By Jessica Mozo
You might say the annual Taylors of Tabernacle Kinfolk Camp Meeting is the mother of all family reunions. Every July, roughly 700 descendants of the Taylor family converge at Tabernacle United Methodist Church near Brownsville for a weeklong reunion and spiritual revival filled with laughter, tears, hugs and lots of good old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.
“Some families go years without seeing each other, but we make a point to see each other at least once every year,” says Mac Thornton, a descendant of family patriarch Howell Taylor. “It’s in our genes. People keep coming back because they always have. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, and it’s pretty high on the priority list of things to do.”
Rev. Howell Taylor (1754-1845) moved his family from Virginia to Tennessee in 1817. The Taylors established roots in Haywood County in 1826, setting up the original family homestead and Methodist church.
Like clockwork, hundreds of Taylor’s descendants have gravitated back to their ancestral homeland near Brownsville every year since. They camp in rustic cabins at the 11-acre Tabernacle Family Campground and attend three church services daily to hear well-known evangelists speak.
“The revival part of the reunion is so powerful and has been really instrumental in the lives of people who camp,” says Susan Thornton, Taylor family historian and a Nashville general contractor. “If we were just a bunch of people wearing matching family reunion T-shirts and playing horseshoes, we’d never have lasted this long. The reunion keeps the revival going, and vice versa.”
Mac Thornton likens attending Camp Meeting to getting your batteries recharged.
“You go away refreshed. It gives you a whole new perspective on life,” he explains. “There’s still a feeling of freedom. Kids can play barefoot in the dirt. It’s a holiday for them. I still have great memories of playing with my cousins every year at Camp Meeting. Everybody there has an interesting life, and you can just walk from cabin to cabin and visit with people.”
Many family members plan their yearly vacations around the Camp Meeting. Sarah Thornton Jenks, Mac Thornton’s niece, says finding an employer who would give her that week off every July was a prerequisite for accepting her job.
“It’s hard to articulate how important Camp Meeting is to us,” says Jenks, who lives in Memphis. “It renews our spirits. It’s about growing up with a sense of purpose and belonging, and people knowing who you are.”
Jenks has attended Camp Meeting since birth, and now attends with her husband, Jeffrey, and their children, 12-year-old Madison and 9-year-old William.
“If you ask my children, they’d rather go to Camp Meeting than Disney World,” she says.
One highlight of the week is the Sunday morning “Love Feast.”
“Everybody comes to church, and they can say whatever they want. People talk about what God is doing in their lives and just unload their burdens,” Mac Thornton says. “It’s very moving.”
A christening service is also held Sunday to baptize or dedicate any babies born that year. A memorial service follows, in remembrance of family members who died since the last Camp Meeting.
Between church services, there are games (softball, pingpong and “Who Sir, Me Sir” are favorites), a Heritage Walk through the family cemetery and lots of Southern comfort food. The campground is divided into 36 camps, each with its own open-air kitchen. Camps have anywhere from 10 to 50 family members. Each kitchen serves three meals a day, and many family units hire cooks for the week. Some of the cooks are descendants of previous cooks who worked at the Camp Meeting 100 years ago.
“They’ve become our family,” Jenks says. “They’ve helped raise our children, and we’ve seen their children grow up too.”
A typical breakfast might include scrambled eggs, sausage, homemade biscuits, hash, cheese grits, fruit and coffee. Dinner might be fried chicken, cornbread, mashed potatoes and gravy, okra, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and peach cobbler.
“The food is farm-to-table,” Susan Thornton says. “The corn, tomatoes and okra are right out of local gardens. The meal is part of the convivial merriment of the place.”
Family members fly in for Camp Meeting from as far away as Ireland and Spain.
“You don’t want to miss a year, because you miss a lot. That’s like missing two years of a child’s or teenager’s growth,” Susan Thornton says. “The older people care about the young people. There’s so much of wanting to know who people are – wanting to be involved and engaged in their lives.”
Despite being the oldest continuous family camp meeting in the world, she insists the Taylor family isn’t all that different than other families.
“Everybody has the same number of ancestors. We just happen to know a lot more of ours,” she says.
Mac Thornton puts it in simpler terms.
“We have just stuck together,” he says.
Calling All Taylors of Tabernacle
The 2013 Taylors of Tabernacle Kinfolk Camp Meeting happens July 12-18. Only Taylor family descendants and their guests are permitted to camp overnight, but church services are open to the public.
Respectful visitors are welcome to visit the family cemetery and campground at their own risk. Neither cars nor pets are allowed on the campground. Lodging and meals for visitors are available in Brownsville, about 6 miles from the church and campground.
For more information, visit taylorsoftabernacle.com.