The local camp meeting began 175 years ago when Jessie C. Holbrook received 40 acres of land for shoeing a horse, local historical accounts say. Holbrook then sold the land for $20 to local Methodists for a camp meeting.
Camp meetings were, and still are, a time of spiritual renewal, as well as a celebration of family and an annual reunion time, and those traditions continue, those who attend annually say.
Dr. Warren Lathem, one of the guest pastors at this year’s anniversary event, grew up attending Holbrook Camp Meeting and is sure this year will be as meaningful to those who attend as in the past.
“First of all, Camp Meeting is deeply spiritual in nature, a spiritual event, and while it is a lot of other stuff like reunions of families, the heart of the matter is people’s relationship with God,” Lathem said.
Lathem, who first attended the Camp Meeting with his parents, Ray and Leila Lathem, when he was three months old, said that it provides what he terms “a cultural glue.” His family has attended the camp meeting as far back as the family can research, he said.
“Camp Meeting holds families together in a way that is foreign today, it is about generations in one place, generation after generation,” Lathem said. “It provides a cultural glue that I don’t know where else you find in our culture.”
Lathem said he was called to preach during Camp Meeting at Holbrook campground when he was 10 years old.
After graduating from Cherokee High and Reinhardt University, he went on to get a master’s of divinity from Emory University and a doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary.
He is the former district superintendent of the Atlanta/Marietta District of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church and was senior minister of the Mount Pisgah Church for more than 17 years.
Today, he has a ministry in Venezuela. He gives Holbrook a big place in his spiritual development over the years.
“It was a big part of my spiritual development and understanding for my whole life. I heard some of the finest preaching that one could hear at Camp Meeting and that was helpful to me,” Lathem said.
Lathem also said the Camp Meeting experience is a chance to step back in time.
“If anyone wants to get a sense of the historicity of this area, Camp Meeting is one place that you can see the heritage of Cherokee County. Holbrook shows what life was like,” he said.
The current historic arbor at Holbrook was believed to have been built in 1890 using some of the materials from the earlier structures at the site.
Now 75 cabins, or tents as they are called, surround the arbor as descendants of those first pioneers as well as new residents experience the annual spiritual revival.
Camp meetings grew out of the American frontier, when families came from miles around and pitched their tents around a forest clearing where log benches and a crude preaching platform constituted an outdoor church that remained in almost constant session for three or four days, according to experts on the subject.
As many as 10,000 to 20,000 people were reported at some meetings, and at one time several camp meetings were in Cherokee County.
People came partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire for social contact and festivity, but primarily out of their yearning for religious worship, the history books detail in accounts from earlier days. Activities included preaching, prayer meetings, hymn singing, weddings and baptisms.
George Lathem of Lathemtown is the fourth generation of his family to attend Holbrook Camp Meeting and this year his grandchildren will make six generations to be there for the 10-day event.
“This year is the 175th camp meeting, and I am the fourth generation to go with my family, and my grandkids are the sixth generation,” George Lathem said. “Originally we tented with my grandfather, Marvin or E.M. — we started out in his tent, and our tent was built later. The campground built some tents and sold them, and my mother and daddy bought one.”
That was sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, said George Lathem, who was born in 1945, about a year before his parents purchased their own tent.
“When I young, it was like today, a place of worship for the main part, and then of course all of the kids learned all to ride their bicycles, with each family having time to set on the front porch and fellowship with other families,” George Lathem said.
The lifelong attendee stressed the spiritual nature of Camp Meeting.
“The main thing is that we meet one time a year for 10 days, it is a time to reflect on the past year, what has gone on in our lives and to grow closer spiritually and to revive ourselves in the spiritual aspect,” George Lathem said. “It gives you a chance to come back to your spiritual roots.”
George Lathem said that in today’s world, it is easy to lose sight of the spiritual.
“I think that it says a lot for this community, that people still want to keep the tradition going and keep the spiritual aspect of their families, to keep that going,” George said.
This year, in addition to Dr. Warren Lathem, the Rev. Mike Orr will serve as the other guest pastor. Orr is senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Chipley, Fla., where he has served for the past 12 years.
Orr is a native of Canton and grew up attending Holbrook Camp Meeting. His family has attended camp meeting for generations.
The pastor is the Rev. David Laycock of Marietta and the song leader is Robert E. Daniel, the music director at Calhoun First United Methodist Church.
Holbrook Camp Meeting is at 2415 Holbrook Campground Road near the Cherokee/Forsyth county line.