In the 1700s until the middle of the 1900s, brush arbor meetings, revivals of old, gained in popularity, especially in the western and southern states. Brush arbors were also often used when pioneers traveled west (1800s), as a temporary shelter for their family until their permanent residence could be built. Revivals grew in popularity, though, in the west and the south; outside of growing towns, people’s houses and settlements were spread quite far apart from each other and there weren’t very many churches. Every now and then a circuit rider or circuit preacher would visit and everyone for miles around would congregate to have a ‘meeting’ or ‘church’. Even if a community or town had a permanent church building built, the summer heat was stifling without air conditioning or electric fans, with so many people gathered in the often single-room buildings, that they would have their church services outside, putting brush arbors to further use.
The brush arbor meetings would usually last at least two weeks and people would come from many miles around, traveling for days sometimes, and then camp in the open space. Meetings like this were a special treat for everyone. Many chores were put on hold, and everyone got to visit their neighbors. If it was the case that a circuit preacher was visiting, having a church service was a rare and special event. In so many ways, life was much simpler then. Maybe that’s part of the arbor meetings’ success. There was not so much in people’s lives, complicating them, to stand between them and God. Nothing about the services was taken for granted, either, which I think is also significant.
The revivals could go on almost all day, each day, usually starting with services for the children in the morning, then maybe singing in the afternoon, and a powerful sermon at night. Many times, these were preachers who slammed their fists down on their pulpits, raving about hellfire and the need for redemption. When I say powerful, I suppose I mean effective, but also…booming. Loud. Expressive. When the men were building the pulpits, they anticipated this, and often nailed down a section of a split log to the top of the pulpit for the preachers to pound upon.
Brush arbors could actually be quite large, and when built for the purpose of revivals and fellowship, were often put together along roads where the heaviest traffic was, to encourage any passersby to stop. Many times the arbors were even constructed from trees remaining in the ground. Instead of having to dig for posts and then stabilize them, the men would find a grouping of several, even up to 16, trees that were spaced out in relatively straight lines and use them as natural ‘posts’, removing most of the limbs and then cutting the tops of the trees or saplings off, usually at about ten feet. It was important for there to be a fork in the tree there, to hold up the cross beams for the brush roof. With more wood, they would connect the trees and add the cross beams so that brush could be piled on top for the temporary roof. The end structure was essentially a temporary version of the modern-day pavilion, with some brush arbors even having the same slanted shape of the roof that we associate with pavilions. But inside, the differences sprout up, and while the men had a job getting the brush arbors up quickly, there was also the seating for so many to attend to, and logs were split to make as many benches as possible.
Brush arbors haven’t been gone so long that no one around here wouldn’t recollect them. My dad remembers going to brush arbor revivals when he was a kid. Tent revivals are the common practice now, but I think it would be really interesting to go to a brush arbor meeting; they were integral to their communities and churches.