The Interceders Encourager No. 68
The Camp Meetings Revival (3)
After the first camp meetings were held, others then spread across the frontier areas of Kentucky and Tennessee, as many ministers and others who had attended the Red River, the Gaspar River and other gatherings reported the news of what had happened.
One of these ministers was Presbyterian Barton W. Stone, pastor of the Concord and Cane Ridge churches, near Lexington, who had known McGready from the early 1790s. In the Spring of 1801, he attended a camp meeting in Logan County, and was quite overwhelmed with what he had experienced.
"The scene to me was new and very strange. 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 a piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered. With astonishment did I hear men, women, and children declaring the wonderful works of God."
When he described his experiences to the Cane Ridge Church, the congregation was "affected with awful solemnity, and many returned home weeping." That evening, when he spoke at the Concord church, two little girls fell in a faint. After a brief revival ensued at Concord, Stone scheduled to have a similar camp meeting during the Communion season at Cane Ridge during the first weekend in August.
The Cane Ridge Meeting House sat on the gentle slopes of a large hill with scattered clumps of trees, the rest covered with bamboo, the cane that gave the ridge its name. The simple meeting house could hold 500 (standing) , but the congregation had recently erected a large tent to accommodate the anticipated crowds.
But by Friday, August 6, it was clear no one had adequately anticipated the numbers. The Cane Ridge families opened their homes to the neighbouring families who customarily attended the annual Cane Ridge Communion. Wealthier families might take in three or four such families, where children and even adults had to sleep on the floor or in barns. A dozen people might sleep in a single room in a small cabin. Some thoughtful farmers left fields unpastured or left hay uncut in order to feed visitors' horses. But as the visitors grew from hundreds into thousands, local hospitality was swamped. Many visitors had to find lodging miles away, though some came prepared to camp.
On Friday evening it rained, which held back the crowds, but still the meetinghouse was packed. Barton Stone, as host pastor, probably gave the opening welcome, followed by a sermon by Matthew Houston, a colleague. The air was thick with expectancy, but nothing extraordinary occurred, though some prayed all night.
At a typical Communion season gathering, Saturday was mostly devoted to fasting and small-group prayer as people solemnly prepared themselves for Sunday's Communion, but this time, the routine was changed. The Saturday morning services were quiet, but by the afternoon, there was continual preaching, from both the meetinghouse and the tent. One young minister, Richard McNemar, proclaimed a "true new gospel," an expression that startled some ministers but fascinated the crowds. Then, as the preaching continued, there was shouting and crying, and some people began falling down. Some remained conscious or even talkative; a few fell into a deep coma. Though only a minority fell, some parts of the grounds were strewn like a battlefield. Some were ministered to where they fell; others were carried to a convenient place, where people would gather around them to pray and sing hymns. "If any of the fallen speak," one reported, "what they say is listened to very carefully, being regarded as something very solemn and important. Many others were convicted by what was said."
Then something even more strange occurred, later to be called "the jerks." One witness described those afflicted: "Their heads would jerk back suddenly, frequently causing them to cry out or make some other involuntary noise. As dark descended, camp fires cast large shadows against the trees; candles, lamps, and torches illumined the camp as hundreds of people moved to and fro. Preachers were still thundering out their sermons from the tent while others exhorted, standing on wagons, on makeshift pulpits or on fallen tree trunks. At least one, and possibly more, speaking platforms were constructed outside the building because the number of attenders far exceeded the capacity of the meeting house. At least eighteen Presbyterian and even more Methodist and Baptist ministers were counted among the preachers. In response, some people chanted hymns, others shouted praise, while, at the same time, many were wailing because of their sin. "The noise was like the roar of Niagara," wrote a participant. "The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm."
By Saturday evening, even the ministers were troubled by the tumult. None were opposed to the exercises per se, but some, like John Lyle, believed it wrong for preachers to cause such emotionalism by hysterical preaching. Lyle was especially puzzled by Barton Stone, the host pastor. Barton was not a wild preacher, like some, but he did nothing to restrain the wilder preachers.
By early Sunday morning, relative calm reigned, though many people had been up most of the night. The central purpose of the gathering, the observance of the Lord's supper, took place as scheduled in the meetinghouse. The minister of a nearby congregation preached the traditional sermon outside, and then those with Communion tokens went inside for the sacrament. The tables, set up in the shape of a cross in the aisles, could probably accommodate 100 at a time. Over the ensuing hours, hundreds were served. Still, it must have been a distracted Communion for the Presbyterians, for outside the meeting house and the tent, tumult began again. Some Methodists resented their exclusion from the meetinghouse and the tent. So William Burke, one of Methodism's most powerful and esteemed preachers, planted himself on a fallen tree, fifteen feet above ground, and began Methodist services. His opening prayers and hymns alone gained him a huge audience.
Burke's was but one of four centres of activity, including the tent, the meetinghouse, and an assembly of slaves that met apart. In addition, dozens of informal prayer groups clustered at camp sites. Although only ministers preached prepared sermons, literally hundreds of people became spontaneous exhorters, excitedly giving spiritual advice or tearful warnings. Almost anyone, women, small children, slaves, the shy, the illiterate, could exhort with great effect.
As the exhortations increased, the moaning became more intense. Hymn singing, which affected people most deeply, became even louder. Unrestrained exercises resumed. The preachers could hardly be heard. Confusion reigned.
One witness described it as follows: "Sinners dropping down on every hand, shrieking, groaning and crying for mercy, while nominal Christians were praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, then rising up in raptures of joy! Some were singing, some were shouting, others clapping their hands, some laughing, others talking to the distressed, to one another, or to opposers of the work; and all this taking place at the same time."
Fatigued ministers were in constant demand to attend to the slain, to pray with the distressed, and to calm the hysterical. As dark descended and the night grew late, the noises began to trail off. Still, some stayed up all night, grabbing sleep whenever they could, rising later for more prayer and exhortation and singing.
By Monday, food and supplies were running short, and appointments had to be kept, forcing many families to cut short their stay. But the momentum could not be stopped. New people arrived, some coming from great distances after hearing of what was happening, so that the grounds were still crowded. Ministers who had gone home to preach at their churches on Sunday, returned to minister to many people in distress. For four more days, the singing, praying, preaching, and falling continued, slowly coming to a stop on Thursday.
Few could comprehend, let alone describe, what had happened. Barton Stone said, "A detailed description of the whole of this meeting would fill a large volume, and then the half would not be told." Nor could anyone say precisely how many had attended. Estimates of attendance ran between 10,000 and 25,000; estimates of the slain from 1,000 to 3,000; while estimates of conversions went from1,000 to 3,000.
Untold lives were changed at this overwhelming event, which has become symbolic of the Second Great Awakening in the USA. It was the largest and the most famous camp meeting of the awakening. However, it has to be admitted that these camp meetings did include activities which some would attribute to excess, to over zealousness, to giving in to the flesh, or even to demonic activity, and not to God. John Boles summarised these excesses as:
a) People rolling on the ground,
b) People laughing uncontrollably,
c) People jerking uncontrollably,
d) People singing uncontrollably,
e) People making animal noises
To many, this will remind them of similar activities that have been seen in the so called Toronto blessing and Pensacola meetings and subsequent similar meetings; where there has been a strange confluence of God trying to work, along with huge elements of pride, worldliness and Hindu Kundalini spirit working, as we have noted in previous Encouragers. So we know that whenever the Holy Spirit works, evil spirits, selfishness and pride will also seek to get in to distort and destroy God's work.
Some would claim that the meetings were too experience centred, even though all the main meetings were addressed by reputable, well trained ministers. However, the vast numbers of people involved made it very difficult to control the behaviour of everyone.
Furthermore, it should be noted that those activities that excited the most attention and which drew the most criticism did not occur on a regular basis, and were never a significant factor in any of the meetings. Most camp meetings were held without any physical manifestations other than weeping, cries for mercy or shouts of joy, and people being convicted and collapsing under the power of God, some of them to the point of appearing lifeless, for hours. These activities had been seen during the First Great Awakening in the 18th Century, and are accepted as evidence of God doing a deep work in people's lives. The stranger "exercises" as they were called, that came to attend The Camp Meetings, were condemned by many as not being of God, though we should notice the positive effects of the "jerking," that some people described.
One of these was Peter Cartwright, who became a famous frontier evangelist. As a child, he actually lived in Logan County in the "Rogues Harbour" area. In his autobiography, Cartwright recalled that " in the Spring of the year, 1801, Mr. McGready, a minister of the Presbyterian Church, who had a congregation and a meeting-house about three miles north of my father's house, appointed a sacramental meeting in this congregation, and invited the Methodist preachers to attend with them, especially John Page, who was a powerful Gospel minister, and very popular among the Presbyterians. Accordingly, he came, and preached with great power and success.
Then in the upper part of Kentucky, at a memorable place called "Cane Ridge," there was appointed a sacramental meeting by some of the Presbyterian ministers, at which meeting, the mighty power of God was displayed in a very extraordinary manner. Many were moved to tears, with bitter and loud crying for mercy. 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 horseback, in carriages and wagons. It was thought 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 towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and it was thought, 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 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.
The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with food they had prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbours around. 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.
To this meeting I went, as a guilty, wretched sinner," wrote Cartwright. "On the Saturday evening, I stood, with weeping multitudes, bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, "Thy sins are all forgiven thee." Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven. The trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed to be praising God. My mother shouted for joy, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, not as faithful as I should have been, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me assurance.
Our meeting lasted without intermission all night, and it was believed by those who had a very good right to know, that over eighty souls were converted to God during it. I went on my way rejoicing for many days.
From 1801 for years, a blessed revival of religion spread through almost the entire inhabited parts of the West, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and many other parts, especially through the Cumberland country, which was so called from the Cumberland River, which headed and mouthed in Kentucky, but in its great bend circled south through Tennessee, near Nashville. The Presbyterians and Methodists in a great measure united in this work, met together, prayed together, and preached together. (Would that they would do so today.)
In this revival originated our camp-meetings, and in both these denominations they were held every year, and, indeed, have been ever since, more or less. They would erect their camps with logs or frame them, and cover them with clapboards or shingles. They would also erect a shed, sufficiently large to protect five thousand people from wind and rain, and cover it with boards or shingles; build a large stand, seat the shed, and here they would collect together from forty to fifty miles around,
sometimes further than that. Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers, of different denominations, would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together; and, indeed, I have known these camp-meetings to last three or four weeks, and great good resulted from them. The power of God was wonderfully displayed. 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. 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 nominal Christians 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."
Although many ministers were wonderfully used, lay people seem to have been used as much as ministers, with men, women, and even children being greatly used of God. Again in his autobiography, Cartwright tells us of one woman whom God filled with such an overwhelming sense of divine love, that she did not really know whether she was in or out of the body. "She rose from her knees, and proclaimed to listening hundreds that she had obtained the blessing . . . She went through the vast crowd with holy shouts of joy, and exhorting all to taste and see that the Lord was gracious, and such a power attended her words that hundreds fell to the ground, and scores of souls were happily born into the kingdom of God that afternoon and during the night.
In this work, the Methodists kept moderately balanced; for we had excellent preachers to steer the ship or guide the flock. But some of our members ran wild, and indulged in some extravagancies that were hard to control. Under the preaching, a new activity broke out among us, called the jerks, which was overwhelming in its effects upon the bodies and minds of the people. People would be seized with a convulsive jerking all over, which they could not by any possibility avoid, and the more they resisted the more they jerked, If they did not strive against it and pray in good earnest, the jerking would usually abate. I have seen more than five hundred persons jerking at one time in my large congregations. Some persons taken with the jerks, to obtain relief, would rise up and dance. Some would run, but could not get away. Some would resist. On such, the jerks were generally very severe.
"To see those proud young gentlemen and young ladies, dressed in their silks, jewellery, and fine clothes, from top to toe, take the jerks, would often cause me to laugh. The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps, and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerking of the head that their hair pins would come out with a crack.
I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God, first, to bring sinners to repentance; and, secondly, to show worldly people that God can work and do whatever seems good to Him, to the glory of His grace and the salvation of the world. It was, on all occasions, my practice to recommend fervent prayer as a remedy, and it almost universally proved an effective antidote.
There were many other strange and wild exercises into which the subjects of this revival fell", wrote Cartwright, "such as what was called the running, jumping, barking exercise. The Methodist preachers generally preached against this extravagant wildness. I did so all the time, i.e. preached against such activity in my ministrations, and sometimes gave great offence; but I feared no consequences when I felt my awful responsibilities to God. It should be remembered that at most camp meetings, such behaviour did not occur or was almost non-existent."
In spite of these excesses, I would maintain that the Second Great Awakening, including the Camp Meetings, was a genuine work of the Holy Spirit of God, for the facts speak for themselves. Many thousands of nominal Christians were convicted of their lack of faith, and became strong believers, with wonderful testimonies of what God had done for them; while the most notorious sinners were brought down to the deepest conviction of sin, the most radical repentance and most exhilarating joyfulness. According to Barton Stone, "the work was so deep, I have read about such things only very rarely."
Other camp meetings were held along the frontier, which contributed to the growth of the churches for many years afterwards. Out of these camp meetings came many preachers such as Peter Cartwright, as we have noted, James Finley and Lorenzo Dow, the latter who was used to help in the beginnings of Primitive Methodism in Britain.
From Ohio in the north down through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, the work of God spread through camp meetings. Denominations saw their membership numbers rise dramatically. One Baptist Association, whose 29 churches reported only 29 conversio9ns in 1799, by 1801, reported 3011 additions by baptism, and 21 new churches formed. In 1803, Francis Asbury stated that reports of growth in Methodist churches came from every state in the union. One person observed that in his travels through Kentucky, that he could not find one family whose home had not been visited by a Methodist preacher.
Religious, (i.e. Christian) matters became the dominant topic of conversation along the whole frontier area. The land which had been so cold to spiritual matters, began to warm in the glow of the Spirit's fire. As Dr George Baxter travelled through the land, he observed that "a religious awe seemed to pervade the country." The spiritual atmosphere of the whole area changed remarkably. The sense of God's holy presence pervaded every town and village, bringing a huge fear of sinning. Most amazingly of all, this sense of the presence of God has continued in at least one area to this day, as we shall see later. This, surely, is the greatest confirmation that this was truly a work of God.
It should also be noted that the Second Great Awakening spread to New England, and thousands of people were converted. The great stress which the Congregationalist ministers placed on quiet and order, however, may have hindered the revival. After word of the Great Revival in the West reached the New England states, instead of praying for a greater awakening there, the efforts of most Congregationalist ministers seems to have been directed instead towards seeing that no emotional outbursts occurred, such as were then common in the West. What made this such a tragedy was that the most common characteristic of the revival, at least in the West, was not the hyper-emotional activity, but the often over-powering sense of the manifest presence of God at so many of the meetings. The presence of God was so strong at many of the camp meetings, as we have noticed, that people, including total unbelievers, would often collapse on the ground under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit.
One man who went to a camp meeting to mock those who believed, said that when he was two miles away he encountered a feeling like none he had ever felt before. He said that he seemed to feel an awesome presence, and had a growing consciousness of his own sinfulness. He finally arrived at the camp meeting ground, but was so overcome with what he was feeling that he turned and ran off into the woods to try and escape that feeling. In the woods, well away from the camp meeting, he said that he found others who also had fled there to avoid what they were feeling at the
site of the meeting. Some, he said, later went back to the meeting site due to the drawing power of the Spirit.
Conversion with these people was not a light thing. They considered no one converted unless that person had a consciousness of the presence of the Lord within them. Those seeking to be converted were expected to pray and seek God until they knew they were born again. A song from the 1790 Methodist Hymnbook well expressed the view of those who partook of The Great Revival:
"The gift unspeakable impart; Command the light of faith to shine;
To shine in my dark, drooping heart, and fill me with the life divine.
Now bid the new creation be, O God, let there be faith in me."
Where before the revival, Kentucky was noted for considerable lawlessness, as we have noted, after the revival got well under way, travellers in that state would comment on the morality and sobriety of the inhabitants. Kentucky, wrote one visitor, was the most moral place he had ever been. One man, traveling across the state of Kentucky, wrote home to his sister, who was worried for his safety, because she knew that Kentucky had a reputation as a haven for vice and crime. He told her that Kentucky was totally changed. The people were now uniformly good Christian people. The only incident he experienced out of the ordinary, he said, was when a man chased him for two miles to return his wallet that he had dropped. All of his money was still in it.
Our God is still the same. However bad the situation is where you live, God has the answer. Pray without ceasing, with others, like James McGready, that God will work again in Britain as He did in America over two hundred years ago.