August 16, 2023 614 PM
JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — The 134th Bloys Campmeeting began with the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” as it has for every meeting prior, as far as anyone can recall. Many traditions of the mass religious gathering have been carefully documented, their roots accounted for, pinned to some historical record. Others are hazier in origin but still vital, professed by the living banner-holders of what the Reverend W.B. Bloys began, upheld by sentiment rather than mandate. And according to Deborah Bloys Hardin, a direct descendent of the founder, it has always been the inaugural hymn — it had been the reverend’s favorite.
The hymn speaks to the unwavering presence of God to the believer. “Deep waters” and “fiery trials” are obstacles through which God the Father pledges to lead the faithful — the water is sanctifying, the fire refining. For the thousand-plus worshippers that travel every year to Skillman Grove — a 640-acre expanse in the shadow of the Davis Mountains — it marks the beginning of a week-long immersion, not only into worship and prayer but into a distant past they feel tied to by lineage.
Attendees of the meeting live minimally, in rudimentary cabins made of tin on concrete floors. Electricity and running water are available, but fresh air through an open window stands in for air conditioning in the sweltering heat. For one week in August, life is simple. The days consist of Bible study, worship services, prayer meetings and shared meals. Free time is spent chatting on the porch or exploring the grounds.
“When we tell people we’re going to Campmeeting, they say, ‘What’s that?’ Then you have to try to explain it,” said Stephen Hardin, who was inducted into the tradition when he met Deborah in college. “They never get it. They say, ‘Are you in a cult?’ And you say ‘No, no, that’s not it at all.’ But Campmeeting is hard to explain.”
Stephen remembers the first time Deborah brought him to the grounds. He was baffled by the proposition — a week of church outdoors in late-summer at a fairly remote desert locale. It took a few years to really acclimate, he said. Then he got it.
“It’s our New Year,” said Deborah. “We get a spiritual revitalization — then you can get through the next year, and come back.”
For those like the Bloys Hardins, whose families have been flocking to the annual meet-up since its inception, it’s a repeated experience by which they keep time and mark milestones. Deborah, who was first brought to the campgrounds as a child, was baptized there. Her daughter was as well. In the cabin her clan shares with cousin Ben Bloys — W.B.’s great-grandson — its every occupant is cataloged on the wall by name, height and year. Deep friendships are formed across the years, one week at a time.
Elsie Boone, great-granddaughter of W.B. Bloys, said she makes her New Years’ resolutions at the August meetings. On the drive back to her home in San Antonio, she reflects on her spiritual life in the next year.
“That’s kind of my Yom Kippur, I guess,” she said. “I think, what can I do better? If I hurt someone, my atonement. And then to just change and do better.”
Now a respite from the flurry of modern life, the Campmeeting began as an escape from solitude. W.B. Bloys came from Tennessee as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church and oversaw a congregation in Fort Davis. He was a small, mild-mannered man, affectionately dubbed “The Little Shepherd of the Hills.” Accounts from the time recall an almost baffling, gentle strength of presence despite his stature — one man claims to have witnessed the reverend walk into a rowdy saloon, full of men “cursing and yelling” and watching as an inexplicable quiet fell over the room.
On the frontier, God’s flock was disparate, Bloys found, separated by vast ranges and mountains — and life was harsh and lonely, full of sickness and death. He took to horseback to minister to the cowboys and ranchers living in relative isolation; he came to appreciate their preference for the open sky to the walls of a church.
It was during a visit to the Means ranching family in 1890 that the idea for the cowboy church came about — it was patriarch John Zack Means, supposedly, who suggested Skillman Grove as a central location for a religious meeting. The first Campmeeting, attended by 27 adults and 21 children, took place in October of that year under an oak tree.
It was determined from the beginning that the meeting would be nondenominational — a Presbyterian minister, Bloys didn’t care for such divisions, and the Means family, an integral part of the meeting’s genesis, was Baptist. Writer Max Bentley, who documented the meeting in 1924, wrote of Bloys that, “Denominational interpretation of the scripture meant nothing to him — he cleaved straight through to the heart of the Book, and taught the fundamental and thrilling old truths in a way that all could understand.”
Word spread, and the meeting ballooned in size. “The camp meeting is the pivot of the year,” wrote Bentley. “Everything dates from before and after.” The tabernacle was built to accommodate worshippers, then expanded to accommodate more (the old oak tree remains the site of a daily men’s prayer meeting). Cabins were eventually built, snaking up the hill that rises from the grove — as more and more accommodations were built, the cabins’ numberings lost any semblance of a logical sequence.
But much of the meeting is as it always has been, preserved, a place out of time. The same rules put in place over a century ago are still codified and observed. Nothing is to be bought or sold. No pets, firearms or alcohol are allowed on the grounds. Rolling rocks down Mount Bloys is forbidden, thanks to the resourcefulness of some of the kids. And in bold letters, at the top of the 134th welcome pamphlet: “There will be no line drawn because of different religious beliefs but everyone is welcome to come and worship with us.”
“We’re a 134-year tradition of just belief,” said Deborah.
Becky Roberts — Elsie Boone’s sister, great-granddaughter of Reverend Bloys — is a testament to that ethos. She broke from her Presbyterian roots while in college and converted to Catholicism, she said. For a few years thereafter, she lived as a nun. She still provides the opening prayer at the tabernacle on the first Thursday.
Roberts and Boone, both baptized at the meeting as children, described the event as a kind of marathon of spiritual growth. “We go to church every Sunday, but there’s something about the intensity here,” said Roberts. Between moving from Bible study to worship service to prayer meeting, the sisters sit on the front porch of the cabin that has been in their family since the 1950s. They hand out bubble gum to children — a years-old, enduring tradition. In the late afternoons, many Bloys descendents, cousins who see each other this one time a year, gather on the porch to visit.
“I don’t think there will ever be another place like this,” said Boone.
There is also, inherent in the continued gatherings, a degree of nostalgia for the “Old West” days of the ancestors who paved the way in Skillman Grove. Melanie and Connie Meeker’s parents started attending Campmeeting in the ‘50s, when their father was working as a ranch hand in Van Horn for the Joneses, one of the founding families of the original meeting. Cal and Frank Jones had pitched their tent for years at the site of what is now the Meekers’ cabin — the Jones family left it to them. The Meekers have fond childhood memories of listening to the Jones brothers tell stories about their teenage years in the West, as their father spat his chewing tobacco.
Steve Meeker, Melanie and Connie’s cousin, laughed as he recalled watching the men in Sunday service that very morning take up an offering in Stetsons. “You don’t see that anymore,” he said.
The Meeker sisters delight in their retreat from the modern world –– they delight, even, in recounting the time they cornered a rattlesnake in their cabin, which they worked together to wrangle so that Melanie could behead it with a knife. She put the head in a Coke bottle to keep as a trophy.
But they delight even more in the sense of peace the campgrounds give them. Before her retirement, Melanie was a cop for 26 years — she remains in such a state of readiness, she said, that her own grandchildren know not to approach her house unannounced at night. She said the Campmeeting is the only week out of the year where her level of alertness drops to “white,” the lowest possible reading.
“This is the only place that I don’t carry a gun,” she said.
At the Campmeeting, everyone can take a deep breath — it is “a place to come and get recharged,” said Steve.
Growing up on the campgrounds, Ben Bloys said, he and the other kids were “given free range but expected to behave.” They had to attend two services a day, but otherwise, their time was their own. They took up whittling — an old tradition passed down through the generations. Ben now offers to pass it down to any camp-going child that wants to learn.
Ben situates himself just outside of the tabernacle with his whittling knife and his latest project. As he listens to the sermon, the wooden shavings fall to the ground. They can be found all around the tabernacle’s outskirts — evidence that the tradition lives on. On Monday, Becky Roberts does the same in the back of the space, her Bible at her side.
“You tell first-timers, and they don’t quite understand it,” said Bloys. “But it all fits right in.”