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THE GREAT REVIVAL
A "revival" movement among a people who had previously shown such little interest in religion and had indeed fostered assiduously an attitude of antipathy to it is one of the strangest chapters in American religious history. Perhaps stranger still was the fact that those most affected by the movement were in many cases the most unimaginative, phlegmatic, and common-sense backwoodsmen. A swing of the pendulum back from the reign of French atheism early in the century marked the beginning of a feverish emotional reaction, which psychologists are still attempting to explain, for though in a general sense, the high tide of the "great revival" slowly subsided, actually it was never over. The revival, the camp meeting, the protracted meeting, by whatever name it may be called, became a permanent American institution, which never entirely lost its appeal, especially to rural folk, an appeal still wholly mysterious to many minds.
This movement had its beginning in the South, Kentucky and Tennessee, with the labors of certain Presbyterian ministers, prominent among whom was one James McCready. Cataleptic seizures and strange agitations which had formerly appeared under Whitfield (in England) were here witnessed for the first time in "camp meeting." Those under the spell of "the spirit" were suddenly stricken and lay motionless for hours. No age or condition was immune from these strange manifestations which were popularly conceived to be visitations from God. The person affected almost invariably regained consciousness in an agony of repentance that soon changed to an ecstasy of joy.
The revival spirit spread like wildfire through the West, and extended eastward. Revivals and camp meetings were held everywhere. From a people to whom the very mention of religion was anathema, in one mad moment the whole country was converted to one where religious controversy was the one main topic of the day. One minister after another succumbed to the new hysteria, but the excitement reached its height in the long line of western frontier, and perhaps justly so, for if the hardened in sin were in need of revival, here was a field ripened for harvest.
In August, 1801, Barton Stone introduced the movement into Cane Ridge, Kentucky, and held one of the most famous camp meetings of all time. More than twenty thousand people attended. Methodist and Baptist ministers aided the Presbyterians, several preaching at once in different parts of the mammoth camp meeting. At these famous Cane Ridge meetings not less than one thousand persons, many of them previously infidels, were stricken down with these peculiar manifestations and presumably "saved."
Other Presbyterian ministers, McNamar, Thompson, Dunlavy, Marshall, David Purviance, began to hold similar services. "The people appeared," says Stone, "as just awakened from the sleep of ages; they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings."1
A revival was at first synonymous with a "camp meeting." A place was selected in the forest near a spring, for wood and water were the two great essentials for the pioneer. Trees were felled, benches built, a bower thatched for shelter, and, most significant of all, in front of the rude platform chosen to serve as a pulpit, was arranged the "mourners' bench." This was a rectangular space inclosed by a rail and provided with seats. Into this enclosure the penitent were invited to assemble after the sermon, a vociferous lengthy discourse redolent of the fires of hell and the wrath of God. The ground was well strewn with straw, and all was in readiness for the camp meeting. The meeting was scheduled to last for days. All work on farms and clearings was suspended for the period, while whole families gathered from miles around by every means of conveyance. Rude cabins and tents were erected and preparations made for cooking on an even more primitive housekeeping plan than the log cabins at home afforded. The occasion was a social one, as well as a sober religious duty, and time was found somehow between services for friendship, hospitality, and courtship, and all the community activity dear to the heart of the lonely pioneer.
A trumpet was sounded at daybreak for rising, a second blast for prayer in the tents, a third for call to public prayer on the ground. Breakfast was then served and all was in readiness for a first service at eight, followed by meetings at eleven, three in the afternoon, and "early candlelight." All the "meetings" followed one general plan. First the sermon with its exhortation and warning of the briefness of life, the danger of sudden and unprepared death, and the pains of hell, followed by pleading to sinners to repent. During the exhortation men, women, and children pressed up the straw-strewn aisles to the mourners' bench. There were usually many of these penitent. At the mourners' bench workers waited and proceeded to "lay their sins heavily" upon those who answered the call. This was called "a class," and so long was the sermon, the exhortation, and the class that the services just missed overlapping. But short church sessions were neither known nor desired in that day.
Singing and shouting were always prominent features of the camp meeting. Men, women, and children fell down in trances and suffered other strange seizures. As the movement reached fever heat, new manifestations appeared; one of the weirdest was known as the "jerks," in which the victim's head would be jerked back and forth at a rapid rate. The famous itinerant preacher, Peter Cartright, thus describes the "jerks" in his memoirs: "To see these proud young gentlemen and young ladies in their silks, jewelry, and prunella from top to toe take the jerks, would often excite my risibilities. The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps, and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerkings of the head that their long loose hair would crack almost as loud as a wagoner's whip."2 The "jerks" affected saints and sinners, credulous and skeptical alike, and the spectators would often dance, run, or pray to avoid it, but try to restrain themselves as they would, they still continued to jerk. Sometimes to add to the general hysteria, victims barked like dogs or howled like wolves. Many saw visions, and claimed divine authority for them, and many new movements sprang up in the wake of the great revival.
"In the supercharged atmosphere of the evening meetings, when the strident tones of the evangelist rang through the straw-strewn pavilion and died away in the echoes of the dark and silent forest,"3 the revival was most successful. "And it was among the young and most impressionable that the greatest number of converts were made."
"It was not theological abstractions, nor yet the simple gospel of love with which the itinerant Samsons slew their tens of thousands. It was with the fires of hell, and the vengeance of God that they accomplished it."4
"Thundered at with all the stentorian verbosity of the primitive evangelist . . . they listened in awed stupefaction until their nerves failed. The demonstration of the camp meeting was not so much a product of emotionalism as of emotional collapse . . . without this element of hysteria, the camp meeting would have been a failure."5
The heroes of these pioneer meetings were the itinerant preachers such as Asbury, Peter Cartright, Lorenzo Dow, and others. Often these men, as brave as they were zealous, traveled many miles through the most dangerous and lonely forest on foot or on horseback, hazarding all sorts of weather and every danger of the trail in order to meet appointments made fully a year in advance. As he left each cabin in the woods, the preacher made his appointments often for months ahead, and the pioneer family knew as that day approached, that at the time specified, the "preacher" would ride into the clearing, tired, harried by the uncertainties of the trail, but ready for a meeting in the cabin that night. Many a child on such nights shivered by the fireplace, afraid to go to bed after listening to tales of judgment and God's vengeance. In stockades and schoolhouses, log cabins and camp meetings, these men lifted up their warning voices, never too old, too ill, or too self-seeking to spend themselves.
For many years these revivals were general all through the trans-Allegheny region, continuing with unabated zeal through the depression of 1837. For a time the denominations co-operated in saving souls, each agreeing to avoid all proselyting. But as the force of emotionalism began to recede, discussions began to break out among denominations, and even more generally within the ranks of each denomination, and the issue at stake was "creeds and confessions of faith." The conservative faction of each denomination clung to the old creeds and confessions of faith in which they felt was crystallized the wisdom of the ages; the radical wing viewed these statements of faith as a pernicious obstacle to Christian union.
1 Autobiography of Barton Stone.
2 Autobiography of Peter Cartright, pages 48, 49.
3 From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee, by Abernathy
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