services were likely better attended because people who lived relatively close by in Benton would come out just for the evening service. Some people who would not go inside a church attended the camp meeting as it was free entertainment. Certainly some of those onlookers were converted to Christ.

Henry Scott's recollection of the "early days":

"I have seen the time when hundreds of people came in ox wagons, horse and mule wagons, and many walked for miles to come to camp meeting. Most of the preachers came on horseback. Down near the spring we built a corral where the preachers' horses were kept. Every camper brought a load of corn and hay to feed his stock, and all of us would chip in enough to feed the preachers' horses. I have seen as many as 25 preachers' horses in that corral at one time.

In those days everyone came to worship. When the horn blew everyone left their tents and came to the shed and stayed until the service was over. The preachers preached a convicting gospel of Jesus Christ, and I have seen mourners pour into the altar in groups of 50 at a time. Old Dr. Andrew Hunter's favorite sermon was on the prodigal son. When he reached the climax and called for mourners, they filled the aisles. Grove meetings were held each evening. About sundown the men would assemble and go to the woods north of the campgrounds, and the women would go to the south woods where each group would hold prayer meetings. I have seen as many as 10 men converted kneeling at a log in one meeting. Both groups would return to the shed for preaching. Sometimes they would come in singing and shouting, and it looked like the fire of the Holy Spirit burned through the whole congregation until it would be impossible for the preacher to hear himself preach. He would just call mourners and proceed with the service as if he had already preached.

I have seen them shout until way into the night. Many times after the congregation had been dismissed and the people had gone to their tents for the night, somebody would get happy and break into a shout. Then another on the other side of the encampment would start, and soon another and another would join in until there were people singing and shouting at almost every tent until the early hours of the morning. The next morning however, everyone was up and ready for the sunrise prayer service, the 9 AM service, the 11 AM service, and on through the day.

It used to be quite a job to keep order here. Once, a quart of whiskey was found hidden under a log near the grounds. It was turned over to Dr. Hunter who held it up at the next service and told the congregation if anyone would claim it he could have it. A big fellow rose up in the back and said, 'That's my whiskey'. Alright, said Dr. Hunter, come and get it. The man came forward and got it, but upon returning to his seat he was arrested. He was tried during a recess and had to pay a fine."

The schedule of services later changed to 10 AM, 3 PM, and 7 PM. From the book "Lest We Forget Our Character, Gems Gleaned From South Arkansas" by Rev. J. H. Riggin D.D., Rev. W. F. Evans, collaborator. Published about 1910 by Norton-Vail Printing Company about the meetings following the civil war:

"In 1867 G. W. Primrose, preacher in charge of Benton Circuit, C. O. Steel at Little Rock, and Andrew Hunter, presiding elder of the Little Rock District, established a permanent campground in Salem some 4 miles northwest of Benton. Six acres of land were donated near the log cabin church that had been built some years before, and a shed 30 X 52 feet with brush extension was erected.

The Scott boys, B. F. Zuber, J. D. Cameron, Samuel Cameron, Solomon Snow, and others engaging in the work and erecting tents (cabins) to be occupied by their families and guests. From Little Rock came W. F. Fields, the Fones Brothers, Woodall, and others tented. Some from Benton, and from the country far and wide came people with wagons and equipment for a few days' encampment, so that there was a large attendance.

Dr. Hunter was in his prime, Dr. Winfield, the man of spiritual fervor and eloquence, C. O. Steel, G. W. Primrose, Patrick Scott, and others made a rare company of preachers. The Spirit of the Lord attended the Word, and a great number of souls were converted and added to the Church. Andrew Hunter soon settled in the neighborhood and for many years held a sort of fatherly oversight of the meetings. A score of young men were converted there who became preachers, some of whom are of large reputation. The annual meetings were a source of quickening for the churches in Little Rock and Benton and the country all around.

This with Sardis Campground, soon after established some ten miles away, was of inestimable value in conserving the pristine values of the fathers and founders of all that community, for a host of souls brought into the kingdom of God have scattered abroad to become preachers, lay leaders, and saintly mothers to the glory of God. The godly men and women who founded the camp meeting have gone to their reward. May their children and children's children conserve their inheritance and transmit the holy fire to generations yet unborn, that they may praise the Lord."

The first seats in the "shed" were split boards and puncheons laid across logs with no backs. The pulpit was at one end of the shed with a platform for singers and other preachers behind the pulpit. Since electricity was not yet available, the evening meetings were lighted in the following manner. Scaffolds about four feet high were built on the four sides of the shed at a safe distance and covered with dirt. Fires were built here with rich pine knots which provided the light.

By 1900 a number of campsites and wells were established on the property. By 1925 several permanent "tents" had been built and attendance was estimated at 500 people per day. In 1936 some 68 families consisting of over 300 people were camping. Some time in the early 1900's, a generator (small power plant) would be set up on the campgrounds to provide electricity for lighting the arbor. This probably continued until about 1940 -- well after Little Rock and Benton residents had electricity. Rural areas such as the Salem Community had been neglected by electric companies until after the government established the Rural Electrification Administration.

In 1933 the Camp Meeting Association was formed. In the early 1930's ticks were said to be so bad that a person could not walk out the door without getting covered with ticks. A new law required all cattle owners to get their livestock dipped or sprayed with a solution that killed ticks. In the Salem community, the vat where cows were dipped was located on the extreme southwest corner of the campground property near a spring where the Gregory branch (creek) started. Mr. Noah Couch dug out the spring, and in 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a star shaped curb around the spring. When Rev. W. Roy Jordan was pastor of Salem Church, circa 1956 - 1958, he bought the lot next door to the church with plans to retire there. The church agreed to also sell him the area containing the spring. However, rather than retiring, he accepted the pastorate of another church and sold his land including the area containing the spring.

1945 August Garland C. Taylor, pastor of Gardner Memorial Methodist Church, North Little Rock preached the morning and evening services. Brother C. B. Wyatt, pastor at Grady was in charge of the music, and Mrs. Pauline Weger of Salem was the musician. Each day a different pastor preached for the 3 PM services.

By the 1950's about fifty cabins had been built surrounding the campgrounds. Since the church was established at the campgrounds, three different arbors and four different church structures have been built. The first arbor was brush and the first permanent structure was made of logs. The second arbor was also brush, but the second church was a frame structure. Sometime around 1909 or 1910 a fire started in the church and soon spread to the tabernacle which stood against the church. Both were quickly destroyed. In about 1913 the present tabernacle was built to replace the one that burned. Lloyd Ulmer stated that his Uncle Levi Ulmer and Noah Couch built it. In 1955 the tabernacle was moved from alongside the church to its present location and new bathrooms and bathhouses were built behind the church. In 1960 12 X 60 wings were added to the arbor.

1986 from the "Arkansas United Methodist" by Zetha Bone:
"... The preacher this year is Rev. Jim McKay, pastor of the Salem United Methodist Church in Conway and campus minister at UCA... Music is an
important aspect of the meeting, and choirs from various churches in the area are often invited to present special music each evening. A song leader
and pianist are as important as the evangelist because Methodists have always been a singing people. The old hymns of the church that have been
the inspiration for hundreds will once again be resounded. The song leader will be Dr. Randall Jones of Benton. His wife Debbie will be the pianist.
The host pastor each year is the resident pastor the Salem church which is adjacent to the camp. Rev. Tom Letchworth will preside at each service."

Some recent recollections:

Lois Snow Scott, descendant of Solomon Snow: "The story of salvation at the Salem Camp Meeting has certainly touched the hearts and souls of those who participated, and this type of experience still serves to benefit anyone who attends."

John Davis: "My great-grandfather, Asa Bragg, was one of those who were active in the Salem Methodist church in the early 1900s. My grandmother spoke often of the Salem camp meeting. Of course, the cows still had to be milked every morning, but camp meeting was a special time."

John Zuber: "Every year prior to camp meeting, I would go with Hugh Bragg to Pine Bluff in a pickup truck to haul several loads of wood shavings (sawdust) to cover the floor of the arbor and cabins. Hugh would ring the bell about 15 minutes prior to each of the three daily services, and then again just as it was time for the service to start."

John Pelton: "I remember the presence of the Holy Spirit as the camp meeting choir sang and worshipped God. As a youngster I was in awe of the pretty teen-aged girls all dressed up and walking to the arbor. Even though they were older and out of my league, I could still appreciate their beauty."

Anne Beyers: "We would have to make a trip to the far well because the the main well might be too busy, and we could walk by where the good-looking boys were hanging out. If one of the boys spoke to me, I would act surprised."

Betty Zuber Wilchman Curtis, descendant of Benjamin Franklin Zuber: "I had my first date with my future husband at Salem Camp Meeting."

Laura Cross: "I would join a group of other children who crowded around what was a kitchen window at the side of the church to buy an ice cream. A big water barrel was fastened to the side of a tree close to the bathrooms, and we would use paper cups similar to snow cone cups to get as much ice cold water as we wanted."

Daran Robertson, singer with His Story, "When I was growing up in the 1960's and 70's we walked about a mile to camp meeting from our house off Hart Road. I remember hearing several famous gospel singing groups at camp meeting including the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen, The Mid South Boys, and the Speer Family. When I was singing with the Voyagers Quartet, we sang at camp meeting, and I thought to myself, wow! - this is where those famous singers from my childhood sang."

Polly Burton. Since 1987, every time I attend camp meeting in this tabernacle I have a feeling of awe. In my mind's eye I can see our forefathers from the past. I can hear the singing and the sermons that stirred souls to commit their lives to God.

Charles Young, "I have been attending camp meeting since we moved to the Salem Community in the late 1980's. Some years I only got to attend a couple of nights due to my work schedule, but I always came when I could. Betty Bragg invited me to join the open choir for congregational singing, and I have been singing or playing an instrument at camp meeting ever since. I usually join the choir to help the men with their part of the "Rejoice" song.

With improving roads and transportation, fewer people actually camped on the campgrounds during camp meeting, so day services ended and camp meeting was eventually shortened to a weeklong event. However, there are several people who still fondly recall camping at camp meeting, and who are happy to share their memories with anyone who asks. The long tradition of having a fall season camp meeting was changed early in this century, and now camp meetings are usually held in June to avoid conflicts with school sporting events.

Many people remember the sawdust floor of the tabernacle. The sawdust had to be changed out each year, and was becoming quite an expense due to the diminishing availability of sawdust. In 2011 members of the camp meeting association contributed money to pay for a concrete floor.

Most of the history on this page is from Shirley Gregory's book, "Salem United Methodist and Camp Meeting 1836-2000." Shirley also put together a pictorial book in 2008. She still attends camp meeting each year, and her daughter, Laura Cross, leads the Salem UMC Praise Team and has served as president of the Camp Meeting Association and board of directors. Other books about the Salem Camp Meeting include;

In 2011 Rex Nelson wrote;

"The camp meeting tradition in Arkansas dates back to 1821, 15 years before Arkansas became a state.

According to the Old State House's website: "The religious camp meeting movement reached Arkansas with a big meeting at Cadron in 1821. The next year there were camp meetings at Crystal Hill and at the Ebenezer Camp Ground in Hempstead Howard County."

A camp meeting is a one- or two-week period of preaching, testimony, Bible study and fellowship. The whole family comes and camps out for the entire meeting. At first a campground might have a brush arbor - a wooden framework covered with vines and family tents. As camp meetings continued year after year at the same place, there would be a frame tabernacle and family cabins. Camp meetings also became famous for music and food - lots of food.

The 19th century camp meeting movement began in Logan County, Ky., about 1801. A large group of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian people met near Cane Ridge for two weeks in late August. That first meeting had many of the characteristics of later meetings, including the brush arbor and the family camps.

The idea spread rapidly, especially through rural areas and the frontier states and territories of the South and West. It was part of what people called a Great Awakening of religious and reform enthusiasm.

Arkansas locations of camp meetings included Sardis, Warnock Springs, Magnesia Springs, Midway, Gravelly, Mt. Pleasant, Pump Springs, Bailey, Bethel, Red Colony, Keener, Lost Creek, Sulphur Springs, Falcon, Liberty, Union, Clear Lake, Thornberry, Macedonia and Greathouse Springs."

His article went on to quote from some Arkansas camp meeting web pages including this Salem Camp Meeting page.

Read about some past meetings by clicking the year;

2023, 2022, 2021, 2020 - cancelled, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011

If you are looking for church campgrounds that still has campers in the summer as well as nightly services under an open arbor, check out;

Several other church groups have campgrounds with rich histories, but many of those have evolved to mainly summer camps for children and youth.