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Returning to Holy Ground: Hartselle Camp Meeting marks 122 years of worship

As the sun set over Morgan County, casting oranges and pinks across the sky, the bell beneath the wooden rafters held aloft by cedar posts cut and peeled by homesteaders more than 120 years ago tolled.

“We’re on holy ground. This is a holy place. And the Lord Jesus is with us,” the Rev. Bobby Ray Halbrooks said.

For the 122nd consecutive year, individuals gathered at the historic Hartselle Tabernacle for a week of worship and praise at the Hartselle Camp Meeting. This is where Anthony J. Showalter, who wrote the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” served as worship leader, dozens of people accepted a call into the ministry and thousands accepted Jesus as their savior.

In 2007, the late actor Dean Jones, who grew up attending the camp meetings, described the impact of the gatherings.

“There were innumerable times under the canopy of the Hartselle Camp Meeting when I felt the presence, power and love of almighty God. My hope today is that the great tradition of the saints who preceded us will be extended to a new generation empowered to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in spirit and in truth,” Jones said.

The weeklong Hartselle Camp Meeting began on Sunday evening with a message by internationally-known Hartselle evangelist Junior Hill to an overflow crowd.

That image of hundreds of people gathered in prayer defies the trend of camp meetings.

“We have 46 students staying in the dorms and hundreds of people coming to services each day. Most people would say that era is gone. And in a lot of places, it is. It almost was here. Seventeen years ago, this camp almost closed,” said Rob Cain, who was saved at a Hartselle Camp Meeting service in 1980 at the age of 15.

In 2005, current Morgan County Sheriff Ron Puckett, who serves on the camp meeting association’s board and attended the annual events as a student, reached out to Cain, a Tuscaloosa minister, about returning home.

When Cain became president of the association in 2006, attendance had dwindled to 20 people. Under Cain’s leadership, the board of directors upgraded facilities, renovated the children’s area and built a new dining hall, caretaker’s cottage and student dorm to attract teenagers.

For Cain, building the student dorm represented one of the most impactful changes.

“That brought the students back. No camp can exist and thrive over time if students are not part of it. You have to have that generational refilling,” Cain said. “And the impact on the students has been life-changing. So many students in our group of 46 have been saved in recent years. And there will be students saved this year.”

Combined, the camp’s improvements cost $1 million, of which less than $40,000 remains to be paid.

“With our debt being manageable, we want to build one more building like the dorm. It will be more of an adult hotel with a meeting room and individual rooms upstairs and downstairs that will feature a shower, bathroom and bed,” Cain said. “Once we do that, all of a sudden we are on the same level as Shocco Springs in Talladega and Camp Sumatanga in Gallant.”

For Cain, expanding the Hartselle camp means increasing the ability to reach more lives. In the past 122 years, thousands of people, including pastors, judges, sheriffs, football coaches, actors and recovering addicts, have knelt down in prayer at the open-air tabernacle’s wooden altar.

“The environment here is such a getaway from our normal culture that you can hear when the Lord speaks and you can sense him moving in the lives of others,” Cain said.

Cain credited the longevity of the Hartselle Camp Meeting to the basics of Christianity.

“The gospel is ageless and the message is constant. It’s a message of God’s love for the lost and God’s love for the world. That message has been preached faithfully for the last century and a quarter,” Cain said.

While staying rooted in the past, new technology allowed organizers to spread the camp’s message. Last year, due to the coronavirus, the camp livestreamed services on Facebook. After receiving messages from people in other states, organizers realized the impact of the streaming service.

“We received messages from people who attended camp 30 years ago and haven’t been able to attend a service since, but watched every service on Facebook. There was no question whether to bring it back,” said Cain.

To view the services, visit the “Hartselle Camp Meeting” Facebook page.

In today’s final services of the 122nd Hartselle Camp Meeting, Halbrooks of Falkville United Methodist Church will preach at 10:30 a.m. and Cain, associate pastor at Circlewood Baptist in Tuscaloosa and campus pastor at American Christian Academy, will preach at 7 p.m.

Along with Cain, Halbrooks and Hill, the camp featured Decatur evangelist Phil Waldrep, Hartselle evangelist Michael Mason and missionaries Colby and Kimberly Grindean.

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