Reflection in response to learning more about a past Beersheba owner, John Armfield

Camp & Retreat leaf

By Russell Casteel, Executive Director of Camp and Retreat Ministry

In the September 15 issue of The Washington Post, the article, They were once America’s cruelest, richest slave traders. Why does no one know their names? Hannah Natanson highlights the role of John Armfield and Isaac Franklin in the American slave trade. Now, 400 years after the first Angolans arrived in Jamestown, we are still reckoning with the beginning of American slavery. John Armfield – who used slave trade capital and slaves to build the hotel at Beersheba Springs Assembly is described as “cruel” and an “undisputed slave trade tycoon.” I recoiled in memory that our holy place has a connection to such evil.

Three years into my time in United Methodist camping ministry, I walked camp grounds with a pastor friend from seminary. He is African American, I am Anglo, and we are both lifelong United Methodists. We talked about the unique role of camp and retreat ministry in giving people the opportunity to hear God’s voice, discern their call, and see the beauty of creation. I asked: Why is it so hard to connect more African – Americans and racially diverse campers and churches to camp or retreat? He patiently responded, “Because we remember when driving past confederate flags and going to a rural place with tall trees, away from our community meant something very different than you intend.”  

John Wesley, an Episcopal/Anglican in heritage, practice, and theology, was against the founding of the American colonies in part to his abhorrence of slavery and the slave trade. As Wesley wrote in Thoughts Upon Slavery (self-published, 1771): “If therefore you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor of the revealed law of GOD) render unto all their due. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion!”  Wesley saw more clearly than his American Episcopal patriots a future where the church entangled with the slave trade would lose its moral compass and instead be built on hypocrisy and capital greed.  

Near his death, and after the Methodist establishment in the American colonies, Wesley wrote to abolitionist William Wilberforce “slavery is an execrable villainy; Go on in the name of God till even American slavery-the vilest that ever saw the sun- shall banish before it.”  Fifty years after Wesley’s death, John Armfield-notorious slave trader- walked with American Episcopal Bishops Otey and Polk as they selected the land for Sewanee, the Episcopal University on Monteagle Mountain. Later, capital from the slave trade built the Beersheba Hotel and the infrastructure of the community. Once an exclusive retreat to U.S. Presidents and Attorneys General, the Beersheba community now exists as one of the most impoverished in Tennessee, if not the entire South.  

The historical connection of Beersheba Springs Assembly to John Armfield and slavery is hurtful. As a United Methodist retreat center, the present is born in hope of a more inclusive and loving hospitality. The “people called Methodists” built, bought, and reclaimed over 400 camps and retreat centers from 1920-1960. In the face of suburbia, church disconnection, technology, and a failing economy, camp and retreat centers were and continue to be places of discipleship, faith formation, discernment, and sabbath.  They should also be safe, freeing places for all persons.

Almost eighty years after its Methodist resurrection, Beersheba Springs Assembly itself is still evolving. As Director Sarah Ratz told me: “We have work of reparation and healing left to do. We need our local churches and communities to participate with us in providing and creating spaces of sabbath, creation, and discernment- not because of our history but in spite of it, turning towards God’s love to continue a new story.”

Racism continues, much of it connected to the church and our communities. As I sit with this hurtful history, I’m reminded of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry, who wrote: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” The history of the Assembly does not change the fact that God’s creation is sacred, nor the fact that humanity often desecrates what God has created. We have much work to do to tell God’s story of love going forward, and Beersheba Springs Assembly and Cedar Crest Camp seek to live into that work. 

If you have any other questions, please reach out to Tennessee Conference Executive Director of Camp and Retreat Ministry, Russell Casteel at russell.casteel@tnumc.com

For booking a retreat or discovering how your church and community can experience retreat at Beersheba Springs Assembly, contact Sarah Ratz, Director, at sarah.ratz@tnumc.com.