132nd Bloys Campmeeting comes to a close 

Photo by Carolyn Nored Miller / Bloys Campmeeting attendees participate in the evening service at the tabernacle on Saturday night. The 132nd Bloys Campmeeting, a nondenominational Christian retreat, came to a close on Wednesday.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY –– The annual Bloys Campmeeting had run uninterrupted for over 130 years until last summer, when the coronavirus landed in the U.S., cancelling just about every in-person gathering and forcing the event organizers to reduce the retreat to a one-night virtual sermon. The president of the Bloys Campmeeting Association, D.A. Harral, said at the time that it was a hard decision, but it ultimately boiled down to the safety of the many multigenerational guests that were more likely to have serious negative effects from contracting the virus. 

“It’s a big deal and a lot of the families were very disappointed to see it close this year, but the vast, vast majority have been very supportive of what we did,” Harral said to The Big Bend Sentinel shortly after the event was canceled.  

But that was last year, and in 2021, the Bloys Campmeeting was back to business as usual, holding its closing service yesterday toward sundown. The 132th iteration of the nondenominational Christian retreat featured daily Bible studies, worship services, choir performances and even a talent show –– all the traditions camp goers have come to expect over the years. 

Started in 1890, the inaugural Bloys Campmeeting was born out of desire to give the isolated Big Bend ranchers and families an opportunity to worship amongst one another. At the time, a Presbyterian missionary in the region, Rev. William Bloys, acted as an itinerant pastor, travelling from remote ranch house to remote ranch house. 

At the urging of one of his congregants, Bloys gathered 47 residents from the region at Skillman Grove, where they camped and worshipped for several days. And it was at this first meeting that it was established that all denominations were equal while at Skillman Grove. As an early history of the campmeeting put it, “No isms nor creeds or dogmas are ever discussed and no other church or its pastor is criticised.”

And that rule has carried on to this day, where pastors from several various denominations lead the worship services. Howard Griffin, a pastor from the First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, led the daily Bible study for his ninth year and Carl Rohlfs, a Methodist, led his own programs. Other clerics of faith in attendance included Renee Hoke from the University Christian Church and Deron Spoo out of the First Baptist Church in Tulsa. 

Yet, COVID has once again reared its head, this time in the form of the highly-contagious Delta variant, spurring the meeting’s organizers to take some precautions to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. “We will have wash stations and masks available. Everyone has been asked to use common sense when it comes to health issues. Everyone needs to make their own decision about where they go,” Harral posted on the association’s website.

“We told people that it was up to them if they wanted to shake hands or not shake hands or give a hug or not give a hug,” Harral said on Tuesday. 

“There is still a concern about COVID. We went ahead and decided to open. We felt like everybody had had an opportunity to get the vaccinations,” he said. “And it’s up to everybody to make their own decision whether they feel comfortable coming today or not and that’s what we did.”

And with the surge in positive cases came the dip in attendance. “I would say our numbers are off 20 percent, or something of that nature, from what they were –– probably due to a lot of concern about the virus,” Harral said.

Despite that, Harral said he was glad to keep the retreat alive following last year’s in-person cancellation. He said, “We’re responsible for keeping this Christian tradition alive and the world is mixed up enough as it is right now, and we can do our part.”