Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975
An American heritage that has always been cherished is the right of religious freedom. Americans have always been free to gather together to listen to the word of God. For the early New Englanders it was not a difficult task, for the people lived in close communities centered around a church. But as the frontiersmen moved farther west, people moved farther away from a community life, becoming semi-isolated from their neighbors and the outside world. Still, the people longed for fellowship and a place to worship together.
Then around the late 1790's a powerful Presbyterian preacher came up with the answer. His name, James McGready, and the answer, the camp or brush arbor meetings. The technique he developed was one which used the resources provided by the hilly regions of Kentucky and Tennessee where he preached. Trees and brush were used to build a temporary out-of-doors shelter for the people who came from miles and miles around to hear the word of God. This protected them from the harsh sunlight and rainfall.
The meetings became more numerous and people attending grew in numbers. The meetings were so popular that as people moved west into the Ozarks the idea spread. Settlers came from all over for religious inspiration, companionship and sometimes just out of curiosity. At times, so many gathered that two, maybe three of the arbors had to be built to accomodate the crowd.
When the circuit rider would pass through people all over would come hear them, regardless of his denomination His preachings were harsh. He spoke time and again of fire and brimstone, Hell and damnation, repentance and salivation. Because of the intensity of emotion built up in the congregation, people wept for their souls, cried out for mercy and shouted for joy with their salvation.
This was an acceptable emotional release from the stern reality of pioneer living. Troubles were left at home and their minds were opened to the preachings and the calling of the Spirit. The number of converts was stupendous, as well as the increase in members in the churches. After being converted, many would gather into groups to tell of their experiences. Singing and praises to God came swelling from the throats of the people as their hearts were filled with the Spirit.
Years passed until the Presbyterians foresook their birth-child, feeling that it was no longer acceptable in their beliefs, and they abandoned it. The Methodists took it up, cared for and fed it and adopted it as their own. But the Methodist group was not the only denomination in the Ozarks that used the brush arbor meetings, for in the early days Baptists and Christians took part.
In many regions the brush arbor meetings soon became almost commercialized. That along with the greater numbers of settlers and growth of towns, permanent churches were built and the outdoor meetings died out. But in the back woods of the Ozarks, brush arbor meetings continued for years. Even today there can be heard stories of meetings of long ago and not so far in the past from people all around the region. Occasionally brush arbor meetings are still held in the hot summer months.
These meetings did not play an important part in the total American religious development, since they were a product of a regional group. But for the Ozarkians and other southern people, the brush arbor meetings played a vital part in the development of their religion.
TODAY AND YESTERDAY
When I attended a brush arbor meeting at the annual "Hillbilly Days" at Bennett Spring State Park, I was astounded at the changes that have taken place since the early brush arbor meetings. I wasn't there then, but I have heard tell of yesterdays and in my mind I can imagine the changes.
Complete families and groups of friends crowded into the cars and campers as they traveled along the paved highways. They had come from neighboring towns in only a few short minutes and neighboring states in a few short hours. They were dressed in odd fashions of shorts, tops and hats: tourists looking for a vacation release from their jobs, their hang-ups and their pint-sized living quarters.
The frontiersmen and women were different. The families traveled together in their horse or mule drawn covered wagons. Many times the men and older boys rode horses or walked outside of the wagon with women and children inside when covering the rough and dusty trails. They came from their homes, some fifty to a hundred miles away traveling two or three days. Their dress was everydaY, normal clothes--dresses and bonnets or homemade pants and shirts and felt hats: a pioneer family looking for an emotional release from their labor, their worry and their isolated living.
After arriving at the state park, the campers parked their vehicles and plugged into the utility poles near the spring branch. They brought out their lawn chairs and portable stoves, bought food from the nearby store and prepared it by opening cans and warming it. Their water came from a faucet. They put up their tents and sleeping bags or crawled into their campers for the night.
When the settlers arrived, they unhitched the wagons and led the horses to water before hobbling them to graze. Their food was cooked over a campfire prepared from the supplies they raised and brought along. Drinking and cooking water was dipped out of the creek. They slept in their wagons or made makeshift tents from what they owned or found like sheets, quilts or branches.
The campers always made a point to bring along their complicated and expensive fishing equipment and swimming gear. The children would go to the handy pool, guarded and kept clean for tourists. Nights were spent talking to people in the camper next to them or sitting around listening to the radio.
The frontiersmen spent the days working and attending meetings, getting in some fishing with a line, hook and a pole cut from the trees. Children swam in the creek while women caught up on their visiting.
To get the brush arbor prepared, park employees and others worked about two days. The grass next to the church was cut. The trees were sawed down with chain saws and the forked poles set in the ground. They were cut and notched and put together. They then placed brush on the wire stretched across the top. A platform, pulpit, piano, benches, chairs and hymnals were brought out and placed inside the arbor.
The frontiersmen all joined together after they arrived to build the arbor in a naturally cleared place. They cut the trees with axes, built the frame and spread the brush on top. They spread sawdust on the ground if there was much dust. Split-out logs made the rows of benches. No piano or hymnals were even heard of.
The song leader asked the congregation to join in with the song on page 127. The piano started off and everyone joined in with old and new songs. Special numbers were presented by different quartettes and solos. The singing rang out through the park while late model automobiles cruised by continually.
The circuit rider found the pitch with a tuning fork and asked the congregation to join in with old familiar songs, singing praises loud and long from their hearts. The children sat quietly. The only movement was from the grazing animals staked or hobbled nearby.
Reverend Earl Moore came to the pulpit and enlightened the congregation with a few stories that made the people laugh out loud. But when he began to deliver and the message, he delivered it in the manner of old-time preachers with so much might and force that the arbor seemed to shake.
The people of the frontier days would listen as the circuit rider preached several sermons a day for several days. He told it like it was because he knew that time was wasting for those who had never seen the light.
The congregation of campers sat fanning themselves, wishing they were in the air conditioned church. The people sat back and listened passively, bowed their heads and sang when the time came for the duration of the hour service before they returned to the business of fishing and vacationing.
For the frontiersmen the meetings were loud and boisterous and long. It was not unusual for someone to stand up and shout for mercy or cry for their souls to be saved. The kneeling log at the front was filled with people crying and being comforted, praying and being talked to. This lasted for days, ending with the baptismal services at the creek. The meeting was an event never to be forgotten, a time and z place to let their emotions run free in the name of religion, a place to see the light or get enough religion to last until the next year.
BRUSH ARBOR DIARY
The reality of attending a brush arbor meeting of years ago is a forgotten experience. except to those who wrote what they saw and and what they felt, and to those who read these things, placing the image of the day in their own mind.
This is a diary of eighteen year old Elizabeth Cummings who might have lived in the Ozarks in the year 1834.
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. Momm a 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.
We went in the house and 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 he 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.
Momma was shore excited and she said it would be good for us chilren. Jakes not favoring the idea at all. He said hed rather stay at home cause he didnt need no religion. Poppa got a bit mad but it didnt last long. He said wed get ready tomorry and leave day after.
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. Bobby took them to the crik for water. When he come back he brot us a pail of water for drinking and cooking. Later on old Joseph Peters come by and him and Poppa talked lots. He told Poppa that we was in time to hep put up the arbor.
July 17 nite - 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.
I watched Brother Trueloves face lots of times and I like the way he smiles at me. Hes a wonderful man and he makes the nite a lot nicer. When he went back to his tent he looked at me gain and smiled. Ill see you at the meeting tomorry. Now dot you disapint me none he said. He kind of plucked my cheek when he left and I liked that.
I watched Jake after Brother Truelove left. He had a queer look on his face--sort of like he was thinking far off. Another thing is that he didnt say much after supper. He didnt talk none with Poppa or Brother Truelove but he just kind a lisened which aint like him.
July 18 noon - We had our first meeting in the arbor this morning. Brother Truelove didnt seem nervous none. He preached the Word and I felt shudders go down me.
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.
Little while ago Brother Truelove come over and sat with Poppa agin. I was down at the crik but Bobby and Sarah come runing down all giggly like. They said Brother Trueloves up with Poppa and he shore looked disapinted when you wasnt there.
I didnt like the way they was acting so I frowned at them some. I was realy kind of excited tho cause Im a wondering if hes coming to like me. I walked up to the wagon and found him and Poppa talking religion over but Jake was asking all kinds of questions about his sermon. He got all intrested with Jake and Poppa so I didnt bother him none.
July 25 - Bobby found him a fishing buddy and he got us a mess of bass. They shore tasted good. It seems like Momma gits yonger ever day. She visits with the other womin all the time. None of us can git in too much socalizing.
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. He stood up front and looked at all of us like he had us all in controll. 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?
Whats in store for you sinner? Ill tell you whats in store for ever one thats lost. Your going to go to Hell. Let me tell you friend Hell aint the kind of place you want to go. Youll never rest. Never be free of the flames thatll make you cry out. But itll be to late. To late then for you to repent. To late to call out to God to save you cause he wont here you there.
Youll spend eternity crying and thirsting and trying to escape. But it will be to late cause in the fary, burning scorching flames of Hell theys no escape. Sinner youll be doomed.
Dont look at me and say Brother Truelove I got plenty of time. How do you no? The Lord could strike you dead rite now for being the sinnful heathen that you are. How you lived this long is only Gods mercy cause the BIBLE says God dont tolerate our sins and wickedness for long.
Repent. Show God your sory or Hell will be your eternal home. Hell is waiting to engulf your body in the never ending hot burning fary flames.
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 dogll even no you bin saved. Repent and Heaven will rejoce. Stay sinful and the devil will laugh in your face when he draws you into the fars of Hell and everlasting damnation.
Think about it my friend. Is your name writ in the Lambs Book Of Life? Are you lost this evening?
When Brother Daniel said Sinner Is Your Name Writ In The Lambs Book Of Life? Are You Lost This Evening? I herd somebody next to me cry out. I didnt want to look but it sounded right next to me. Brother Daniel seemed to be looking at Jake a lot and now I no why.
The Lord was a gitting to Jake and Brother Daniel saw it. He directed lots of his talk to Jake and I guess thats all Jake needed. He got up out of his seat and purtneer scared me to death. He raised his head tord the sky and stretched out his arms and shouted Lord, Lord, Im lost. Im sinnful. What shall I do to be saved?
Brother Daniel spoke out loud and clear. Come up hither Brother Cummings and you shall be saved. Neel at the log and you shall be comforted. Jake went up front and nelt there. Joe Peters went up and talked with him while Brother Daniel talked til some more folks come up and was saved. There was all kinds of shouting and crying. Momma even cryed some but I dont think it was cause of her soul but for Jake instead.
Momma and Poppa run up to Jake and Poppa threw his arms round him and I think he cryed a little when he said Son Im proud, Im proud. Momma shore was happy too but she got all choked up and couldnt do nothing but cry and ug him. After the meeting we all walked back to the wagon. Jake was holding Momma tight in his grasp. He looked like a giant holding her buthe was gentle and loving.
Poppa walked real proud on the other side of Jake and Bobby and Sarah walked behind real quiet like. Brother Truelove seemed awful happy when he saw Jake walking away with Momma and Poppa.
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. Sarah got kind a scared and started crying cause she thot Brother Daniel was going to drown Jake. Bobby, well, he got a kick out of it. Momma and Poppa just looked as proud as could be cause he was the second of their younguns to be saved. Me I was happy to. 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.
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