It came to pass a certain two and an half decades, or so after the war of the revolution that a grouping of eldest brother, Peresbyterianism, held a party (commencing, specifically in 1801). Ecumenically Presbyterianism invited his two younger brothers to this celebration. At the offset this party was little more than Presbyterianisms’ annual communion celebration. But as the Spirit of the living God would have it, this turned out to be no common Presbyterian communion service. This particular celebration was being held in a place called Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
It all started off in the usual way, many came to attendance for the weekend services began Friday night. In a quiet and solemn mood communicants worshipped humbly, and listened to the common communion verses of scripture regularly prescribed by the Presbyterian tradition. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday proceeded in this standard course. On Monday, however, things took a rather different turn.
Of the ministers in attendance were two flesh and blood brothers by name of McGee. One McGee was a Presbyterian, the other was a Methodist. Guess which of them started the trouble? Oh Methodism, how I love your forgotten impertinence!
A local preacher ministered on Monday, as he progressed a woman who had been seeking the Lord for assurance of salvation began to shout and sing the praises of Israel. The local minister completed his sermon and left; in fact it seems all of the other ministers left save the McGee brothers.
On that Monday evening, though the ministers had left the communicants lingered in what was rapidly becoming an undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit. William McGee (the Presbyterian brother) sat weeping on the floor.
The entire congregation was stirred; what was happening among them? Was this fanaticism? Ah but the placed was charged with the presence of the Risen Lord! Could this be that ‘old time religion’? The falling of the Spirit as in the day of Pentecost? The Methodist McGee certainly thought so! He poised himself to preach in that old revivalist way, someone present cautioned him (perhaps his brother): ‘We don’t want to fall into the trap of emotionalism…’
At that McGee paused just for a moment, should he preach the Old Time Religion in that early Methodist form? After all the moving of the Spirit in the nation as at the first Great Awakening had ceased… where was Jonathan Edwards? Where was George Whitefield? And – after all, this was a Presbyterian meeting, and McGee was only an invited guest…
Then came over McGee a sudden resolve, would he cease for fear of being labelled an ’emotionalist’ preacher? Would he allow the fear of man to stop him dead in his tracks? NEVER! McGee would do just as the Spirit bade him, so just as Wesley, and Whitefield, just as the Quaker’s George Fox, who all had gone before him, McGee preached with all the ‘impetuous,’ ’emotional,’ Spirit-led Methodist fervor he could muster.
What happened that night due to the working of a fearless soul moved by the hand of Almighty God became the beginning of the SECOND Great Awakening!
What would, by some, be called absolute pandemonium ensured – hundreds would be caught up in spiritual ecstasy, and rapture, thousands would pray through and ‘Get Religion’ (that meant ‘obtain salvation through a personal encounter with Christ’) manifestations of every imaginable sort began to take place. Tens of thousands would attend the revival in this place to see the working of the hand of God. The Spirit had fallen in Cane Ridge Kentucky!
While (at this time) little known in American history this revival in Cane Ridge Kentucky was the catalyst for propelling Christianity across the nation, and for salvaging Americas morals on an immensely wide scale as a growing nation. Out of this revival was born the bible belt of the south; it set the stage for the way that ministry would be done in America for the next 150 years! This was the first camp meeting revival, and an outpouring which revivalist ministers attempted to emulate for many years to come.
Lest I seem to over-emphasis the meaning of this revival, I will quote a few historic sources which to reveal some level of the scope and magnitude of this movement.
In his autobiography Revivalist Barton W. Stone gave further description of the declining moral state of the nation after the Revolutionary war:
“Things moved on quietly in my congregations, and in the country generally. Apathy in religious societies appeared every where to an alarming degree. Not only the power of religion had disappeared, but also the very form of it was waning fast away, and continued so till the beginning of the present century [the 1800s (this is about two decades after the war ended)].
Having heard of a remarkable religious excitement in the south of Kentucky, and in Tennessee, under the labors of James McGready and other Presbyterian ministers, I was very anxious to be among them; and, early in the spring of 1801, went there to attend a camp-meeting. There, on the edge of a prairie in Logan county, Kentucky, the multitudes came together, and continued a number of days and nights encamped on the ground; during which time worship was carried on in some part of the encampment.
The scene to me was new, and passing strange. It baffled description. Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state—sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered. After lying thus for hours, they obtained deliverance. The gloomy cloud, which had covered their faces, seemed gradually and visibly to disappear, and hope in smiles brightened into joy—they would rise shouting deliverance, and then would address the surrounding multitude in language truly eloquent and impressive. With astonishment did I hear men, women and children declaring the wonderful works of God, and the glorious mysteries of the gospel. Their appeals were solemn, heart-penetrating, bold and free. Under such addresses many others would fall down into the same state from which the speakers had just been delivered.’
Methodist circuit riding Revivalist Peter Cartwright, who ‘got religion’ (i.e. was ‘born again’) at Cane Ridge:
‘The meeting was protracted for weeks. Ministers of almost all denominations flocked in from far and near. The meeting was kept up by night and day. Thousands heard of the mighty work, and came on foot, on horse back, in carriages and wagons. It was supposed that there were in attendance at times during the meeting from twelve to twenty-five thousand people. Hundreds fell prostrate under the mighty power of God, as men slain in battle. Stands were erected in the woods from which preachers of different Churches proclaimed repentance toward God and faith ein our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was supposed, by eye and ear witnesses, that between one and two thousand souls were happily and powerfully converted to God during the meeting. It was not unusual for one, two, three, and four to seven preachers to be addressing the listening thousands at the same time from the different stands erected for the purpose. The heavenly fire spread in almost every direction. It was said, by truthful witnesses, that at times more than one thousand persons broke into loud shouting all at once, and that the shouts could be heard for miles around.
… I suppose since the day of Pentecost, there was hardly ever a greater revival of religion than at Cane Ridge; and if there had been steady, Christian ministers, settled in Gospel doctrine and Church discipline, thousands might have been saved to the Church that wandered off in the mazes of vain, speculative divinity, and finally made shipwreck of the faith, fell back, turned infidel, and lost their religion and their souls forever. But evidently a new impetus was given to the work of God, and many, very many, will have cause to bless God forever for this revival of religion throughout the length and breadth of our Zion.
The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy. …
…I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon, and I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the high praises of God at once; and I will venture to assert that many happy thousands were awakened and converted to God at these camp meetings. Some sinners mocked, some of the old dry professors opposed, some of the old starched Presbyterian preachers preached against these exercises, but still the work went on and spread almost in every direction, gathering additional force, until our country seemed all coming home to God”
Barton W Stone continues:
Two or three of my particular acquaintances from a distance were struck down. I sat patiently by one of them, whom I knew to be a careless sinner, for hours, and observed with critical attention every thing that passed from the beginning to the end. I noticed the momentary revivings as from death—the humble confession of sins—the fervent prayer, and the ultimate deliverance—then the solemn thanks and praise to God — the affectionate exhortation to companions and to the people around, to repent and come to Jesus. I was astonished at the knowledge of gospel truth displayed in the address. The effect was, that several sunk down into the same appearance of death. After attending to many such cases, my conviction was complete that it was a good work—the work of God; nor has my mind wavered since on the subject. Much did I then see, and much have I since seen, that I considered to be fanaticism; but this should not condemn the work. The Devil has always tried to ape the works of God, to bring them into disrepute. But that cannot be a Satanic work, which brings men to humble confession and forsaking of sin—to solemn prayer—fervent praise and thanksgiving, and to sincere and affectionate exhortations to sinners to repent and go to Jesus the Saviour I am always hurt to hear people speak lightly of this work.
The testimony of Rev James Finley is particularly interesting:
In the month of August, 1801, I learned there was to be a great meeting at Cane Ridge, in my father’s old congregation. Feeling a great desire to see the wonderful things which had come to my ears, and having been solicited by some of my old schoolmates to go over into Kentucky for the purpose of revisiting the scenes of my boyhood, I resolved to go. Obtaining company, I started from my woody retreat in Highland county. Having reached the neighborhood of the meeting, we stopped and put up for the night. The family, who seemed to be posted in regard to all the movements of the meeting, cheerfully answered all our inquiries, and gave us all the information we desired.
The next morning we started for the meeting. On the way I said to my companions, “Now, if I fall it must be by physical power and not by singing and praying;” and as I prided myself upon my manhood and courage, I had no fear of being overcome by any nervous excitability, or being frightened into religion. We arrived upon the ground, and here a scene presented itself to my mind not only novel and unaccountable, but awful beyond description.
A vast crowd, supposed by some to have amounted to twenty-five thousand, was collected together. The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons, and one-the Rev. William Burke, now of Cincinnati-was standing on a, tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy in the most piteous accents, while others were shouting most vociferously.
While witnessing these scenes, a peculiarly-strange sensation, such as I had never felt before, came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lip quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground. A strange supernatural power seemed to pervade the entire mass of mind there collected. I became so weak and powerless that I found it necessary to sit down. Soon after I left and went into the woods and there I strove to rally and man up my courage.
I tried to philosophize in regard to these wonderful exhibitions, resolving them into mere sympathetic excitement-a kind of religious enthusiasm, inspired by songs and eloquent harangues. My pride was wounded, for I had supposed that my mental and physical strength and vigor could most successfully resist these influences. After some time I returned to the scene of excitement the waves of which, if possible, had risen still higher. The same awfulness of feeling came over me.
I stepped up on to a log, where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred swept down in a moment, as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens. My hair rose up on my head, my whole frame trembled, the blood ran cold in my veins, and I fled for the woods a second time, and wished I had staid at home.
While I remained here my feelings became intense and insupportable. A sense of suffocation and blindness seemed to come over me, and I thought I was going to die. There being a tavern about half mile off, I concluded to go and get some brandy, and see if it would not strengthen my nerves. When I arrived there I was disgusted with the sight that met my eyes. Here I saw about one hundred men engaged in drunken revelry, playing cards, trading horses, quarreling, and fighting. After some time I got to the bar, and took a dram and left, feeling that I was as near hell as I wished to be, either in this or the world to come.
The brandy had no effect in allaying my feelings, but, if any thing, made me worse. Night at length came on, and I was afraid to see any of my companions. I cautiously avoided them, fearing lest they should discover something the matter with me. In this state I wandered about from place to place, in and around the encampment. At times it seemed as if all the sins I had ever committed in my life were vividly brought up in array before my terrified imagination, and under their awful pressure I felt that I must die if I did not get relief. Then it was that I saw clearly through the thin vail of Universalism, and this refuge of lies was swept away by the Spirit of God. Then fell the scales from my sin-blinded eyes, and I realized, in all its force and power, the awful truth, that if I died in my sins I was a lost man forever. Oh how I dreaded the death of the soul; for
“There is a death whose pang
Outlasts the fleeting breath:
Oh what eternal horrors hang
Around the second death
Notwithstanding all this, my heart was so proud and hard that I would not have fallen to the ground for the whole state of Kentucky. I felt that such an event would have been an everlasting disgrace, and put a final quietus on my boasted manhood and courage. At night I went to a barn in the neighborhood, and creeping under the hay, spent a most dismal night.
I resolved, in the morning, to start for home, for I felt that I was a ruined man. Finding one of the friends who came over with me, I said, “Captain, let us be off; I will stay no longer.” He assented, and getting our horses we started for home. We said but little on the way, though many a deep, long drawn sigh told the emotions of my heart.
When we arrived at the Blue Lick Knobs, I broke the silence which reigned mutually between us. Like long-pent-up waters, seeking for an avenue in the rock, the fountains of my soul were broken up, and I exclaimed, “Captain, if you and I don’t stop our wickedness the devil will get us both.” Then came from my streaming eyes the bitter tears, and I could scarcely refrain from screaming aloud. This startled and alarmed my companion, and he commenced weeping too. Night approaching, we put up near Mayslick, the whole of which was spent by me in weeping and promising God, if he would spare me till morning I would pray and try to mend my life and abandon my wicked courses.
As soon as day broke I went to the woods to pray, and no sooner had my knees touched the ground than I cried aloud for mercy and salvation, and fell prostrate. My cries wore so loud that they attracted the attention of the neighbors, many of whom gathered around me. Among the number was a German from Switzerland, who had experienced religion. He, understanding fully my’ condition, had me carried to his house and laid on a bed, The old Dutch saint directed me to look right away to the Savior. He then kneeled at the bedside and prayed for my salvation most fervently, in Dutch and broken English. He then rose and sung in the same manner, and continued singing and praying alternately till nine o’clock, when suddenly my load was gone, my guilt removed, and presently the direct witness from heaven shone full upon my soul. Then there flowed such copious streams of love into the hitherto waste and desolate places in my soul, that I thought I should die with excess of joy. I cried, I laughed, I shouted, and so strangely did I appear to all but my Dutch brother, that they thought me deranged.”
Again, Barton Stone:
“To give a true description of this meeting cannot be done; it would border on the marvelous. … Many, very many will through eternity remember it with thanksgiving and praise. …The roads were literally crowded with w T-wagons, carriages, horsemen, and footmen, moving to the solemn camp. The sight was affecting. It was judged, by military men on the ground, that there were between twenty and thirty thousand collected.
Four or five preachers were frequently speaking at the same time, in different parts of the encampment, without confusion. The Methodist and Baptist preachers aided in the work, and all appeared cordially united in it—of one mind and one soul, and the salvation of sinners seemed to be the great object of all. We all engaged in singing the same songs of praise—all united in prayer—all preached the same things—free salvation urged upon all by faith and repentance.
A particular description of this meeting would fill a large volume, and then the half would not be told. The numbers converted will be known only in eternity. Many things transpired there, which were so much like miracles, that if they were not, they had the same effects as miracles on infidels and unbelievers; for many of them by these were convinced that Jesus was the Christ, and bowed in submission to him. This meeting continued six or seven days and nights, and would have continued longer, but provisions for such a multitude failed in the neighborhood. To this meeting many had come from Ohio and other distant parts, who returned home and diffused the same spirit in their neighborhoods, and the same works followed.
So low had religion sunk, and such carelessness universally had prevailed, that I have thought that nothing common could have arrested the attention of the world; therefore these uncommon agitations were sent for this purpose. However, this was their effect upon the community.”