“I’ll Fly Away”

In our church calendar, June meant it was time for Camp Meeting. Other churches observed Lent and Epiphany as well as Christmas and Easter, as we did, but we also had Camp Meeting.

Camp Meeting got its name from large religious gatherings in the late 1800s. Christians would meet in open fields or fairgrounds, where they put up a large tent for their main meetings and smaller tents for the attendees. Camp meetings were held in most parts of the country, and most would go on for a week or two. Some of them attracted thousands of worshippers, seekers, and the curious. Camp meetings were one of the characteristics of the revivalist tradition in America, in which believers periodically sought renewed religious purity. Revival meetings in the home church were reinforced by camp meetings that might have regional, state-wide, or national audiences. For the Church of God movement, Camp Meeting was as essential as the major Christian holidays. People from the Elmore Church of God went to Camp Meeting in the then largely manufacturing town of Anderson, Indiana.

During Camp Meeting in 1948, when I was only eight years old, I decided I wanted to go to the Early Morning Prayer Meeting. I had heard of it, and it appealed to my desire for adventure and for something sensational. “Early morning” was not hyperbole: the prayer meeting started at 6 a.m. That year my family was staying at Uncle Carl’s house several blocks from the campground. He was a professor at Anderson College, and he would be going to work in his office early to prepare for his summer school classes. Everyone else was still sleeping when Uncle Carl quietly asked if I still wanted to go. The prayer meeting still sounded exciting to me, so I quickly dressed and went along.

The Early Morning Prayer Meeting was held in what was then the Anderson College gym, an oval relic of the early twentieth century that resembled a miniature version of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The gym had been built in about 1905 of large concrete blocks that the founders of the Church of God movement had made on that site. It was originally a tabernacle, but when the college was formed in 1917, it was converted to a combined gym and auditorium, what some would call a “gymnatorium” or an “auduasium.” Several rows of bleachers rose on the far wall opposite the stage, and a low wall separated the bleachers from the gym floor. During the school year, the Anderson College basketball team competed on that same undersize floor.

The prayer meeting was in full swing when we arrived at about 6:30 a.m. Although the event was called a prayer meeting, and people did pray there, it was better known for the singing. As we walked to the gym, Uncle Carl and I could hear singing across the campground, and many people were standing outside the crowded gym. Inside, the gym floor was packed with people in folding chairs, and the bleachers were filled. When we came near one of the entrances, Uncle Carl stopped and asked, “Do you want to go in?”

I looked at the crowd inside and heard the singing. “Yes,” I murmured.

Just then an old woman walked up and stared silently at us. She had no nose. All of the flesh where her nose should have been seemed to have dissolved, and we could see the air passages in the middle of her face. She was probably hoping to find divine healing at Camp Meeting, one of the reasons people came. Uncle Carl didn’t speak to her. Instead, he took me by the arm and guided me inside. When we were away from the woman, he said in a low voice, “Probably has cancer.”

We listened as the singing ended and someone up front praised the good singing and asked everyone to sit down for prayer. The prayer was dramatic, as if soaring to heaven itself. Many across the crowd joined in with amens as the leader prayed, and some prayed out loud, filling the gym with a worshipful hum. After prayer, someone started an announcement that took on a momentous and dramatic tone. A feeling of excitement went through the crowd. I couldn’t hear all that was said, but I heard “Sister Cotton” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Everyone stood, and people talked and laughed as the music began. Then everyone began to sing.

Some glad morning,

When this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away!

To a home on God’s celestial shore,

I’ll fly away!

Far away, in the middle of the gym, people cleared an aisle. Uncle Carl lifted me up to see, and when the song reached the line, “I’ll fly away,” I could see a small, African American woman running and leaping in the aisle. When she leaped, the crowd roared and clapped and sang louder. Her pure white clothing gave her an almost angelic look. Again and again, she ran up and down the aisle, leaping as the song went on.

When the shadows of this life have grown,

I’ll fly away,

Like a bird from prison bars has flown,

I’ll fly away!

 

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

I’ll fly away in the morning,

When I die, hallelujah by and by,

I’ll fly away!

At the last verse and chorus, there was so much shouting and singing that it was hard to hear the words:

Just a few more weary days and then,

I’ll fly away!

To a land where joys will never end,

I’ll fly away!

I’ll fly away, oh glory,

I’ll fly away in the morning,

When I die, hallelujah by and by,

I’ll fly away!

That final chorus was like a song of triumph, and the woman dancing in the aisle, Sister Cotton, seemed to take off flying, not just running and jumping. The gym was still echoing the closing lines as the leader said, “Thank you, Sister Cotton, for leading us again in that wonderful song! We all look forward to the day when we will fly away to meet our Lord in the sky!”

Just then, across the gym, a young African American man in a suit and tie stood up on top of the six-foot high wall that divided the bleachers from the gym floor. The top of the wall was a plank only six inches wide. The man began shouting and doing jumping jacks right on top of the wall, swinging his arms overhead as he leaped and spread his legs. A hush came over the crowd and all eyes were on him. He kept doing jumping jacks as he shouted, “You have to be a real man to do this for Jesus!”

Everyone clapped and some people shouted. Some prayed for his safety. He finally stopped and sat down, and the service resumed. It was the most dramatic testimony I had yet seen in my short life, and I wondered if I would ever do anything that dangerous, even for Jesus.

That morning was the first time I heard “I’ll Fly Away.” I didn’t hear it again for many years, but it later became a popular church song and is now sometimes sung at especially joyful Christian funerals. Every time I hear it, I remember that glowing, sultry morning and the woman with cancer and the man risking injury doing jumping jacks for Jesus. And I remember Sister Cotton running and jumping.

I saw Sister Cotton a few more times at Camp Meeting in other years, and she always wore a white cotton dress. Several years later African-American ladies were overheard talking about her. “Is Sister Cotton here this year?” one of them asked.

“No, she won’t be here. She’s with the Lord,” another explained. “Last year, she just flew away! All she left behind was a little pile of white clothes!”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Anderson, Indiana, is headquarters of “the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana” movement. Since other denominations and movements call themselves simply Church of God, it became important to distinguish our movement from other groups with this name. The name also distinguishes our movement from the universal Church of God, a term that encompasses all forms of the Christian faith.

In the 1940s, twenty thousand people attended the Anderson Camp Meeting in some years. In 1955, a headline in the Anderson newspaper estimated that 25,000 people were there. If that number were an exaggeration, it would have been thought to be for the good of the community as well as for Camp Meeting itself. By that year, the name “Anderson Camp Meeting” had been changed to the “National Convention of the Church of God,” to the chagrin of many older folks. Some continued to use the traditional name, and a few relatively young people today continue to call it “Camp Meeting,” perhaps because of its colorful past.

For forty-three years, the main worship services during Camp Meeting were held in a huge wooden tabernacle in the center of the campground on the campus of Anderson College, now Anderson University, established by the movement in 1917. Other meetings were held in smaller buildings and tents nearby. When the wooden tabernacle collapsed under heavy snow in 1961, it was replaced by a concrete dome that also served for forty-three years.

The song “I’ll Fly Away” was written in 1929 by Albert Brumley. It first appeared in print in 1932 by the Hartford Music Company.

 

Advertisements

One thought on ““I’ll Fly Away”

  1. Dear Nyle, thank you for these stories. I especially enjoyed them tonight. I was missing my brother and your stories made him seem closer.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s