Nearly two centuries ago, Methodists established a religious camp in the woods of what is now Southwest Atlanta as part of a historic Christian revival movement that established the Bible Belt and shaped Georgia’s future.
Today, an effort is underway to preserve Mt. Gilead Camp Ground, or at least its roughly 140-year-old “arbor,” a roofed, open-sided worship space that once housed hundreds of faithful listening to famed itinerant preachers of the day.
The camp ground shuttered in the 1980s and faces an uncertain future under a relatively new owner, an affiliate of Sandy Springs-based Noble Family Enterprises, which did not respond to questions about its plans and preservation possibilities. The Southwest Atlanta effort is not only spotlighting Mt. Gilead but also Georgia’s many other campsites whose role in the historic “Second Great Awakening” movement may be unappreciated and unprotected.
Newania Wess is a minister with an interest in historic religious camp meetings who was surprised to learn last year that one site was in her neighborhood. That realization about Mt. Gilead stirred her advocacy for City of Atlanta landmark designation or a similar tactic, which has gained the support of the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) and District 11 Atlanta City Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet.
“I feel it’s important for us to preserve it for our future and especially for generations to come,” said Wess in an interview. “And for them to understand there were those who paved the way… Much of the growth of Atlanta and much of the growth of the state of Georgia came from this place.”
Overstreet said she had no idea of the existence of the camp ground, which occupies about 15 wooded acres at 2073 Austin Road. After meeting Wess, Overstreet visited the site earlier this month, expecting to see some kind of historical marker or sign.
“So I show up and there’s this massive structure built [in] the 1800s,” Overstreet said of the arbor. “…While it’s dilapidated, you can see the uses of it and how well it was built and maintained during its time.” She said she hopes the owner can partner with preservations to save some part of the site and at least erect a marker. “But ideally, [the arbor] could be a structure that could be rehabilitated [or] restored because it’s massive and beautiful,” she added.
“Mt. Gilead deserves to be designated as a City of Atlanta landmark site,” said David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director at the APC, which is researching the site’s history in preparation for a possible nomination. “The preservation of this historically rich site will both improve the catalog of our landmark sites and affirm our dedication to our cultural duty.”
The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant Christian movement that swept America in the early 1800s. It inspired religious fervor, growing existing denominations and spawning some new ones. A key feature of the movement, especially in the South and West, was religious camps where believers would gather in large numbers, typically for a week or so in the summer, to hear touring preachers. The camps doubled as major festivals and social gatherings for rural communities for generations before the tradition began fading in the 1940s.
Camps were centered on an “arbor” or “tabernacle” where the preaching happened. Originally just a tent or rustic structure of tree branches, these evolved into permanent wooden buildings akin to a giant park pavilion. Attendees similarly built simple cabins or cottages known as “tents” from their informal precursors. Camps were a Methodist tradition and typically owned by organizations of that denomination, though Baptists, Presbyterians and other types of Protestants sometimes attended.
In a 2002 master’s thesis at the University of Georgia, historic preservation student Claudia Head Deviney traced the development of the state’s religious camps and argued for their systematic preservation. She wrote that there are competing theories on where the camp tradition started — maybe the Kentucky frontier, maybe the Deep South, maybe even here in Georgia. The state has some early camps that remain in use by the faithful today and have National Register of Historic Places designations. One is Effingham Camp Ground in Springfield, near Savannah, dating to around 1802. Another is Salem Camp Ground in Covington, dating to 1835.
Many other camp grounds have shuttered, though their core areas may survive as a kind of ghost church. That’s the story of Mt. Gilead, which operated from around 1834 — long before Atlanta was incorporated — to 1988.
The camp was spawned from Mt. Gilead United Methodist Church, founded in 1824 and perhaps the oldest church in what is now Fulton County. The church still operates on Fairburn Road, though in a newer building.
The camp was established about two-and-a-half miles to the north at today’s Austin and Camp Ground roads on land that may have been donated by the church’s founding pastor. Back then, the area was known as Mt. Gilead Crossroads. Today, it’s Ben Hill.
According to a 1977 report by a City of Atlanta planner, the camp hosted such famous preachers as Methodist Bishop Warren Candler, the first chancellor of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. A 1990 historical survey by Georgia State University (GSU) students shows that the camp ground held its annual gatherings every year from 1834 to 1988, except for the Civil War years of 1864 and 1865, during which Union troops burned its structures.
A replacement arbor collapsed in a snowfall in the late 1800s — possibly 1879, 1880 or 1886, according to the GSU report. The arbor that still stands on the site today is a replacement built around that time, with an addition dating to sometime after 1936.
A church now known as Ben Hill United Methodist was built on a piece of the camp ground property in the 1870s.
In its heyday, the camp was so popular that special trains ran there from Atlanta. By the 1940s, the camp trend was waning. The GSU report says a hotel was erected and water and sewer service installed in 1946, apparently in an attempt to modernize. In 1966, the camp ground shuttered and passed into the hands of the local district of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, the report says, on the condition it remain a “place of divine worship” for Methodists. By 1990, the property had fallen into disrepair and was beset with vandalism and arson. Only the arbor and a damaged hut remained. The hotel burned and was replaced with a parking lot.
In 1990, the Conference conveyed the property to Ben Hill UMC, which had plans for a “family life center” to be built there — possibly demolishing the arbor in the process. That didn’t happen, and county property records show it has been sold several times since. (The Conference and Ben Hill UMC did not provide comment.) The Atlanta Department of City Planning database shows a previous owner in 2021 had plans for a housing division that was “terminated.” Noble bought the property that year. Wess — who was concerned by the apparent marking of trees along the property line — and Overstreet say their outreach to the company has not received any response.
Preservation advocacy for Mt. Gilead goes back decades, too. That 1977 City report was produced in response to Neighborhood Planning Unit P voting to recommend the camp ground “be designated and preserved as a historic site for religious activities.” The report said the Atlanta Urban Design Commission was seeking to create such a historic designation, but that did not happen.
Jeff Harbin, son of the camp’s music director in its final decade, stirred some preservation advocacy about 10 years ago by posting home movies and other archival material online. Now the music director of a South Carolina church, Harbin remains passionate about the camp’s history, noting such aspects as “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell once writing a news article about it.
“The campground is truly one of the most historic sites in the city of Atlanta,” said Harbin. “… In addition to its significance to Methodist history, it was an important gathering place for the community. Political candidates spoke there, and graduations were held.”
“I’m so happy that others are interested in saving Mt. Gilead Camp Ground!” he said. “I carried this torch for a long time but wasn’t able to drum up much interest.”
Enter Wess and her longstanding interest in camp meetings and other forms of Charismatic Christianity. She’s a preacher’s daughter whose parents attended camps in Tennessee. She has traveled to California and Indiana to visit similar religious sites that have been preserved. “And then I realized there was one right here in my community. So I was like, ‘Wow!’” she said.
Wess believes God has directed her to do such research to preserve history and maybe even take part in another “Great Awakening” period.
“When you have locations where God’s spirit has just showed up … something has opened in the realm of the spirit,” she said. “There’s an opening. And those openings, I believe, are always there. But it’s [up to] us to take advantage of what God has started.”
Developers may have more worldly plans for such sites. Preservation advocacy is a major theme in the academic studies that mention Mt. Gilead.
“The Arbor is a historic landmark of major proportions in the social and historic development of the community as a whole,” said the 1990 GSU report about Mt. Gilead. “Any development of this property should include the renovation and use of this historic facility.”
Deviney’s 2002 thesis said the Georgia Historic Preservation Office should conduct a survey of all camp meeting sites in the state and nominate eligible ones for listing on the National Register. She also called for developing guidelines for preserving camp sites, exploring conservation easements as a tactic, and considering year-round uses that could help maintain them.
GSU historic preservation master’s student Kristen Thomas, an intern at APC, is now researching Mt. Gilead’s history in anticipation of proposing a landmark designation. That status would give the City oversight on any demolition or alteration of the arbor, which Thomas calls “truly a hidden gem” of the area.
Overstreet is on board with APC and Wess. “I just told them I’m all in to preserve it,” she said. “My main message is, I am advocating for preservation of these types of historical [sites] and stories and making sure [we are]also preserving Atlanta’s unique character of being a city of different types of neighborhoods. That’s how we’re built. I don’t want us all to look alike.”
Wess is also looking for a little help from above. “I’m praying,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith… It’s going to be preserved.”