The Great Revival in the West – Catherine Cleveland



This is probably one of the most comprehensive and insightful studies of the great western revival, sometimes called the Kentucky Revival, which occurred between the years 1797 and 1805. The story is presented in the context of the general social and economic conditions of life in those days and describes how this revival affected the moral tone of the region, the denominations of the West and the general religious life of the American nation.

Much attention is given to the extraordinary physical manifestations and unusual emotional features which characterised this revival.  Sometimes these were experienced by individuals, either men, women or children and at other times whole families, or entire congregations were affected at once. Ministers, laypersons and scoffers alike were moved by the strange power. These divine visitations occurred in meeting houses, fields, roadsides, schools, homes and bedrooms. These manifestations are considered on physiological and psychological grounds.

We have included 2 of the 5 chapters and 8 appendixes.

Chapter I. The religious condition of the West prior to 1800

By the year 1800, there were to be found in the Allegheny and Ohio valley regions nearly a million inhabitants representing all classes of society and a great variety of nationalities. Nearly every nation in Europe had furnished its quota, each bringing its own peculiarities, yet each actuated by the common desire to better temporal and spiritual conditions in the New World. The streams of Scotch-Irish immigrants which poured in from the north and South met on the frontiers. The rugged mountain country with its fertile valleys suited their agricultural tastes, and here they established homes for themselves and their children. The country west of the Alleghenies, but just beginning to be known a quarter of a century before, had lured many from the states east of the mountains and from the Old World by tales of remarkable fertility of soil and that mysterious and fatal enchantment which always surrounds the unknown.

According to the Census Report for the year 1800 the population of western Pennsylvania, including the region west of the main branch of the Susquehanna River, numbered 274,568 that part of Virginia West of the Blue Ridge, 203,518 North Carolina, West of the Yadlem River, 67,935 Kentucky, 220,955 Tennessee, 105,602 the Northwest and Indiana territory, 51,006 persons of all descriptions.  * (United States Census Report for 1800.)  Kentucky and Tennessee had already entered the Union, and Ohio was soon to become a state.

In western Pennsylvania the density of population was greatest about Pittsburgh and the South-western part of the state bordering on the Virginia and Ohio territory. The settlers in this region had emigrated from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany,  * (Michaux noted in 1805 the air of evident prosperity characteristic of the German settlements. They lived much better than the American descendants of the English, Scotch, and Irish and did not have that unsteady disposition which frequently from the most trifling causes induced them to emigrate [Travels to the Westward of the Allegheny Mountains, 63, 64]) Switzerland, and from the eastern and Southern states of the Union. This country was one of the main highways of travel to the West. Three routes met at Pittsburgh,  * (“Three routes met at Pittsburgh one from Philadelphia, by the West Branch of the Susquehanna, a forty-mile portage over the divide and Toby Creek to the Allegheny at Kittanning a second further South, also from Philadelphia, by the Juniata tributary of the Susquehanna, or by a more direct trace known as Forbess Road from Carlisle through Shippensburg, Fort Lyttleton, and Fort Bedford to the upper Juniata, thence by an easy mountain pass to the Loyalhanna River by Fort Ligonier and on down the Allegheny, or across the low dividing ridge to the forks of the Ohio, and a third up the Potomac to Fort Cumberland, and thence by Braddocks road over the divide to the Youghiogheny, or to Redstone Old Fort on the Monongahela. This was the natural line of connection with Alexandria and Baltimore. [Ellen C. Semple, American History and Its Geographic Conditions, 65]) and thence thousands of emigrants floated down the Ohio to form new settlements along its shores or on the banks of the tributary streams.

North of the Ohio, along the Mushingum, the Scioto, and especially the Great and Little Miami rivers flourishing settlements had grown up. New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Tennessee furnished the settlers for this new country.

Across the river in Kentucky, by far the greater number of the inhabitants had come from Virginia. According to Marshall, one-half of the white people at least and probably three-fourths of the slaves were from Virginia the residue from the other states, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina, furnishing the greater part and in something like a ratio of their own population.  * (Marshall, History of Kentucky, I, 44, 442.)  Until 1784, immigration to this region had been mainly from the upper country of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. At the close of the Revolution, many officers who had served in the army settled there with their families. Other settlers also came from England, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, and the New England states.  * (Imlay, Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, 137.)

In Tennessee, as in the other newly settled regions, the state of society was much diversified. Here were to be found people principally from the Carolinas, from Virginia, and from Georgia, with a considerable number from New England and Europe.  * (Melish, Travels in the United States of America, 1806, 1807, 1809 — 181I, II, 194.)

The upper country of Virginia and the Carolinas naturally drew from the coast regions and the foreign immigration directly, and in addition there was a marked drifting of the population from other states.

The pioneer, attracted by the facilities for hunting, had gradually pushed to the westward as his more civilised neighbours followed in his trail and during the period under survey life in Allegheny and Ohio valley regions presented certain general characteristics. To the European traveller accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of a settled region and the deference paid to birth in the Old World, there was a crudeness about western life with its rude home furnishings, its lack of social distinctions, its frankness and independence, that often called for criticism.

The towns of the day, conveniently located on or near the watercourses, were the centres of life for the surrounding district. A few stores, the jail and courthouse combined, perhaps an academy and meeting-house made up the public buildings of the town. Frame houses, which in many instances had replaced the log cabin, gave a general air of prosperity and comfort. Here the country people gathered for trade and gossip, here justice was meted out, and the political situation thrashed over. Court days drew the people in greatest numbers and were marked by much disorderly conduct among the lawless element that congregated at such times and indulged in all sorts of rough amusements, gambling, and heavy drinking. Here, in the tavern and the meeting-house, were represented two opposing elements found in every locality. The largest of the towns boasted comparatively few families even Pittsburgh had only I,565 inhabitants, Lexington, 1,797, of whom 439 were slaves, Frankfort, 628, including 260 slaves, Nashville 355, of which number 141 were slaves.  * (United States Census Report for 1800.) the major part of the population was found scattered through the country.

Though great changes had taken place since the pioneer with his gun first penetrated the wilderness, the country was still but sparsely settled, and it was only here and there that the rude log cabin had given way to the frame house, though it is to be noted that the logs of the pioneer cabin were now more carefully hewn and more neatly plastered than was the case at first. The life of the people who built these cabins is interesting. The bare necessities alone were provided for in many cases. Most of the immigrants desired to better their fortunes and had little to bring with them across the mountains. Then, too, the long and perilous journey forbade the transportation of unnecessary baggage. Once in the wilderness the first thought was of food and shelter. A site was selected for the cabin, trees were felled, and the structure erected as soon as might be. A rude home it was, this log cabin in the wilderness! the furniture was of the simplest kind. A slab of wood set upon hewn sticks did duty as a table, and stools of similar manufacture answered for chairs. Slabs laid across forked sticks inserted in the wall and floor served as bedsteads, though frequently the floor itself, of puncheons, or the uncovered earth, answered the purpose as well. Wooden vessels were used for table service knives and forks were very scarce, one or two doing duty for the whole family. Game was abundant, and the table was kept bountifully supplied. The ground was broken as soon as possible for the garden, that the winter supply of corn and other vegetables might be assured. Necessity being the mother of invention, the shins of the buffalo and deer served the purpose of dress and coverlets in many instances. Homespun cloth was manufactured by the women and then fashioned by the same hands into various articles of dress.

By the year 1800, some refinements had crept into the western country. Intercourse with the eastern cities was more frequent. Commercial activity had opened a number of stores in the new region, and manufactured articles such as had been known in the older communities were seen in some of the homes. In the towns, stone was sometimes used in the construction of public buildings. Since Waynes victory, the Indian was no longer a constant dread, and life on the whole was easier. Settlements gradually spread farther away from the river and its tributaries. A marked contrast existed between life in the town and country. Yet for the majority there were still the round of hardship and privation, the loneliness and solemnity characteristic of all sparsely settled regions. Andrew Ellicott wrote on September 29, 1796, of the Ohio settlements

The buildings on the river banks except in the towns are generally of the poorest kind, and the inhabitants, who are commonly sellers of liquor, as dirty as their cabins, which are equally open to their children, poultry, and pigs. This is generally the case in new settlements, the land being fresh produces with little labour the immediate necessities of life from this circumstance the habit of industry is diminished and with it the habit of cleanliness.  * (Ellicott, Journal, 1796 — 1800, 7, 8.)   

This same writer thus characterises the people

That some turbulent persons are to be met with on our frontiers every person possessed of understanding and reflection must be sensible will be the case as long as we have a frontier and men are able to fly from justice and their creditors but there are few settlements so unfortunate as to merit a generally bad character from this class of inhabitants.

The people who reside on the Ohio and its waters are brave, enterprising, and warlike (true of all our new settlements). This bravery too frequently when not checked by education and a correct mode of thinking degenerates into ferocity.  *(ibid., 25.)

Another traveller, in 1803, contrasts the industrious habits of the people living on the west side of the Ohio River with the general shiftlessness of the Virginia side.

Here, in Ohio they are intelligent, industrious, and thriving there on the back shirts of Virginia, ignorant, lazy, and poor. Here the buildings are neat though small and furnished in many instances with brick chimneys and glass windows there the habitations are miserable cabins. Here the grounds are laid out in a regular manner, and enclosed by strong posts and rails there the fields are surrounded by a rough zigzag log-fence.  *(M. Harris, Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Allegheny Mountains, 58.)

The settlers were grouped by the writers of the period in three classes, according to their social characteristics and property. The first was that of the pioneer who desired to live apart from men and moved on when increased immigration disturbed his solitude. Of these, Imlay wrote “Indeed there is a number of people who have so long been in the custom of removing, farther and farther back as the country becomes settled, for the sake of hunting, and what they call range for their cattle that they seem unqualified for any other life.  * Imlay, Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, 149.)   Francis Baily speaks of them as a race of people rough in their manners, impatient of restraint, and of an independent spirit, who are taught to look on all men as their equals, and no farther worthy of respect than their conduct deserves.  *(Baily, Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America, 217.)   the second class  * (ibid., 218.) was a degree above the pioneer, having a little more property and knowing more of the refinements of life. The third class comprised the men and women designated by their contemporaries as genteel. Accustomed to advantages unknown to the poorer, uncultured immigrant, this class did much to raise the standard of life in the wilderness, and gradually wrought a change in society.  *(For a description of this class in Kentucky, see Baily, op. cit., 237 Imlay, op. cit., 137.)

Though the majority of western settlers found the struggle for existence all-engrossing, they recognised the importance of education and early made provision for schools in many localities on both sides of the Ohio River. Academies were established and, in Kentucky especially, were encouraged by grants of land from the legislature. The log schoolhouse by the roadside was a familiar sight in all communities. Here the children of the neighbourhood during a few months of the year received such instruction as the chance teacher who offered himself could afford. Lessons were studied aloud textbooks were scarce, and the mastery of the spelling-book, the primer, the first principles of arithmetic and elementary geography. made up the average course of study. The Bible was in great requisition as a textbook, and the catechism was frequently taught.

The following description of a school in Kentucky is interesting

In a year or two after our removal, a small schoolhouse was erected by the joint labour of several neighbours.

It was entirely in the woods. In the winter light was admitted through oiled paper by long openings between the logs. It was one story high, and about sixteen by twenty feet in dimensions, with a great wooden chimney, a broad puncheon floor, and a door of the same material with its latch and string.

In this school the reader was the New Testament, in which the pupils read verse about.  * (Drake, Pioneer Life in Kentucky, 143, 144, 147.) the opening of academies, of schools for young ladies, and the readiness of tutors (anxious for employment) to impart knowledge were announced through newspaper advertisements. As early as 1788, spelling-books and readers were offered for sale by western merchants. Many private schools were opened in the homes of ministers who were glad to eke out a livelihood by teaching during the week. In Ohio, as would be expected of New England immigrants, provision was made, for the education of the young as soon as a settlement was projected.

The loneliness of life in remote country districts stimulated the desire for human companionship, and fun and frolic at times enlivened the daily round of labour. Spinning-bees, corn-hushings, singing-schools, and similar gatherings ministered to the craving for social life. Weddings were great occasions for hilarity, and dancing was much indulged in by the young people. The older people conversed about the life they had known east of the mountains and compared notes with each other. Imlay gives a picture of social life in Kentucky which, though not applicable to the society generally, is interesting as illustrating the life of the well to do in that region.

Flowers and their genera form one of the studies of our ladies and the embellishment of their houses with those which are known to be salutary constitutes a part of their employment — domestic cares and music fill up the remainder of the day, and social visits without ceremony and form leave them without ennui or disgust. The autumn and winter produces not less pleasure. Evening visits mostly end with dancing by the young people while the more aged indulge their hilarity or disseminate information in the disquisition of politics or some useful art or science.  * (Imlay, op. cit., 139, 140 Bridel, Description of Kentucky, 110 “Dans le Kentucky, on rencontre beaucoup de personnes qui ont de I’éducation, des connoissances littéraires, des manières agréables et une honnête fortune. En divers endroits, on trouve des assemblées réglées, des cercles, et les autres amusemens des gens comme il faut. Courses à cheval, ou en cabriolet, visites de bien séance, diners nombreux, petits soupers, bals champêtres pour la jeunesse, rien ne manque aux habitans plusieurs ont des bibIiothèques dans leur fermes. Ils cultivent la musique, la littérature et Ies arts. On se croiroit dans un des pays les plus civilisés de I’Europe.)

There were, however, those among the serious-minded settlers who looked upon some of the amusements as savouring of frivolity, as incompatible with real earnestness of purpose and contrary to the chief interest of life the welfare of the soul. Many of the immigrants to the western country had been members in good and regular standing in eastern churches, and while some in the new surroundings forgot all save temporal welfare, others were anxious to continue the enjoyment of privileges to which they had been accustomed and to rear their children in the faith that had meant so much to them. Where the church had emigrated as a body, pastor and members, it was easy to keep up the old order, but these instances were few. Great was the need of the new country, where the circumstances of pioneer life and the rapid increase in population rendered the regular administration of church ordinances an impossibility.

Glancing at the church establishments in the older settlements when immigration began, one sees as the leading denominations, the Congregational in New England, the Presbyterian in the Middle group, and the Episcopal in the South. Though the Catholics were to be found in Maryland and the Middle group, generally they had not received the encouragement conducive to the up building of a large, strong church, and in 1790 numbered only thirty-five priests and thirty churches, with outlying stations. The Baptists, Methodists, and a variety of other sects were to be found in all of the states at the close of the Revolution but these denominations ministered to the needs of the poorer members of society, or to a particular nationality, and were looked down upon by the more favoured classes. All of the churches suffered to a greater or less degree during the Revolution. The civil ecclesiastical connection which had existed in Virginia, and to a certain extent in New, York and New Jersey, was broken, and voluntary support became a necessary concomitant of church maintenance. The Episcopal church especially suffered through the severing of ties which bound it to Great Britain. The main body of the clergy were Tories, and, the end of the war found most of the Virginia parishes without clergymen. As England had been the source of supply, there was an appalling amount of readjustment necessary in order to meet the changed conditions. The Episcopal church was further weakened by the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Society as a separate organisation soon after peace was declared. Religious interests had suffered greatly during the Revolution and the years immediately following. The actual destruction of church property and the languishing condition of many congregations, owing, to the loss of preachers and members due to the war and emigration, contributed to this end. In the readjustment attendant upon the Revolution, religious interests were crowded into the background. A spirit of rationalism was plainly manifest in the United States as well as in Great Britain and on the Continent.

It was during this period that churches began to be established west of the mountains. In a region peopled by emigrants from the thirteen states, Great Britain, and the Continent, no uniform religious establishment would be expected. Moreover, an established church required regular support and a trained ministry. These the western country could not furnish. The emigrants as a body were poor. Rich only in enthusiasm, determination, and physical strength, they were to transform the western country in time but for the present, wealth lay in the fertile soil, and unremitting labour alone would work the change.

Though Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Roman Catholics were to be found among the immigrants to the western country, they were greatly outnumbered by other denominations. The disastrous effects of the Revolution upon the Episcopal church rendered it impossible to care for such members as migrated to the West, and these in many instances united with other Churches. The Congregationalists as early as 1788 established the town of Marietta on the Ohio and from that date migrated in increasing numbers to the territory north of the Ohio, especially to the region known as the Western Reserve. During the Revolutionary period several catholic families had migrated to Kentucky, and the needs of these Kentucky settlers and of the Catholic families in the Mississippi valley, whose residence dated from the French occupation, engaged the attention of Bishop John Carroll who sent Rev. Stephen Badin to minister to them in 1793.

The denominations characterised by wealth and social position did not furnish the majority of the immigrants who poured into the western country at the close of the Revolution.  Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were strong in the regions first stirred by the fever of western migration. The religious interests represented, in the new country naturally depended, at first, upon the previous church connections of those who had settled in any particular locality. Of the leading denominations the Presbyterian alone had numerous representatives among the immigrants. Strong in the western districts of Pennsylvania and in the back woods of Virginia, its members were among the first to penetrate the wilderness. The Scotch-Irish farming system, which answered well enough so long as the virgin soil would yield its plentiful return of crops soon exhausted the land. Those practising this method did not understand or had not the patience to adopt the methods of the Pennsylvania Dutch for recuperating land, and the prospect of cheap fresh lands and of larger farms across the big river (the Ohio) lured them on.  * (Joseph Smith, Old Redstone, 12.) Notwithstanding the bright prospects, healthy climate, and, good soil, many settlers became restless and dissatisfied with their location, which they believed inferior to Kentucky. The hardships encountered served to inspire them with the desire for new adventures, although in early times the capture of boats and the destruction of families were frequent.  * (ibid., 48.)

These men and women in many instances carried their religion with them and maintained as far as possible the old faith. Some looked to Scotland for their ministers, and the synod of the Associate Reformed church sent over its missionaries. The presbytery of Old Redstone, embracing South-western Pennsylvania, and the adjoining regions of Virginia along the Ohio River, furnished many members and preachers for the churches of the wilderness. The ministry that rendered such efficient service beyond the mountains and along the Ohio and its tributaries was trained in it’s schools. The Presbyterians were among the most influential of the western settlers, a strong contrast to their Baptist neighbours, who rivalled them in numbers, but whose indifference to education gave them a position of less prominence in the new territory. The father of Presbyterianism in Kentucky was Rev. David Rice who moved to Mercer County, Kentucky, from Virginia in 1783. He was also instrumental in organising the first Presbyterian church in Cincinnati 1790. In Tennessee, the first Presbyterian immigrant followed the line of the Holston River into eastern Tennessee about 1780 where the Presbyterian church was for many years the leading denomination.

By the year 1800 a number of presbyteries had been organised west of the mountains under the two synods of Virginia and the Carolinas. Under the synod of Virginia there were, in the western part of that state, the presbyteries of Hanover, Lexington, and Winchester. To the north in western Pennsylvania and extending over the settlements west of the Ohio were the presbyteries of Redstone and Ohio, also under the synod of Virginia. This synod likewise included the presbyteries of Washington and West Lexington in Kentucky and the presbytery of Transylvania in western Kentucky and the Cumberland region of Tennessee.  * (For synods and presbyteries, date of constitution, and location see the Minutes of the General Assembly, I (1789 — 1820) Gillett, History of the Presbyterian church, I, II (index) Mss. Minutes of the Presbytery of Transylvania, II.)

The synod of the Carolinas had under its jurisdiction western North Carolina, South-western Virginia and eastern Tennessee the presbyteries of Orange, Concord, Abingdon, Union, and the short-lived presbytery of Greenville.  * (The presbytery of Greenville, constituted in 1799, was dissolved in 1804 (Gillett, I, 367 II, 201 Minutes of the General Assembly, I [1789 — 1820]).

Baptists were to be found among the earliest settlers in Kentucky,  * (Squire Boone, brother of Daniel Boone, and several members of the great pioneers family were Baptists see Newman, History of the Baptist churches in the United States, American church History, II, 333.)  and Tennessee and the region north of the Ohio River. Thousands of Baptists were among the pioneers in Kentucky and Tennessee, and churches were naturally formed wherever Baptists were in reach of one another. Not only were they the first to preach the gospel in Kentucky, but for numbers and influence they held ascendancy there for many years.  *(Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, abridged., 81I, 812, quoting from an article by Rev. J.M. Peck in American Quarterly Register (184I). In such numbers did ministers and members of this denomination emigrate from Virginia that many of the old churches were depleted. One historian speaks of Kentucky as the cemetery of Virginia Baptist preachers.  *(Robert B. Semple, History of the Baptists in Virginia (ed. 1894) 456, note.) “It is questionable with some whether half the preachers who have been raised in Virginia have not emigrated to the western country.  * (ibid., 226.) By the year 1800, there were 106 Baptist churches with a membership of more than 5,000 in Kentucky alone.  * (Riley, History of Southern Baptists, 119.)

In Tennessee, Baptists were not the first settlers, though tradition points to two Baptist churches constituted in that region before the Revolution.  * (Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, abridged ed., 791.) About 1780, a large number of Baptists with eight or ten of their preachers emigrated from Virginia and North Carolina to the Holston country in eastern Tennessee.  * (Newman, History of the Baptist churches in the United States, 336.) In the western part of that territory, though a considerable number of Baptists were to be found among the first settlers, it was not until 1790 that churches were established and the denomination really began to flourish there.  * (Benedict, op. cit., II, 219.) the Baptist churches west of the mountains had organised several associations to unify their work. In western Pennsylvania and the adjacent parts of Virginia and Ohio territory, there was the Redstone Association.  * (ibid., I, 598.) the New River Association was made up of the Baptist churches in Virginia west of the Blue Ridge (which had formerly been in the Strawberry Association) and the churches about Greenbrier, later constituted as a separate association.  * (Greenbrier Association was constituted in 1807 see Robert B. Semple, History of the Baptists in Virginia (ed. 1810), 325 — 27.)  West of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina was the Mountain Association, constituted in 1799 by a division of the Yadlem Association, the churches mainly in North Carolina with a few in Virginia and Tennessee.  * (Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, II, III, III Robert B. Semple, op. cit. (ed. 1810), 278, 279.) the churches in Tennessee were grouped under the Holston Association,  * (Benedict, op. cit., II, 215.) in the east, and the Mero District Association,  * (Name taken from the name of the civil department which then comprehended all of the counties of western Tennessee see Benedict, op. cit., II, 219 — 21.) in the west. Associations were more numerous in Kentucky than in Tennessee. In the eastern part of the state the churches were associated in the Elkhorn, Bracken, and Tates Creek associations. The churches in Mason, Bracken, and Fleming counties east of the Licking River separated from the Elkhorn Association in 1798 and formed the Bracken Association. South of the Kentucky River the Separate, or South Kentucky Association was the first established. A part of these churches formed the Tates Creek Association in 1793.  * (Benedict, op. cit., II, 229, 235, 236, 242.) West of the Kentucky River was the Salem Association, composed mainly of churches in Nelson County. In the South-western part of the state, the Green River Association was formed in 1800, comprising the churches in Logan County. The churches in the Ohio territory between the Miami rivers were included in the Miami Association.  * (ibid, 242, 244, 258, 259 Dunlevy, History of Miami Baptist Association.) Many Methodist families, too, were numbered among the emigrants from Virginia and North Carolina to the western country. Bishop Asbury early included the remote West in his plan of evangelisation.  * (Asbury Journal, I, (June 11, 1781) I, (June 26, 1782) I, (April 30, 1786) II, (journey to Holston, April 28, 1788) II, (first visit to Kentucky, May, 790) Lee, A Short History of the Methodists in the United States, 84 Atkinson, Centennial History of American Methodism, 128, 129.) the first Methodist preacher appointed to the Far West was appointed to the Holston River region in 1783.  * (Minutes of the Methodist Conferences, I, 39 (1783) Stevens, History of the Methodist Episcopal church, II, 93, 132, 337 Atkinson, op. cit., 128.) By the year 1800, as a result of the indefatigable labours of the early itinerants, the Methodist church in Kentucky, Tennessee, and the territory north of the Ohio counted a membership of over 2,700.  * (Minutes of the Methodist Conferences, I, 243 (1800).) the societies in this region met at first in two conferences Holston and Kentucky. Later on one conference was held for the entire region. This conference, called at first the Kentucky Conference, was in the year 1801 organised as the Western Conference.  * (ibid., I Asbury Journal, II, 46, 74, 76, 127, 128, 161, 164, 192, 222, 249, 286, 287, 392 — 94 Burke, Autobiography, 55, 57.) the following circuits made up this conference in the year 1800 Lexington, Danville, Salt River and Shelby, Hinkstone, Limestone, Miami, Scioto, Cumberland, New River, Holston, Russell, and Green.  * (Price, Holston Methodism, I, 291.)

All of the denominations represented in the West laboured under certain disadvantages. It was impossible to supply the demand for ministers, and the church ordinances could not be administered regularly. There were few meeting-houses, even by the end of the eighteenth century. Provisions for daily needs and the constant watchfulness necessary to preserve life in the presence of a determined foe absorbed the time and thought of the hardy backwoodsman and left little leisure in which to consider matters of general import. The meeting-houses that were erected by the joint labour of those interested were rude structures, similar to the log cabins of the settlement. Services were often held in the open air, in some well-shaded grove, or in one of the more commodious cabins. Congregations were small, ordinarily, and the simple service of prayer, Bible-reading, and singing was conducted by a layman in the absence of a regular preacher. The outlying settlements were rarely visited by ministers of the gospel. The Baptist preacher, mainly dependent upon his own energy for support, necessarily found his interests limited to the church or churches immediately under his charge. The Presbyterian minister, too, usually confined his attention to a certain definite area. It was the Methodist itinerant with his well-nigh indefinite circuit that penetrated the very heart of the wilderness. Wherever he went the gospel was preached, in the cabin, on the roadside, whenever and wherever he could find an opportunity to speak with anyone.

It is evident that the tide of western emigration carried with it many professors of religion more or less attached to some particular denomination. That the most numerous were Presbyterian, Baptist,  and Methodist has been demonstrated. But is evident that religion in the western country it was an infiltration rather than the result of a definitely organised movement. The more earnest of these emigrants sent back reports of the destitute spiritual condition of life in the West, and an effort was made to meet the needs by sending out missionaries. It was customary at first to appoint these missionaries for a short period only — a few months of the year. The provision was most inadequate, as one man devoting all of his time to a given locality would have had under his charge several churches and could have preached only occasionally to each society. But it was difficult to support such missionaries as were sent out, and this partial attention was all that could be expected.

The Presbyterian church devised campaigns of home missionary enterprise in its presbyteries, and synods, detailing pastors for temporary mission work among the Scotch-Irish immigrants into the hill-country. The Congregationalists of New England followed with Christian teaching and pastoral care members who moved to western New York and Ohio. In 1801 they united with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church, the better to carry on the work. By the Plan of Union, as this agreement was called, union churches were to be formed in the new settlements. Resolutions were adopted by the Presbyterian General Assembly and the Congregational General Association of Connecticut to the end that harmony and union might be promoted in the churches in the West. Provision was made for settling any difficulties that might arise, by directing where appeal should be made by members of both denominations.  * (Kennedy, the Plan of Union, 149 — 51.)

As early as 1789 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church decided that each synod should recommend two members well qualified to be employed as missionaries on the frontier.  * ( Minutes of the General Assembly, I, 10, 11.) In 1793 the General Assembly employed three missionaries, during the next five years, four or five annually. And for the three years preceding 1802 seven or eight were sent out each year.  * ( Weekly Recorder, August 16, 1814.)

The missionary movement in the Baptist church seems to date from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many ministers of this denomination as well as Presbyterian and Methodist preachers went on their own account into the western country and did much to keep up the interest in the spiritual life, working hard during the week on their farms, and preaching regularly on the Sabbath as well as often during the week.

The most indefatigable of the missionaries was the Methodist itinerant. Daunted by no hardship, these strong young men, full of zeal for the salvation of souls, travelled their assigned districts year in and year out, devoting themselves wholly to propagating the gospel. The Methodist itinerant was a familiar figure on all of the highways and could be distinguished as far, as the eye could reach. The grave, earnest countenance, the straight-breasted coat, the oil-shin covering of the hat, the leather saddlebags, and the stand gait of the horse denoted the Methodist preacher. Such was their faithfulness that the saying became almost proverbial of a bitterly cold winter day. “There is nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers”.  * (Atkinson, Centennial History of American Methodism, 164, 165.) “Their very presence checked levity in all around them.”  * (Biography of Elder Barton W. Stone, Written by Himself, (ed. 1853), 5.)

The meagre salary which the churches could afford was wholly inadequate when paid, and often, for lack of funds, could not be collected. In spite, however, of hardships and privations they were happy, as one of their own number testifies We were successful and we were happy we took no thought for the morrow and made no provision for the days to come.”  * (Atkinson, op. cit., 146 (Rev. Nicholas Snethen).) travelling through the country, they lodged with the family that chanced to be nearest when night fell, or camped in the woods. Bishop Asbury in his Journal has left a fascinating and faithful account of the difficulties attendant upon life in the wilderness. Though they were gladly welcomed by such Methodist families as had migrated to the new country, these, too, were poor and had little to offer save the necessary food and shelter. Here the itinerant was made one of the family, as indeed were all guests at that time when inns were for the most part unknown and every door stood open to strangers.

True to his vocation the itinerant never entered a house without praying with the family, conversing with the members about the welfare of their souls, and instructing the children. From his saddlebags he brought forth journals and books calculated to minister to the spiritual nature, and these were distributed among the people.

Many of the immigrants were God-fearing men and women, and the missionaries were hailed with joy. Few books  * (Almost the only books besides the spelling-book and primer advertised for sale in the Lexington Gazette in 1788 were Watts’s Psalms and other books of divinity, and English and Dutch Testaments (Lexington Gazette, June 28, September 6, 1788). The Frankfort Palladium in 1798 advertised A Summary Declaration of the Faith and Practice of Baptist Church of Christ, and announced that it is suitable to hang upon the wall (Palladium, August 9). The same paper on August 14, 1798, adds to its list of books for sale “A Sermon on Sacred Music by Rev. John P. Campbell. June 20, 1799, one of the Frankfort merchants notified the public that he had purchased “a large and valuable assortment of Books on Law, Physick, Historical Miscellanies and Divinity.” He also advertised German Bibles and Watts’s Psalms and Hymns bound together (Palladium, June 20, 799).) found their way over the mountains in those days of slender purses and difficult travelling yet one shelf was provided in many of the cabins for the treasured Bible and hymnal. These books with the Pilgrims Progress, Young’s Night Thoughts, Doddridge’s Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Knox’s History of the Church of Scotland, the Westminster Confession, lives and journals of godly men, sermons by eminent divines, and books of kindred character furnished reading for young and old. The fathers and mothers who read books of this description naturally trained their children along the lines suggested, especially in the Book of Books. The serious side of life was held constantly in view, and children in such homes were taught usually by the mother to memorise the Scripture, the catechism, and selected hymns. Family worship was held in great esteem. The preachers laid great stress upon the latter as essential to the wellbeing of the family. Sin, regeneration, future punishment, and kindred subjects were ordinary topics of conversation, and no pains were spared to make the children conscious of their responsibility for right conduct.

Children were made acquainted with the Bible in school as well as at home. It was frequently used as a text-book, of necessity, owing to the scarcity of books. The primers contained selections from the Bible, and it was not unusual to see among the illustrations scenes from the Bible and the Pilgrims Progress, or a picture of the death of some martyred saint. Schools were usually opened with singing and Scripture reading, and prayer was not uncommon. These schools, often in the home of a minister, naturally reflected their surroundings, and were more or less religious as the case might be.

Thus in the frontier settlements spiritual interests were cared for.  But by no means all of the immigrants were interested in formal worship, and in many homes there was no pretence of godliness. Bishop Asbury wrote in March, 1797

I am of the opinion it is as hard or harder for the people of the West to gain religion as any other. When I consider where they came from, where they are, and how they are, and how they are called to go farther, their being unsettled with so many objects to take their attention, with the health and good air they enjoy, and when I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion but rather to get plenty of good land, I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls.  * (Asbury, Journal, II, 286.)

There was good ground for the complaint of immorality, gambling, and intemperance so frequently found in the comments on western life of the period. Many of the immigrants were men and women with no sense of moral responsibility. Criminals of all descriptions sought the new country where it was necessarily difficult to administer the law. Hard drinking and rough and degrading amusements formed the only recreation of the lower classes of society, and the lawless life of this element stamped many localities with a low moral tone.

During the closing years of the eighteenth century there was a marked decline in church membership throughout the country. Indeed, since the Revolution there had been an increasing apathy and coldness in the American churches generally, which had filled the leaders with apprehension and alarm. Here and there an occasional revival in one or another denomination as among the Presbyterians in western Pennsylvania (1781 — 87), the intermittent revivals among the Methodists, confined to no particular locality, and among the Baptists and Presbyterians in Virginia during the years 1785 — 92, had served to quicken the declining interest but so general was the depression by the end of the century that it was a subject of earnest concern to all Protestants.

A variety of causes contributed to this decline. The unsettled state due to the Revolution had necessitated careful attention to the things of the present world rather than preparation for the world to come. Disaffection with the new government and its methods, of procedure furnished abundant material for conversation and action. Ardent sympathisers as many of the Americans were with the French revolution and the spirit that lay behind it, they could not but be influenced by the doctrines so freely circulated which led to the overthrow of the conventional in religious as in political life. The new settlements to the west of the mountains, too, had drawn an ever-increasing number of immigrants, especially after Wayne’s victory ended the fear of Indian aggressions, and many became indifferent to religion in a country where there were so few facilities for public worship. Thus church membership east of the mountains decreased with no corresponding increase in the West. The supply of ministers was affected by the inability of societies to support a pastor, or even contribute a fair share toward his support, forcing, those who might otherwise have chosen the ministry to seek other means of livelihood. The Revolution had interfered with the work carried on by the English societies for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and for the Propagation of the Gospel which had ministered to the needs of the English settlers in America. Disaffection, too, in denominational ranks, as that of O’Kelly in the Methodist church, decreased the membership.  * (Bennett, Methodism in Virginia, 313 — 31.)

The churches generally bemoaned this spirit of decline and sought to revive the interest in religion. About 1796, Christians, of different denominations in Europe and America united in a quarterly concert of prayer for the revival of religion in the world and for the more general propagation of the gospel.  * (Stillman, Discourse before the Massachusetts Missionary Society (1803), 5.) In the Presbyterian church, the year 1796 was marked beyond all others by official calls to fasting and prayer by presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A large number of congregations in western Pennsylvania had drawn up written covenants to pray for a revival.  * (McDonnold, History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 10, 11.) Bishop Asbury made the following note in his Journal, February 27, 1795

Mr. Wesley lived to see two general revivals of religion, one at the beginning, the other about thirty-six years ago though, doubtless, they had generally a gradual growth of religion we also have had two revivals — one at the beginning, the other about seven years ago the third revival has now taken place in England, and I hope ours will soon follow.  * (Asbury, Journal, II, 217.)

Revivals had from the first been an important feature in the work of the Methodists, and continual efforts were made by bishops and preachers, to stimulate such meetings. Though no special effort is recorded of the Methodists at the close of the century, it is but natural to suppose that the decreasing membership was a subject of anxiety and earnest prayer. Anxiety manifested itself in the increased solemnity of religious meetings and the oft-repeated question, What shall I do to be saved? the interest in this important question of salvation bore fruit in the great religious revival that swept over the United States in the closing years of the eighteenth and the first years of the nineteenth century. This revival in the West was of a peculiarly interesting character and merits closer attention. The next chapters will deal with the leaders of the movement and the means used to promote the revival.

bg pattern

Chapter II. The revival leaders: their teachings and methods

The Great Revival at the end of the eighteenth century, so widespread and far-reaching in its results, began simultaneously in different parts of the country and in different denominations. Reports of the period from New England furnish evidence of a quickened interest in religious affairs among Congregationalists in many towns of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and also in the more newly settled regions of New England and western New York, where missionaries from the older communities were labouring. In the Methodist church in the East, particularly in Delaware and Maryland, Bishop Asbury in his Journal records revivals. West of the mountains, where the excitement reached its height, its first appearance was in the Cumberland region in Kentucky and Tennessee among the Presbyterians. Most peculiar bodily exercises  * (These will be treated in detail in chap. IV.) marked this revival in the western country which soon affected Baptists and Methodists as well as Presbyterians.

In the interval that had elapsed between the founding of the first churches in the wilderness and the Great Revival of 1800, the unknown West had become an important part of the Union.  the rapid increase in population had its advantages and its disadvantages. The horizon was immensely widened but there was a restlessness born of the constant shifting of newcomers, an uncontrolled sense of freedom, and an aggressive spirit manifest in all the new communities. Weighty questions, commercial and political, of the relations existing between these communities and the government east of the mountains, threatened at various times to disturb the peace. The immigrants, representing a great variety of social, political, and religious opinions, naturally differed often upon the essential as well as the minor questions at issue in the society they formed.

In the churches, the heated controversies over points of doctrine had engendered a spirit in the professors of religion that greatly troubled the really devout. To the eager young preachers who had migrated to the West in large numbers during the last decade of the eighteenth century, the want of spiritual aggressiveness was a matter of serious import. They viewed with grave apprehension the worldly interests of many professing Christians and their purely formal interest in matters, pertaining to religion. To these men the western country was the abode of every wickedness, and the picture presented was gloomy indeed. Impressed with the need of reform, they laboured diligently to preach the gospel, to awaken the people to the sinfulness of careless indifference to their own spiritual welfare and that of their neighbours. The people in the remote settlements of Kentucky, and Tennessee were earliest impressed by the need of improvement along the lines suggested. A large number of local preachers of the Methodist denomination and several Presbyterian preachers and lay members of both denominations had moved to that region about 1798. Many of these immigrants had come from churches which had been profoundly shaken by revivals, and they were eager to further such movements in the new country. Fear was aroused by impassioned preaching. The question of salvation became to many the all important topic of conversation. The apprehensive spirit which this fostered gave an increased solemnity to all religious gatherings.

The notion that salvation must be experienced in some unmistakable manner gave rise to a feverish excitement that later generations realise was bound to find violent expression because of its intensity. Conversion was a very serious affair. The throes of the new birth were often protracted for weeks and months before the hope of salvation brought relief to the sufferer. No pains were spared to make plain the necessity of this salvation. The joys of heaven were pictured in most alluring colours, the voice of the preacher, modulated to suit the theme, changed perceptibly as he strove to rouse in his audience a desire to participate in this everlasting joy. Small wonder that his listeners cowered before him when in an equally effective manner he dwelt upon the torments of hell.

The origin of the Great Revival which so powerfully stimulated religious enterprise all over the United States at the beginning of the nineteenth century is best understood by a study of the men who roused the indifferent Christians from their lethargy and directed the revival which ensued. These leaders were earnest, enthusiastic young men whom no hardship could daunt. Day after day they laboured to break the shell of lifeless formality which incased the majority of professing Christians and to reach the young people and those who made no pretence to orthodox Christianity.

The central figure was a minister of the Presbyterian church, James McGready. Of Scotch-Irish parentage, James McGready was born in Pennsylvania about 1760.  * (Joseph Smith (Old Redstone, 361) notes that he was about thirty years of age when licensed to preach (1788) James Smith (History of the Christian Church, 561) gives the date of his birth as 1763 birthplace, North Carolina.) His parents moved to Guilford County, North Carolina, where his boyhood and early youth were passed in such labour as persons of no very extensive property were accustomed to perform in those years in the Carolinas. In speaking of his early days he said that he never omitted prayer from the time he was seven, did not drink, swear, break the Sabbath, or indulge in other excesses. Such were his sedateness and punctuality in religious duties and desire for religious improvement that an uncle took him to western Pennsylvania to educate him for the ministry and placed him under one of the leading Presbyterian preachers. fully persuaded in his own mind as to his sanctification, he was shocked one day when he was about twenty years old on overhearing a conversation between two of his friends in regard to his spiritual condition. This led him to examine himself carefully and he found the new spiritual life they had declared he lacked. On August 13, 1788, he was licensed by the presbytery of Redstone, and, after supplying for a time, obtained leave to travel in the Carolinas during the winter. On his way, he passed through places in Virginia that had recently been visited by a revival, and stayed some time at Hampden-Sidney, College.  * (Joseph Smith, Old Redstone, 360 — 64.)

In North Carolina, McGready found religion at a low ebb, and did all in his power to better conditions. Whenever he preached, the excitement was great, and an extensive revival soon spread over Orange and some of the adjoining counties. Barton W. Stone, another of the revival leaders, thus describes him

His person was not prepossessing, nor his appearance, interesting, except his remarkable gravity, and small piercing eyes. His coarse, tremulous voice excited in me the idea of something unearthly. His gestures were ‘sui generis’, the perfect reverse of elegance. Everything appeared by him forgotten but the salvation of souls. Such earnestness, such zeal, such powerful persuasion I had never before witnessed.  * (Stone, Biography, 6, 7 see Appendix I for Ninian Edwards opinion of McGready.)

Such was the excitement caused by his work in South Carolina that fierce opposition was aroused. He was accused of “running people distracted,” and of diverting them from their necessary vocations. The opposition went so far as to tear away and burn his pulpit and send him a threatening letter written in blood. This opposition led to his removal to the West in 1796.  * (James Smith, History of the Christian Church, 562 — 64.) After spending several months in eastern Tennessee, he accepted a call from some of his former hearers who had settled in the Southern part of Kentucky. Here in Logan County he became the pastor of three churches Gasper River, Muddy River, and Red River. His diligent efforts to promote a revival were rewarded. The effect of his impassioned preaching and conscientious pastoral work was soon visible. Within a year there were signs of the Great Revival that was to sweep over the western and Southern states. He drew up a solemn covenant  * (When we consider the word and promises of a compassionate God to the poor lost family of Adam, we find the strongest encouragement for Christians to pray in faith — to ask in the name of Jesus for the conversion of their fellowmen. None ever went to Christ, when on earth, with the case of their friends that were denied, and although the days of his humiliation are ended, yet for the encouragement of his people, he has left it on record, that when two or three agree upon earth, to ask in prayer, believing, it shall be done. Again whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. With these promises before us we feel encouraged to unite our supplications to a prayer-hearing God, for the outpouring of his spirit, that his people may be quickened and comforted, and that our children, and sinners generally may be converted. Therefore we bind ourselves to observe the third Saturday of each month, for one year, as a day of fasting and prayer, for the conversion of sinners in Logan County, and throughout the world. We also engage to spend one-half hour every Saturday evening, beginning at the setting of the sun, and one-half hour every Sabbath morning, at the rising of the sun, in pleading with God to revive his work. — James Smith, op. cit., 565 — 66.) which bound all who signed it to offer special prayer every Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and the third Saturday of each month for one year for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Logan County, Kentucky, and throughout the world.

The period of quickened interest in 1797 was followed in the autumn by a general deadness which continued until the following July. In that month a sacramental meeting was held at Gasper River and most of the families in the neighbourhood became impressed with a sense of their rumed condition. In September of that year, McGready’s two other congregations experienced a quickened interest in spiritual affairs. This, too, was succeeded by a period of apathy owing to the ridicule of Rev. James Balch, a Presbyterian minister who travelled through the Cumberland region in a spirit of opposition to the methods employed by McGready. In the summer of 1799, however, the excitement was renewed,  * (James Smith, op. cit., 566 — 68.) and the movement soon assumed proportions that amazed even those most interested.       

Prominent among the promoters of this Great Revival were the two brothers John and William McGee, the former a Methodist, the latter a Presbyterian preacher. Both had received the careful religious training that Presbyterian parentage implied in those days, and the younger son, William, entered the ministry of that denomination. John McGee, while in Maryland, became a Methodist. He returned to his home in Guilford County, North Carolina the country of McGready’s boyhood and the scene of his later labours, to take up the work of the ministry as a local preacher, and laboured in the revival which began in that county. In 1798 he moved to the West and settled in Sumner County, Tennessee, where his brother William had already settled. * (Mss Minutes of Transylvania Presbytery, ii, 108 Paris, October 4, 1796, Rev. Wm. McGee from Orange Presbytery, N. Carolina, appearing in Presbytery and expressing a wish to become a member, Presbytery admitted him a member ibid., 110 McGee was called by the Shiloh congregation.)

Other prominent Presbyterian leaders were William Hodge, Barton, W. Stone, John Rankin, and Robert Marshall. William Hodge, who had been one of the revival preachers in North Carolina, and a friend of McGready’s, settled in Sumner County, Tennessee, the year before William McGee moved there. Barton W. Stone, also from the same region in North Carolina as McGready and the McGee brothers, settled in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and became the pastor of two congregations there. He and Robert Marshall, who moved to Kentucky in 1793 and became the pastor of Bethel and Blue Spring churches in eastern Kentucky, were fellow-labourers in the revival, and both left the Presbyterian church as a result of the revival, having become convinced of error in its doctrine.  * (Marshall returned to the Presbyterian church in 1810.)

In the Methodist denomination the revival owed much to the labours of William Burke and William McKendree. William Burke, an elder, and one of the ablest Methodist itinerants, laboured in the western territory on different circuits from the year 1792. The preceding year he had attended a Methodist quarterly meeting and experienced conversion. Describing his conversion, he relates that he fell senseless to the floor and knew nothing until he found himself on his feet giving glory to God. In 1795, the year in which he was ordained an elder , he was appointed to the Metro district in Tennessee. In 1796 he was transferred to the Guilford district in North Carolina, and the year following returned to the Holston circuit in eastern Tennessee. The year 1798 found him again itinerating in the Cumberland River region, and in the year 1799 he was sent to the Danville circuit. After attending the General Conference at Baltimore in 1800, he returned to the Hinkstone circuit in Kentucky. At Bishop Asbury’s request he was to have general oversight of the church interests in that region.  * (Burke, Autobiography, found in Finley, Sketches of Western Methodism.) William McKendree, who became a bishop in the Methodist church, figures most prominently in the history of western Methodism. He was born in Virginia in 1757. His parents were worthy pious people in moderate circumstances. During the Revolution, he served his country faithfully. About 1787, he joined the Methodist church and laboured several years in Virginia and South Carolina. The revival had already begun in Kentucky when he was appointed in 1800 to the Kentucky Conference as the western conference was then called. His first year was very successful, and his indefatigable energy did much to spread the revival.

Prominent among the Baptist preachers in the West at the end of the century were the two brothers Louis and Elijah Craig, both from Virginia. Louis Craig had been one of the leading Baptist preachers in Virginia and had suffered much persecution at the hands of the enemies of that denomination. He moved west in 1781 and finally settled in Bracken County, Kentucky. He excelled in exhortation and could often move an audience that other preachers had failed to reach. John Taylor, Ambrose Dudley, Moses Bledsoe, and William Hickman also laboured in the western country and did much to promote and carry on the Great Revival among the Baptists.

Before entering more fully upon a discussion of the revival movement, it will be well to consider the truths taught by these revival leaders, and the methods by which the movement, once begun, was carried from one region to another. The men who promoted the revival and with whom it gained favour as the excitement increased were, marked by a fervid, impressive manner of preaching. Of one of these, Rev. William McGee, it is related that he would sometimes exhort after the sermon, standing on the floor, or sitting, or lying in the dust, his eyes streaming, and his heart so full that he could only ejaculate, Jesus, Jesus!”  * (Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky, 263.) McGready pictured the delights of heaven and the terrors hell in a of peculiarly realistic manner.  * (F. M. Davenport, Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals, 67 His doctrine was a modified Calvinism. He dwelt upon the necessity for the new birth and the importance of knowing the time when and the place where the conversion had occurred. This was a new note in the Presbyterian denomination in that section of the world. But there was another note in the gamut of his eloquence that was not new. In New England under Edwards, and in Old England under Wesley, it had sounded forth clear and strong and terrible in fearful denunciation of the wrath of God upon impenitent sinners. A friend of McGready (Rev. William Barnett) said of him that he would so array hell before the wicked that they would tremble and quake, imagining a lake of fire and brimstone yawning to overwhelm them and the hand of the Almighty thrusting them down the horrible abyss.)  An extract from one of his sermons on the text, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” well illustrates this

The Character, History and End of the Fool. — He died accursed of God when his soul was separated from his body and the black flaming vultures of hell began to encircle him on every side. Then all the horrid crimes of his past life stared him in his face in all their glowing colours then the remembrance of mis-improved sermons and sacramental occasion flashed like streams of forked lightening through his tortured soul then the reflection that he had slighted the mercy and blood of the Son of God — that he had despised and rejected him — was like a poisoned arrow piercing his heart. When the fiends of hell dragged him into the eternal gulf, he roared and screamed and yelled like a devil. When, while Indians, Pagans, and Mohammedans stood amazed and upbraided him, falling like Lucifer, from the meridian blaze of the Gospel and the threshold of heaven, sinking into the liquid, boiling waves of hell, and accursed sinners of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah sprang to the right and left and made way for him to pass them and fall lower down even to the deepest cavern in the flaming abyss. Here his consciousness like a never-dying worm stings him and forever gnaws his soul and the slighted blood of the Son of God communicates ten thousand hells in one! Now through the blazing flames of hell he sees that Heaven he has lost — that exceeding great and eternal weight of glory he has sold for the devils pottage! In those pure regions he sees his father, or mother, his sisters, or brothers, or those persons who sat under the same means of grace with him, and whom he derided as fools, fanatics, and hypocrites. They are far beyond the impassable gulf they shine brighter than the sun when he shineth in his strength and walk the golden streets of the New Jerusalem but he is lost and damned forever.

The last thing we shall mention in the history of the fool is when he lifted up his eyes in hell, he found a dictionary, explaining the meaning of all the profane language he used during his life. Now he perfectly understands the meaning of those words he was in the habit of using in this world without ever reflecting on their signification. Such expressions as the following were very common with the fool in this life “I’ll be damned, God damn his soul, if it were not so.” Now the fool perfectly understands the meaning of these terms in all their horrid emphasis — for God has heard and answered his prayer he has damned his soul in hell He could now tell you that the dreadful meaning of these words frighted the stoutest devils, and fills all the flaming vaults of hell with the most hideous shrieks and yells. In this life when the fool was offended with any one his common phrase was such a one is a damned fool. Now he perfectly understands the meaning of the phrase. When he surveys his life and reflects on the many offers of salvation he refused the manner in which he misspent his precious time and mis-improved all the means of grace he is constrained to confess he is emphatically a fool — a damned fool — for he is damned in hell forever and ever.  * (McGready, Posthumous Works, I, 228, 229.)

No imagery was too vivid to illustrate the theme. With powerful energy the revival preacher reiterated the doctrine of salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. The sinner, and in this category all were included, could not hope for salvation by his own efforts, the Blood of the Lamb alone could save him. The Calvinistic doctrines of predestination and regeneration clashed with the Arminian doctrine of salvation for all, which the Methodists preached with great fervour and which became the leading tenet of the Great Revival of 1800.

This Great Revival was the result of a combination of causes, some clearly defined and others so interwoven with the general history of the period that it is impossible to catch more than a suggestion of their outlines. The Great Revival was not the result of a carefully planned campaign on the part of any denomination or denominations. Yet there were certain phases in different parts of the country in those regions where the movement was simultaneous that suggest, the working of general principles, even where the work was carried on by different denominations.

In order to understand its development some knowledge of the denominational life of the churches chiefly affected by it is necessary. Among the Presbyterians who laid great stress upon an educated ministry there was in the religious services an intellectual atmosphere quite apart from everyday life. The stiff, technical theology, or dry, speculative orthodoxy of the pulpit made but little impression on the heart and conscience of those addressed. It was a rare thing for young people to approach the communion table, as age and experience seemed necessary to an understanding of the confession required of those who wished to unite with the church and there was nothing to attract the young. The Baptists went to the extreme in the West in their, opposition to education, holding that it impaired, rather than augmented the ability of a would be pastor. Fierce persecution in Virginia and other states had engendered a hatred of the established clergy and everything savouring of episcopacy that was well-nigh fanatical. Clinging tenaciously to the principle that it was better for the pastor to earn his own living, they furnished meagre support for their ministry. In the West, particularly, where so much effort was required to make suitable provision for a growing family, the Baptist pastor had little time for books, even if he had had the inclination study. The Methodist society from its inception had laid great stress upon personal religion. When, shortly after the Revolution, the Episcopal church in America lost many of its members by the formal coming out of the Methodists and their establishment as a separate ecclesiastical body under the superintendence of Bishops Coke and Asbury, it lost a most active, earnest band of workers. They were poor people it is true, and despised by society at large, yet they were men and women filled with a sense of the necessity of correlating in some measure profession and life. To the Methodist, religion was something to be actually experienced and felt, and the emotions played a large part in his worship. The class-meeting, organised early in the movement, has been of great importance in the history of the church. Here were to be found earnest men and women, usually not more than twelve, whose formal religious needs were met by the established church, but who desired a more complete knowledge of the way of salvation. Regular meetings were held, under one of their number who had been appointed leader for prayer, praise, exhortation, and consultation. The leader kept in closest touch with the members of his class, and, after the church was fully organised, made regular reports to the preacher and deacon concerning the spiritual condition of those under his charge and concerning the funds collected.

Class-meetings were promptly organised by members of the society who migrated to the West, the most efficient of their number acting as leaders. Thus a vital connection was maintained, between the different members of the church in this meeting where all phases of the religious life were carefully discussed. Absences were inquired into, and only good and sufficient reasons excused the delinquent, who might be dropped from the class-list if the excuse were not satisfactory. In this way the Methodist church maintained a more careful supervision of its members than the other denominations. The itinerant system was especially adapted to the needs of a new and sparsely settled, country. The faithful circuit riders rendered most efficient service. Few of them had thought of the ministry as a calling until inspired at some Methodist meeting to give up their regular mode of life and travel about the country to present the truth which had so powerfully impressed them. They were for the most part uneducated, ignorant in many instances of all books save the Bible and the hymnal. Many of them thought, as did the Baptists, that learning was a hindrance, but their leading men favoured education and even erected a college in Abingdon, Maryland, called after the founder, Cokesbury, the opposition, for a time, however, gained the ascendancy, as the early educational ventures failed owing to fire and mismanagement.

In the western country, a friendly feeling among the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists was much in evidence in spite of doctrinal differences. The exigencies of life in the wilderness drew them together, and it was not uncommon to find the various denominations uniting in their larger meetings, though the Baptists did not mingle as freely as the others. It is not surprising to find the Great Revival movement animating them all at the same period. Certain general characteristics are to be noted in all the denominations affected by the revival A period of indifference on the part of professing Christians to spiritual concerns was generally followed by a time of feverish anxiety, marked by increasing solemnity in all religious gatherings, which resulted in periods of revival often characterised by wildest excitement. This was the effect of the impassioned preaching, earnest exhortation, loud prayers, and energetic singing.  * (See Appendix II for one of the favourite hymns.) Protracted meetings which grew out of the reluctance on the part of those most seriously impressed to leave the scene of worship as the work progressed became a regular feature of worship and were instrumental in promoting the revival.

Sacramental occasions and quarterly meetings afforded the best opportunity for reaching the people generally. These were usually well attended, even before the Great Revival, as they furnished an opportunity of meeting friends and hearing the gospel to many who in their remote cabins knew no neighbourhood life and were out of reach of even the irregular preaching afforded by most western communities at the end of the eighteenth century. The sacramental meetings were a great feature in such lives. This the revival leaders were quick to appreciate and take advantage of. As soon as it became noised about that unusual excitement was to be found at these meetings, great crowds flocked to them. The increased attendance made it necessary to devise some new scheme of entertaining those who came from a distance, since the hospitality afforded by the neighbourhood was no longer adequate. This resulted in the development of camp-meetings, which immediately became an important element in religious life and, most effectively fostered the revival spirit.

Just when and where the camp-meeting originated is a disputed question. In the early days of the Revolution, the Baptists in Virginia had held meetings similar in some respects but at, these meetings men only had remained on the grounds over night.  * (Robert B. Semple, History of the Baptists in Virginia, 23 Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, II, 395 — 97 [so-called camp-meetings were also instituted a few years later by John Waller in his endeavour to build up a strong party to support his independent views].) As early as 1794 one of the Methodist churches in Lincoln County, North Carolina, decided to hold a meeting in the neighbouring forest for several days and nights. This meeting was conducted by several ministers, among whom was William McKendree, later prominent in the Great Revival in the West. So successful was the plan that another meeting was appointed for the next year, and still another for the year following. These meetings were kept up continuously in the South Carolina Conference.  * (Atkinson, Centennial History of American Methodism, 489, 490.) Since several of those who were instrumental in promoting the Great Revival in the Cumberland region of Kentucky and Tennessee had come from the Carolinas, where these meetings were well known, it might naturally be inferred that they had brought the plan with them. There is, however, no evidence that such meetings were even attempted in Kentucky or Tennessee before the year 1800. Furthermore, Bishop Asbury who travelled at regular intervals over all the circuits does not use the word camp-meetings in his Journal until the year, 1802. Jesse Lee in his history, of the Methodists states that the camp-meeting was introduced about the year 1801. He adds, “I never could learn whether they began in the upper parts of South Carolina, in Tennessee, or in Kentucky.”  * (Lee, A Short History of the Methodists in the United Slates, 279.)

In the Great Revival of 1800, the necessity for camping on the ground at the large meetings was first made evident in the Cumberland region where the revival originated. It was impossible to provide entertainment for those who lived too far from the grounds to return home at night. Then, too, as the excitement increased, the night meetings became a most important feature of the gatherings, and the people were loath to leave the place at all. Those coming from a distance drove, if possible, to the place of meetings, and it was a simple matter for them to come ready to camp for several days. To men and women who had once made the difficult journey over the mountains there was no novelty in the idea of camping out. The warm summer and autumn nights could easily be spent out of doors with such shelter as the wagon or au improvised tent furnished. The scheme was first adopted in McGready’s congregations in Logan, County, Kentucky. The great meeting at Red River in the summer of 1800 made it imperative to provide in some way for the throngs likely to attend subsequent meetings. At the Gasper River meeting the last Sabbath in July of the same year, thirteen wagons were brought to the meeting-house to transport people and their provisions. In August a meeting was held at Muddy River. There were twenty-two wagons loaded with people and their provisions with many others provided for encamping at the meeting-house.  * (McGready’s Narrative of the Revival in Logan County, New York Missionary Magazine (1803), 192, 196.) Thus the plan of camping on the ground immediately gained favour, and people were advised to come prepared to remain on the ground, if they desired to attend all of the meetings and if they lived too far to return home at night. In eastern Kentucky the same necessity, crowded meetings in sparsely settled communities, favoured the adoption of the scheme of camping on the ground, already familiar in the western part of the state. Soon camp-meetings came to be a regular feature of the revival and were to be met with wherever it spread. These meetings usually began on Thursday, or Friday, and continued until the following Tuesday. People living thirty, sixty, and even one hundred miles away attended. There was preaching every day with the administration of the Holy Sacrament on Sunday. Provisions and bedding were brought from home by those who purposed remaining on the ground. The wagons, were stationed at a convenient distance, near wood and water. Improvised tents and rude huts, hastily constructed, supplemented the covered wagons and afforded the necessary shelter. The numbers attending increased to such an extent that the meeting-house could not accommodate the crowds, and stands were erected in the grove nearby in order that several ministers might preach at the same time. As the excitement increased, the singing, praying, and exhortation were kept up in various parts of the grounds night and day. There was no regularity about the life. Many seemed unconscious of the need of food and sleep.  * (Ramsay, History of South Carolina, II, 32 — 37, note on camp meetings.)

To appreciate the part which the camp-meeting played in the Great Revival of 1800, it is advisable to look more closely at the scenes enacted at such meetings. The meeting at Gasper River, in July, 1800, probably the first of the camp-meetings, may be taken as a typical instance of the earliest gatherings of this sort.

On Saturday evening, after the congregation was dismissed, a few seriously exercised Christians were sitting conversing together, and appeared to be more than commonly engaged, the flame started from them and appeared to overspread the whole house. The greater part of the ministers and several hundreds of the people remained at the meeting-house all night. Through every part of the multitude there could be found some awakened souls, struggling in the pangs of the new birth, ready to faint or die for Christ, almost upon the brink of desperation. Others again beginning to tell the sweet wonders which they saw in Christ. Ministers and experienced Christians were everywhere engaged praying, exhorting, conversing, and trying to lead enquiring souls to the Lord Jesus. In this exercise the night was spent till near the break of day.

Toward the close of the sermon on Sunday, the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as the voice of the preacher.

No person seemed to wish to go home — hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody — eternal things were the vast concern. Here awakening and converting work was to be found in every part of the multitude. Sober professors, who had been communicants for many years, now lying prostrate on the ground, crying out I have been a sober professor I have been a communicant O! I have been deceived, I have no religion — O! I see that religion is a sensible thing. Believe what the ministers tell you — religion is a sensible thing. I feel the pains of hell in my soul and body! O! how I would have despised any person a few days ago who would have acted as I am doing now! — But O! I cannot help it!
And this continued till deliverance came.

Little children, young men and women, and old grey headed people, persons of every description, white and, black, were to be found in every part of the multitude crying out for mercy in the most extreme distress.  * (McGready’s Narrative of the Revival in Logan County, New York Missionary Magazine (1803), 192 — 94.)

The following extract from a letter written by a gentleman in North Carolina in July, 1802,   * (New York Missionary Magazine (1802), 310 — 12.)  gives a good picture of the more developed camp-meetings.

The preparatory service was to commence on Friday. On the evening before, however, the camps began to be pitched in the wilderness, and not within the view of any artificial improvements of any kind.

I attended as an astonished spectator. The great and wonderful works which appeared are as far above my powers of explanation as of comprehension. Near 200 heavy wagons were upon the ground besides other carriages, and it is thought there could not be less than 5,000 persons. Two stands were erected on the grounds and at a convenient distance for the daily exhibitions of the public speakers and also a table for administering the Lord’s Supper. The stands were occupied by different ministers, while the Lord’s Supper was administering to perhaps about 700 communicants.

The camp was well illuminated through the night by a good fire being kept up in front of every camp, besides candles which were kept burning in different parts of the encampment. The whole of the time was taken up both day and night (time for every necessary refreshment only excepted) in praising, praying, preaching and exhortation . . . . . divine service was constantly kept up, perhaps the whole of the time both day and night.

Professing ministers of the gospel of different sects attended, viz., of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches and performed their respective duties occasionally with very great zeal and fervency, night and day, as their respective abilities enabled them to undergo the extraordinary fatigue.

A very great number of people of every age, I believe from 10 years to 70, were struck down. To risk a conjecture of the precise number would be idly uncertain because they fell in the camps, on their way home, and after they got there. The whole number who fell must have amounted to many hundred. It was thought that more than two hundred were down at one time. Many were exercised with very great apparent severity, and the time of continuation was very different upon different subjects. Some appeared to be exceedingly distressed and considerably exercised, who were not struck down, but walked to their tents with the assistance of one or two persons, where, after lying a few hours, they became comforted and composed in, a tolerable degree, and some of them in a very extraordinary degree.

They were struck down and exercised in many different ways, although they generally trembled exceedingly, and were remarkably cold in their bodily extremities. After they recovered, some said they felt a great load about their heart, a little before the severity of the stroke others said they were rather in a slumbering and inattentive way, not at all affected at that moment, with what they were hearing or had heard, when they were struck down in an instant as with a thunderbolt.

Some were totally insensible of everything that passed for some considerable time, others said they were perfectly sensible of every word spoken in their hearing, and everything done to them although to the spectator they appeared in a state of equal insensibility. Many cried out exceedingly, when they were first struck down their cries were like those of the greatest bodily distress imaginable. But this was generally succeeded, in a little time, by a state of apparent insensibility which generally lasted much longer and which, in some, was succeeded by the strongest appearance of extreme agitation and distress exhibited by incessant cries for mercy, and acknowledgements of unworthiness and ingratitude to a blessed Saviour.

The people did not fall so much immediately under the ministry as they did at their camps, or walking through the space between the different encampments, and when not in hearing of the public speakers.  * (See Appendix III for a letter written July 7, 1802, describing a camp-meeting in the district of Spartenburgh, South Carolina (Augusta Herald, July 28, 1802).)

Another eyewitness thus describes the meetings

At first appearance those meetings exhibited nothing to the spectator but a scene of confusion, that could scarce be put into human language. They were generally opened with a sermon near the close of which there would be an unusual outcry some bursting forth into loud ejaculations of prayer, or thanksgiving for the truth Others breaking out into emphatic sentences of exhortation Others flying to their careless friends, with tears of compassion beseeching them to turn to the Lord. Some struck with terror, and hastening through the crowd to make their escape, or pulling away their relations. Others, trembling, weeping and crying out for the Lord Jesus to have mercy upon them fainting and swooning away till every appearance of life was gone. Others surrounding them with melodious songs or fervent prayers for their happy resurrection in the love of Christ. Others collecting into circles around the variegated scene, contending with arguments for and against. And under such appearances the work would continue for days and nights  * (The scene at night was peculiarly impressive. Torches, candles, and the blazing campfires among the trees threw a weird light upon the moving crowd, the animated preacher, the agonised sufferer, and the prostrate bodies. Under these circumstances there was something truly awful in the medley of sounds that fell upon the ear.) together.  *(McNemar, the Kentucky Revival, 23.)

So popular did the method of encamping on the ground at the large meetings become that it was soon adopted by the leaders as a means of stimulating revivals.  * (The subsequent development of the camp — meeting and its later importance will be treated in chap. V.)

Praying societies played a most important part in the spread of the revival. McGready writes ‘Was I to mention the rapid progress of its work, in vacant congregations, carried on by means of a few supplies, and, by praying societies it would be more than time or the bounds of a letter would permit of.’  * (Letter in New York Missionary Magazine (1802), 160.) A special gift of prayer is frequently mentioned as attending the revival movement. Thus by prayer, exhortation, and religious conversation in private as well as through the regular channels of public worship the Great Revival movement gradually spread over the whole of the western country. The spread of this Great Revival and its culmination will form the subject of the next chapter.

bg pattern

Get your complete book here




All remaining available by instant download at the shop





I.       James McGready — Testimony of Ninian Edwards before a Committee Appointed by the Transylvania Presbytery, February 1, 1807

II.      The Revival of 1800 — One of the Favourite Hymns, Mercy of God

III.    Copy of a Letter from Ebenezer Cummins, July 7, 1802

IV.    Rev. John Lyles Account of Sacramental Meetings at Point Pleasant and Lexington in June, 1801

V.      Rev. John Lyles Account of the Great Cain Ridge Camp Meeting, August, 1801

VI.    The Great Revival in North Carolina — among the Baptists of the Kehukee Association

VII.   An Account of the Revival of Religion Which Began in the Eastern Part of the State of Kentucky in May 1801

VIII.  Letter from William McKendree




Go to top