logo of this website


The Interceders Encourager No. 67
The Camp Meetings Revival (2)

In the first part of this story, we noted the huge volume of prayer that went up from all over the north American states from 1794, asking for God to send a general spiritual awakening over the land. In addition, it was mentioned that James McGready set up a prayer covenant, in which Christians were asked to commit themselves to pray specifically for God to pour out His Spirit on Logan County, Kentucky, and in particular, the area along the Red River, which was considered by many to be the most wicked place in the entire country. It was known locally as "Rogues Harbour" "Devil's Den," "Outlaw's Haven," and even "Satan's Stronghold."

McGready got several hundred people, most of them living in North Carolina, to sign his "Carolina Covenant", promising to pray and intercede with God until such time as He would send true revival to Logan County. These people were asked to pray without ceasing for Logan County until the revival came, or they died.

McGready himself, not wishing to miss the impending revival, moved to Logan County in faith in the year 1796. This was partly because he felt that his work in Orange County, North Carolina was over. The opposition to him had grown to such an extent that his pulpit was burned and he received a threatening letter written in blood. Arriving in the county, he began pastoring the church that met in the "Red River Meetinghouse," which was located near the river of the same name. Shortly after, he established two more small congregations, Gasper River Church and Muddy River Church, both also in Logan County. The pastor asked his people to pray every Saturday night, each Sunday morning, and all day on the third Saturday of each month. They were also asked to fast on the third Saturday. He asked them to pray specifically for three things: repentance, redemption, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

They accepted the following covenant: 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 each 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 McGready did not have large congregations interceding for revival. His longest established church, Red River Meeting House, was very small, having only 20 to 25 members in 1797. In the summer of 1798, there was a general spiritual move among McGready's three congregations. As a result, "In every house, and almost in every company, the whole conversation with people was about the state of their souls."

Two Presbyterian ministers, however, who were opposed to the teachings of McGready, visited the members of his congregations and cast all the doubt that they could upon McGready's teachings that a) God would bring revival as a result of prayer, and b) that every real Christian could and should know by the witness of the Holy Spirit that God had accepted them.

One of these men found a church member of McGready's to assist him, and they worked diligently, teaching and speaking against James McGready's ideas with everyone who would listen. They were successful for a time in stopping the move that God had begun. They turned so many members of the congregation against McGready that the trustees of the church are said to have padlocked the doors of the meetinghouse so that he could not preach. Arriving at the meetinghouse and finding the doors padlocked, but with a small number of people gathered and wishing to hear him preach anyway, their pastor began to preach. As he spoke, a loud snap was heard. The padlock had broken and fallen from the door. After this, no one dared to padlock the doors again.

However, such spiritual damage had been done that the infant congregation remained in a state of inactivity through the following months until June, 1799. This was the time when the Red River church sponsored its annual Communion season, and visitors came from other churches. The Holy Spirit began to work, creating expectation of great things. The next month, similar services were held at the Gaspar River church, increasing faith for the future. According to McGready, the services at Muddy River were the greatest, the most solemn and the most powerful of any that had been up to that time.

McGready's preaching so stirred his congregations that when the Red River church sponsored its annual Communion Season in June 1800, the spiritual climate was charged. Local ministers were invited to participate, as were other ministers, including those who had surrendered to the ministry in North Carolina under McGready's leadership: John Rankin, William Hodge, and William McGee. Also invited was William's Methodist brother John, whose preaching had been exciting churches in Tennessee.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday passed quietly and reverently, but then on Monday, as one local minister preached, a woman who had long sought assurance of her salvation began shouting and singing. The preacher concluded his sermon, and all the ministers left the church-except for the McGee brothers.

Even though some people had cried and wept, and others had fallen to the floor under conviction of their sinfulness, and though there were conversions, it seemed, as the last day of the meetings closed, that there would be no further move of God at that time. Disappointed, James McGready and two ministers who had been assisting him left the building.

William, however, sat on the floor near the pulpit and began weeping. Soon the congregation was weeping, seeking full assurance of salvation. Then John rose to preach, exhorting people to let "the Lord God omnipotent reign in your hearts, and submit to Him." People began to cry and shout. Then the woman who had first started shouting, let out a shrill of anguish. John McGee made his way to comfort her, but his Presbyterian brother reminded him this was a Presbyterian church, and the congregation would not condone emotionalism!

Later John recalled, "I turned to go back and was near falling; the power of God was strong upon me. I turned again and, disregarding the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy, and the floor was soon covered with the slain. " The boldest, daring sinners in the country covered their faces and wept bitterly. Even after the congregation was dismissed, a large number of people stayed around the building, unwilling to go away. "Some of the ministers proposed to me," said John, "to collect the people in the meeting-house again, and pray with them. So we went in, and joined in prayer and exhortation. John's brother, William went throughout the building, shouting praises to God and encouraging the people to yield themselves wholly to God. Many were changed forever that night. The mighty power of God came amongst us like a shower from the everlasting hills.

God's people were quickened and comforted; some of them were filled with joy unspeakable, and full of glory. Sinners were powerfully alarmed, and some precious souls were brought to feel the pardoning love of Jesus. In the words of James McGready, "a mighty effusion of God's Spirit" came upon the people, "and the floor was soon covered with the slain; their screams for mercy pierced the heavens."

He and the other ministers, convinced that this was the work of God, laid plans for another sacramental season, to be held at the Gaspar River Church the following month, August 1800. McGready took pains to circulate the news, but a media campaign was hardly necessary. Speaking of the hundreds who flocked to Gaspar River, one minister said, "The news of the strange operations which had transpired at the previous meeting had run throughout the country in every direction, carrying a high degree of excitement to the minds of almost every character."

More people began arriving than could be accommodated by the host church's families, but most came prepared to camp out. Though large outdoor meetings had a long history, this was probably the first "camp meeting," even though the term was not coined for another two years. This was the first planned camp meeting. Volunteers arrived days early to cut away trees and undergrowth around the "meeting house." This was to make room for the people and the wagons that were expected. They did not anticipate what occurred. An enormous crowd, as many as several thousand, arrived at the appointed date. Thirteen wagon loads of people and provisions arrived ready to camp out at this meeting. Whole families had come prepared to camp out for days. Some of these people had travelled over 100 miles, on wilderness roads or trails, to be there. The estimates of the number present ran as high as 8,000 men, women, and children.

The Friday and most of Saturday passed in a solemn manner, but on Saturday night, just after the last sermon was finished, two women began talking excitedly about how God had come to them, and soon, wrote McGready, "Sinners were lying powerless in every part of the house, praying and crying for mercy." All night long, ministers attended to distressed and desperate penitents.

Sunday morning's sermon also evoked groans and cries, and at night, with the pulpit lit by flaming torches, William McGee exhorted with all the energy and oratory he could muster. Later, writing of the events of that camp meeting, McGready wrote: "At a huge evening meeting lit by flaming torches, a Presbyterian pastor gave a throbbing message. The power of God seemed to shake the whole assembly. Toward the close of the sermon, the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as the speaker's voice. After the congregation was dismissed, the solemnity increased, till most of the crowd seemed very seriously about their souls. No person wanted to go home. Hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody. Eternal things were the vast concern. Awakening and converting work was to be found in every part of the multitude."

The Gasper River Church was, at that time under the care of John Rankin, a product, as we have seen, of McGready's North Carolina ministry, who was a precious instrument in the hand of God. On the Monday. Rankin preached a gospel sermon on Heb. 11:16, referring to the better country. A great seriousness came over the congregation during the sermon. After the sermon, the preacher gave a sober and challenging exhortation, the congregation was dismissed; but the people remained sitting in their seats for a considerable time, while an awful solemnity appeared on the faces of most people. After a time, many people who were under deep convictions broke forth into a loud outcry, many fell to the ground and lay powerless, groaning, praying and crying for mercy. "As I passed through the crowd," said Rankin, "a woman, lying in awful distress, called me to her. 'I was part of your congregation in Carolina, but I was not a real believer,' she confessed. "I often went to the communion; but I was deceived; I have no real religion; I am going to hell.' In another place an old, grey headed man lay in an agony of distress, saying to his weeping wife and children, 'We are all going to hell together; we have lived prayerless, ungodly lives; the work of our souls is yet to begin; we must get religion, or we will all be damned.' But time would fail me to mention every instance of this kind."

In the succeeding months, camp meeting revivals spread through Kentucky and Tennessee: at Muddy River, Mr. Craighead's church, Clay-lick, Little Muddy Creek, Montgomery's Meetinghouse, and Hopewell. Each seemed more dramatic than the last. The move of God at Desha's Creek, in Sumner County, Tennessee , actually began when a small group of people from nearby Shiloh Church attended the Gasper River Camp meeting. Upon their return to Shiloh, their fellow church members, and those of neighbouring churches, were astounded at what they had to relate. Not long afterward, a communion session was announced to be held at a "Robert Shaw's," near the headwaters of Red River. Hundreds attended and many fell swooning to the ground during the service. They "fell like men slain in battle."

Greatly moved at what they had heard and seen, the people of Desha's Creek Meetinghouse decided to hold a camp meeting there. As the year1800 drew to a close, John McGee reported that the camp meeting at Desha's Creek "drew crowds numbering in the thousands. The mighty power and mercy of God was manifested. The people fell before the Word, like corn before a storm of wind, and many rose from the dust with divine glory shining in their faces, giving glory to God in such strains as made the hearts of stubborn sinners to tremble. "

The Rev. William Hodge described the Desha's Creek meeting. "Sabbath evening exhibited the most awful scene I ever beheld. About the centre of the camp, the people were lying in heaps and scattered all around. The sighs, groans, and prayers seemed to pierce the heavens, while the power of God fell upon almost all present."

On another occasion, James McGready was preaching to a large congregation meeting in the woods. A very dark and threatening storm arose and seemed ready to burst upon them. They had no place to go for shelter, and the meeting would have been forced to disperse. Stopping in the middle of his sermon, McGready called upon God to turn aside or stop the storm. The cloud then separated, passing to the right and to the left of the congregation, leaving them and the meeting undisturbed.

Thus began "the camp meetings." The term came into use to describe meetings where people would come in wagons loaded with tents and provisions, and would camp out while the meeting lasted. Such a meeting might last for a few days, but sometimes would continue for a week or more. Although the term 'camp meeting' was not used until 1802, these were the first true camp meetings, where an almost continuous outdoor service was combined with camping out.

Two other new practices originated at this time. One of these was a new type of worship. Since there were virtually no musical instruments on the frontier of the type traditionally used in worship, music for the worship began to be provided by local musicians, trained or not. Anyone who had any type of musical instrument and who desired to participate was welcomed. This meant that the primary musical instruments used in the services were mandolins, violins, banjos, and the like. Along with the new type of worship music, a new type of singing arose. As there were no trained choirs, no organs or pianos on the frontier, so there were no hymn books. New songs were written where the melodies were simple, with easily remembered words and lengthy choruses. Here are portions of two songs that were popular during The Great Revival. The first song shows the great importance which was placed on a lost person's need to recognize their utter damnation apart from the saving grace of God.
"Stop, poor sinner, stop and think, before you further go:
Will you sport upon the brink of everlasting woe?"

This second song expresses another strong conviction of the revivalists, that neither good works nor a seemingly good life would ever save anyone. Salvation was proclaimed as being by God the Father's goodness, through the suffering and death of Jesus, who was God the Son.
"Glory to God on high! Our peace is made with heaven:
The Son of God came down to die, that we might be forgiven."

Besides the new type of songs and music, another new practice was that of placing a bench or a railing at the front of the congregation. Those who came under conviction of their sinfulness, were encouraged to go forward to what came to be called the "altar," or the "mourner's bench." Here they would pray and seek a knowledge of forgiveness for their sins. When that knowledge or assurance of forgiveness came; then, and only then, was it felt that the one under conviction had joined the ranks of the redeemed. The starting of this practice has been attributed to Charles Finney, but, as we have seen, it was started during these camp meetings.

After the first meeting, camp meetings were not only held with growing frequency, but many were larger and lasted longer. Some drew an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 people, or more. These numbers are amazing when you realize that this was in a frontier region with only a sparse population. The largest urban area at the time in Kentucky was Lexington, with a population of less than 1,800. Yet the number of people attending the meetings in Tennessee and Kentucky was so great that no building could hold them, so all meetings had to be held outside. They would camp out in the open with their families, staying for days, not wanting to go home.

Our God is a God of wonders. Pray that we will see His wonders in our day.