LAWRENCEVILLE -- For 178 years, the sounds of worship have filled this open-air arbor, where countless individuals have dedicated and re-dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ, where others have seen their faith in God revived and renewed time and again.
It's a place where voices are raised in the singing of hymns, where preachers deliver sermons they feel laid on their hearts, where heads bow in quiet, contemplative prayer.
The arbor that lies at the center of the Lawrenceville First United Methodist Church's campground is imbued with a rich history that predates the Trail of Tears, the first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse and the Civil War.
The property, which spans a total of 54 acres off Braselton Highway, was purchased in 1832 by Elisha Winn, William Maltby, Isham Williams, Buchner Harris and George Brogdon, who each put up $10 toward the $50 purchase price. The arbor was built by 1933, when the first camp meeting was held. It has since served as a gathering place for the congregation of Lawrenceville First UMC, its history so dated that conflicting stories exist -- one says General Sherman and his troops burned the arbor to the ground on his infamous March to the Sea. Another says horse traders burned down 10 of the surrounding cabins, leaving the arbor untouched.
Davis Chappell, senior pastor at Lawrenceville First, said most people believe the structure has survived since it was first constructed, the wooden arbor strengthened over the years by new support beams that stand out from what's believed to be the original structure.
Whatever the truth of its history, the arbor and surrounding campground has remained a place for fellowship and worship, particularly during the annual campmeeting, which this year is expected to draw 2,500 to 3,000 people over the course of six days.
Dana Goodwin grew up attending camp meetings with her parents, Thomas, who was known by the nickname Tod, and Carmen Morgan. The Snellville resident was just 2 months old when she attended her first campmeeting. Her first memory at the campground occurred when she was about 3 or 4. Back then in the 1960s, each of the cabins had a faucet out back where families could have access to water.
"I was somewhere out behind our cabin with my sister and brother and somehow I had gotten unto a fire ant hill and I was just covered with fire ants," Goodwin remembered.
Someone staying in a nearby cabin ran over, grabbed her up and washed the ants off under the faucet.
"That's my first recollection of camp meetings," Goodwin said.
The church's campground has remained a haven, one of the few places in Gwinnett County that has remained untouched and unchanged by development.
"When you step on these grounds, it is sort of like going back to the past. Just to sit in the same place where people have been sitting, worshipping for 178 years," Chappell said. "I think God honors what happens here because it represents the very best of the past and the fact that there are some things that don't change, that God's spirit doesn't change, that our need for community, for worship and fellowship, that never changes and we're ever disappointed out here."