By Charlie Nelson
In June, several thousand worshippers will descend on the small town of Wimauma to participate in the annual Church of God Camp Meeting. They will share in spirited gospel singing, listen to fervent preaching and create emotional religious experiences that lay at the heart of the Church of God Camp Meeting tradition. As a matter of fact, they have been coming to Wimauma for the last 105 years.
The Church of God was founded in Tennessee in 1886 and is the oldest Pentecostal Church in America. The annual camp meeting is a cherished tradition of the Church and is still widely held. Florida’s Wimauma Camp Meeting is the oldest and largest Church of God camp meeting site in the United States still in operation.
Pentecostals had been holding camp meetings at Pleasant Grove, near Durant, for many years before the turn of the 20th century. Most major denominations sponsored at least one camp there a year and rather than continuing to share, the Durant Church sought a new exclusive location. In 1913, land along Tiger Lake (now Lake Wimauma) was selected as the permanent camp and purchased by the Church of God at Durant. The scenic beauty of Lake Wimauma had a lot to do with building the camp in Wimauma.
The first Wimauma Camp Meeting was held in 1914 and housed in an open-air barn. Campers slept in tents on the ground. A larger Tabernacle replaced the original structure in 1924. Separate male and female dormitories, an expanded tent ground, a cafeteria and, later, small cottages were built to house a growing number of camp goers.
As crowds expanded, a third Tabernacle was built: an open-air structure that seated 3,700 worshipers. It was later expanded to seat over 5,000. The open-air construction served late arriving worshippers who could bring their own chairs or sit out on the campgrounds to listen to the five daily services. A fourth, fully enclosed and air-conditioned structure was built in 1985, which continues to serve the annual camp meeting and houses today’s Wimauma Convention Center.
Each of the five daily services included ‘great preaching by great preachers.’ Camp worshippers, often numbering around 10,000, were ‘old line Pentecostals’ who were rarely ever passive listeners and were always encouraged to show their emotions during services. It was not uncommon for worshippers to be moved to tears and raise their hands in praise or, if so moved by the Holy Spirit, to dance in the aisles. When it was time to sing the ‘old songs’ campers sang loudly and long. Gospel quartets and a 500-voice choir became beloved mainstays of the camping experience.
Large crowds continued to attend the annual Camp Meeting as the Church of God in Florida continued to grow. More recently, the camp has been reduced in scope from 10 to five days and crowds are somewhat smaller, although the annual event will still attract nearly 5,000 to Wimauma when the Camp Meeting next gathers from Monday to Friday, June 10-14 at the Wimauma Camp Meeting Grounds on SR 674. For those who attend, however, they will find the fervor and spirit of the camp meeting to be very much as it has been for the last 105 years.
For more information, call 620-3366.