Monday, August 6, 2007

Cane Ridge Revival (August 6, 1801)

Today is the 206th anniversary of the beginning of the revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, the largest camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening. By 1785 a few dozen churches, mostly Presbyterian and Baptist, had been established in the frontier of Kentucky. These churches eventually started combining for large outdoor communion services in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. People flocked from all around to escape the isolation of frontier life, partake of the Lord’s Table, and fellowship with other believers. Thus, the camp meeting was born. Distances were great and travel was sometimes hard, so people packed provisions for several days. During these times preachers heralded the Word of God with power, and multitudes came under conviction of sin. In the local churches revival flames had already started, especially under the ministries of such men as James M’Gready, a fiery Presbyterian preacher from North Carolina, who served three congregations in Logan County, Kentucky.

By 1801 revival had spread throughout the region, as it had in other parts of the young nation. God was once again blessing the country with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which Americans soon started calling the Second Great Awakening. In August 1801 the Presbyterians, led by Barton W. Stone, held a large outdoor communion service at Cane Ridge and were joined by the Baptists and a now sizable number of Methodists. Iain Murray tells us that “in addition to eighteen Presbyterian ministers, Baptist and Methodist preachers also took part in the services which lasted for a week. A temporary village of tents, ‘laid off in regular streets’, was estimated to shelter between 10,000 and 21,000 people” (Revival and Revivalism, p. 152). Some sources say the crowd numbered 25,000; astonishing, considering that nearby Lexington claimed a population of about 1800.

Cane Ridge was the largest camp meeting, but definitely not the last. The camp meeting came to symbolize the revival in the West. At Cane Ridge “preachers addressed the crowds from hastily erected speaker’s stands, from stumps, or even the lower limbs of trees. Often several exhorters would thunder their messages to different parts of the crowd at the same time” (Mark Sidwell, ed. Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, [Amazon | CBD] p. 63). This form of worship would extend throughout the 19th Century, eventually being taken over by the Methodists.

There was a mixture of good and bad in the Western Revivals. Multitudes heard the Gospel and came under conviction of sin. From the resulting change in the moral climate it is evident that many souls were converted under the fiery frontier preaching. More churches were planted, and the Gospel extended even further.

However, several excesses surfaced during Cane Ridge, which signaled the emergence of revivalism, an attempt to perpetuate revival by promoting the emotionalism that sometimes attends conviction of sin. Some people experienced “the jerks,” a phenomenon difficult for even witnesses to describe. Others under conviction made barking sounds. But the most common excesses were screaming out and/or falling flat on the back. Other, more serious, excesses included doctrinal departure. Several sects spun off from the camp meetings.

Was it the fault of the people for having such experiences? Maybe not. Intense conviction of sin sometimes produces such reactions. These things were not unique to the Western Revivals; they had shown up in New England in the Great Awakening under men like Jonathan Edwards, but these leaders sought to keep the people under control and not allow the excesses to take over, discredit, and kill the revival. The leaders of the Second Great Awakening in the East conducted revivals the same way until Charles Finney and his followers changed the religious landscape with their new measures, which many people didn’t realize were prompted by a different theology. Maybe that topic can be explored in another article.

So how should revival be promoted or handled today? Christians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were praying for the Lord to send revival again, so a burden for the Lord to shower a dry and thirsty land with His Spirit is a prerequisite for revival. Do we see ourselves and our culture as needing the intervention of God, or do we believe we can make the needed improvements? What about the changes that are needed; are they merely outward, social reforms, or do we see the problem as the dire need for God to stir sinners from their spiritual lethargy and self-righteousness? It seems to me that the first way to promote revival is to be thoroughly impressed with our need for God.

How do we promote a spiritual awakening when it occurs? An unfortunate legacy of Cane Ridge and the camp meetings is that the incidentals of revival are perpetuated in order to promote revival. Perhaps we’ve been in a service where the Spirit seemed to move during the singing of a particular song or during the ministry of a particular singer. I’ve seen preachers try to recreate that in subsequent meetings by insisting on the same songs/singers, explaining that the last time this song was sung, revival broke out, as though revival is the product of a magic formula or the result of pushing the right buttons. I’ve seen preachers and song leaders try to whip up emotions from the congregation, equating emotional display with revival. We need to realize that these things sometimes attend revival, but are not themselves revival.

Having made this criticism and issued this caution, I would like to say that the Cane Ridge Revival was a good thing. Yes, there were excesses, but there was also genuine conviction of sin, the Holy Spirit turning people from their sins and drawing them to Jesus Christ. The Gospel went forth in power; people’s lives were changed for the better. God can work in people’s hearts even when such excesses are present. But the leaders of revival in the East believed that the Spirit does a more thorough work in hearts that are encouraged to be calm and to listen to and meditate on the Word of God. Whether dealing with people en masse or one on one, let’s stress the fundamentals of God’s Word, not the incidentals of man’s reaction.

For more information of the Cane Ridge Revival see:

Murray, Iain H. Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. (WTS | Amazon | CBD)

Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time, Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. (Amazon)

On the web:

Cane Ridge Meeting House