Shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 16, George Beckett, Linden Tunnell and Albert Oliver led the prayer band west from the open pavilion called “the bower,” toward one of the cottages, called “tents,” that encircle the place of worship. Through the open front door of the screened-in porch and straight out the open back door, past the living room, kitchen and bedroom, the setting sun streamed in from over the cornfield.
The two elderly people in the porch appeared as silhouettes as they watched the prayer band slowly march toward them. The band, followed by a procession of church members, clapped their hands, swayed their bodies and sang, a cappella, the old gospel song, “He Put John on the Island.”
And so they continued, from one narrow cottage to the next, until each of the 30 or so had been visited.
The slow march – solemn, emotional, yet joyous – marked the end of the 10-day Annual Camp Meeting of Frankford’s Antioch AME Church, just as it has for the last 117 years. Participants wondered how many of their eldest brethren – some in wheelchairs – would be around for next year’s Camp. Would the young people, whose presence this year was on the church grounds but mostly on the outer circumference of the cottages, continue the tradition?
When the march was over, families whose cottages had been passed on through generations cleaned out their kitchens, took the sheets off the beds, shook the rugs and locked the doors for another year.
Camp meetings used to be a mainstay of rural religious life. They were started in the 1700’s by Methodists from England and eventually extended to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.
The land for Antioch was given to Beckett’s grandfather, Charles T. Beckett (1868-1942), and other founding fathers in 1890 by a local white farmer, “Old Man Phil Walls,” for the purpose of building a church. It was named Antioch in recognition of one of the earliest centers of Christianity and where converts were the first to be called Christians.
Two years later, the first Camp Meeting was held. Today, Antioch’s Camp Meeting is one of the last.
George Beckett is not only the captain of the prayer band but the chairman of the Camp that he has attended every year of his 80 years. The Beckett brothers, George and older brother Benjamin, who died tragically in a car accident in 2005, have ensured that their parents’ and grandparents’ legacy has continued.
Both brothers were quoted extensively in Jonathan David’s 2007 book and accompanying CD, “Together Let Us Sweetly Sing.” It is a musical history of African American life around the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.
Described by his nephew Clifton Outen as “warm, kind and giving,” George Beckett is a man whose appearance and energy belies his age. He has lived all his life in Frankford, within a mile or so of his beloved church and his first memories are of Camp.
He describes the old days when the “tents” were farm wagons pulled by horses into a circular formation next to the church. Trenches were dug to stabilize the wagons, and they were covered with cloth to serve as roofs.
Into the Camp kitchen, known still as “the confectionary,” the women brought large cast-iron pots known as “hog-killing pots” for cooking hearty meals such as chicken-and-dumplings and fried fish and corn.
“Back then, there was no electricity, so we built fire stands to provide light, and, gradually, people built wooden cottages, but we still called them tents,” said Beckett.
He recalled that, as a youth, he had worked on a farm, like his father, and earned 10 cents an hour, working 10 hours a day.
“We were always allowed off in August for Camp. It was known in Frankford that if you went to Antioch, you wouldn’t be working during camp.”
Richard McCray, 73, another lifelong Frankford resident, concurred.
“I’ve come to Camp every year of my life. I worked at Purdue, and they knew it was practically a ‘must’ to be off. It was different back then.”
When Beckett got married in 1942, his father helped him build his own 24-by-14-foot cottage. He was lucky in that his cottage was not among those destroyed by a terrible fire a year later.
“I started to work as a custodian then at Franklin 206 Elementary, where I went to school. Then, after integration, I transferred down the road and became head custodian at Indian River High School before I retired.”
Beckett confessed that as a child he particularly enjoyed the first Monday of Camp, when they would travel to places like Trap Pond and Strawberry Landing for a relaxing day with no services. But it is the worship services, then and now, that are the Camp’s sustaining force.
From Aug. 5 through 16, every evening, the services started with informal singing led by different church members and choirs – most memorably the youth and young adults on Saturday, Aug. 16 – interspersed with testimonials from individuals whose lives had been impacted by the Camp.
Cookie Garfield, for example, who traveled from Seaford for seven of the Camp’s days, said, “Thank you, Antioch. Thank you, Jesus. My soul has been rejoicing all week.”
If there was a short lag in proceedings, a person in the congregation just starting singing their favorite gospel song, and immediately everyone joined in.
Then, Antioch’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. James Foster, moved to the podium at the rear of the bower, under a wooden board, with the words associated with Benjamin Beckett, “We will camp today if we camp no more. We will camp by and by on the other shore.”
Each evening Foster then declared, “There in the cottages, pull back your flaps. Open your hearts. Pull up your three-legged stool. There is a preacher in the house.” A different minister and accompanying choir, mostly from local Sussex County churches, was then introduced to conduct the service of the day.
On the final day of Camp, the rousing service was led by the Rev. Thomas Fitchett of Girdletree U.M. Church in Girdletree, Md., to a packed bower of nearly 100 worshipers.
George Beckett and his committee’s efforts had produced another memorable Camp. Indeed, three different people had asked if they, too, might build a cottage on the Camp’s holy ground for their own families to enjoy. Perhaps more importantly, several people testified gratefully that their faith had been renewed and their spirit “touched by glory of the Lord Jesus.”
Yet Beckett remembers the days when coaches full of people from Baltimore and Philadelphia would arrive and as many as 500 people came to Camp. And he remembers going to other churches’ Camps that now no longer exist. He wonders what will happen to the Camp when his generation is gone.
According to some of Antioch’s teenagers, he need not be concerned. Zhane Hall, Briahna McCray, Jordan Hall and Sammy Chandley all spoke of the importance of Camp to them, their families and the Frankford community. As an Indian River High School 10th-grader, Deandre Holland said, “In 20 years, there will be more people here. We are not going to let this tradition die.”
(A commemorative plate with a collage of modern and historic Camp photos and the words “Antioch Annual Camp Meetings Since 1892,” along with a mug illustrated with the bower, is available for purchase for $25. Call the church at (302) 732-1005 for more information.)