THE GREAT REVIVAL IN KENTUCKY
J. T. Scott
Mercer University, Georgia
When historians address the question of the trans-Appalachian frontier's influence upon the mainstream of American history, they often begin their discussion with the Jacksonian Period of the late 1820s and 1830s. Historians quite naturally conjure up images of backwoodsmen such as Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, and Sam Houston as frontier politicians who changed the course of national politics. Or they focus on structural changes in American politics such as universal manhood suffrage and stump campaigning which arose in the West, but soon became the norm of the nation, culminating in William Henry Harrison's "Log Cabin and Hard Cider Campaign" of 1840. Perhaps in politics the real influence of the trans-Appalachian frontier did not arise until the late 1820s. But in other cultural and social areas, and especially in religion, events and trends which emerged in the trans-Appalachian region profoundly affected mainstream American history some 25 years before Jacksonian Democracy emerged. The crucible for these events during the early 19th century was a frontier phenomenon known as the Great Revival.
The Great Revival as a movement sometimes has been difficult to define. It had no exact beginning or ending dates. Some historians have seen its beginnings as early as the late 1780s, but most have agreed that it burned hottest between 1800 and 1807.  The revival eventually spread to most of the settled Southeast and into the southern Northwest, but it had Kentucky as its epicenter. American historians traditionally have pictured the Great Revival as a function of the frontier, a radical shift, an innovation, and a clear break with past religious norms.  Recent scholarship, however, has revealed that much about the Great Revival, at least in its origins, was not radical, innovative, or frontier-generated. This new angle on the Great Revival can be seen most clearly in the person and experiences of James McGready, often designated in American historiography as the Father of the Great Revival and as the creator of the camp meeting.
Most historians point to the meetings in James McGready's three churches in Logan County, Ky., during the summer of 1800 as the beginning point of the Great Revival. McGready had sought and had worked for revival in his churches for three years. McGready had grown up in North Carolina and Pennsylvania in evangelical Presbyterian churches and had been educated heavily in the evangelical Calvinism of Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism and in the tradition of Scotch-Irish revivalism which dated to the 1620s. McGready patterned and understood revivalism along Presbyterian, Calvinistic lines and hoped to recreate the Presbyterian revivalism of Gilbert Tennent and the Great Awakening throughout Pennsylvania during the 1730s and 1740s.  The camp meetings that McGready and others employed during the Great Revival essentially were frontier versions of Scotch-Irish "sacramental occasions" which had reappeared continually in southwestern Scotland and in Ulster from at least the 1620s. 
Although McGready sometimes preached at camp meetings with Arminians, his own theology remained completely Calvinistic and his sermons remained traditional in format and organization.  Even the religious exercises (barking, falling, jerking, and laughing, among others for which the Great Revival is perhaps best known) were not completely new. McGready's mentor remarked that the exercises of the Great Revival were different from those he had seen in previous revivals only in intensity and variety.  As late as 1804 the Great Revival was Calvinistic enough, orderly enough, and traditional enough that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States could proclaim from Philadelphia that the western revival was a clear "dispensation of the grace of God."  Within two years the General Assembly completely changed its opinion of the Great Revival, not because of events between 1800 and 1804, but because of events which occurred throughout Kentucky between 1804 and 1807.
The years after 1804 introduced two new components into the equation. First, by 1804 the exercises and camp meetings were no longer Presbyterian possessions. The Baptists and Methodists had appropriated McGready's revival and were beginning to expand their denominational power and numbers throughout the West and the South. By 1806 it was clear that these two denominations not Presbyterians would be the primary beneficiaries of the Revival. That could not have pleased eastern Calvinists who shuddered at the thought of the rapid growth of these Arminian denominations. There may well have been a political component to their objections as well. Many eastern Calvinists aligned themselves with the Federalist Party, whereas the southern and western Baptists and Methodists tended to support Jeffersonian Republicans. The ecumenicalism of the Great Revival, therefore, proved to be one of its undoings in the Presbyterian Church.
The second ingredient doctrinal heterodoxy and schism proved to be even more explosive within the Presbyterian Church. Division came twice to Kentucky Presbyterians between 1804 and 1807, disrupting the unity of the church and discrediting the revival within the Presbyterian Church. The first eruption centered in the Washington Presbytery of eastern Kentucky and soon became known as the New Light Schism. By 1804, several Washington pastors such as Barton W. Stone and Richard McNemar had become disaffected with Calvinism and Presbyterianism and had led a group of churches first into an independent presbytery and eventually into a new denomination called the Christian Church, a revivalistic, Arminian, and antihierarchical church. Some of these New Lights, led by McNemar, eventually headed into the Shaker Church, a move which was an even more radical departure from Presbyterianism.
The second division in Kentucky Presbyterianism emerged in McGready's own Cumberland Presbytery by 1805. For a variety of reasons, some theological, some hierarchical, and some personal, the Cumberland Presbytery bitterly split between 1805 and 1807. Many of McGready's revivalist friends were defrocked, the synod of Kentucky dissolved the presbytery and reabsorbed it into the Transylvania Presbytery, and McGready's opponents in the presbytery conducted a smear campaign against him, unjustly charging him with financial fraud in a personal matter. The Cumberland feud was so ugly that by 1807 McGready was forced to vacate his home in Russellville for the more remote, but more peaceful town of Henderson, Ky., on the Ohio River. McGready submitted to the actions of the synod, but several others, headed by Finis Ewing, refused submission and continually appealed to the General Assembly for relief between 1807 and 1810. The General Assembly responded harshly to this group, telling them that their own actions were the "origin of the evils" about which they complained, expressing sorrow that such a "spirit of fanaticism, propagating the most palpable errors" had appeared in the Kentucky Synod, and warning of "dangerous consequences" if they did not submit.  Spurned by the General Assembly, this small group likewise formed a new denomination in 1810 the Cumberland Presbyterian Church which was both revivalistic and Arminian.
These two dramatic schisms severely colored the attitude of the Presbyterian General Assembly. The year after the assembly had referred to the Revival as a "dispensation of the grace of God," the Committee on Missions adopted a somewhat less enthusiastic report. It acknowledged many conversions and powerful preaching, but noted that "in some instances" the Revival had "proceeded to such lengths as greatly tended to impede the progress, and to tarnish the glory" of the Revival. Arguing that "God is a God of order and not confusion," the assembly lamented the "irregular and disorderly" camp meetings and rejoiced that they seemed to be subsiding and that the "minds of the people are reverting to more rational and scriptural views and exercises."  By 1806 the assembly was only willing to express its thanks for the conversions of the Revival, while warning that Satan had incited many "to the most absurd and extravagant outrages upon christian sobriety and decorum." It cautioned ministers in Kentucky to stick to the "unerring guidance of God's written word" or they undoubtedly would fall victim to "ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism."  The effects of the Presbyterian Church's rejection of the Great Revival would be profound by 1807.
The first result of this particular rejection of revivalism was a generally more suspicious attitude by eastern Calvinists of revivals and revivalism in general. Indeed, during the next few decades the Presbyterian Church essentially left the revival-fostering business and instead turned to organized missionaries as its chief evangelistic tool in the trans-Appalachian frontier. These missionaries normally were eastern in origin, highly educated, and theologically orthodox. They also met with much less evangelistic success than had Presbyterian revivalists such as McGready. That is not to say that Calvinistic revivalism immediately died or that it even quickly succumbed after 1807. McGready and other Presbyterian revivalists continued their work in the West for decades to come and sacramental occasions continued to dot that area. McGready conducted several sacramental occasions in and around Vincennes during the 1810s.  As a rule, however, the Presbyterian Church increasingly relied upon missionaries while the Baptists and Methodists relied upon revivalists for evangelistic expansion throughout the frontier. Most everyone is familiar with the oft described rejection of Calvinism by American revivalists; but fewer are familiar with the equally potent rejection of revivalism by American Calvinists.
As a result of these dual rejections caused by (or at least accelerated by) the events throughout Kentucky between 1800 and 1807, the denominational map in the West was altered remarkably by 1820. During the 1790s, to the extent that any denomination dominated expansion into the trans-Appalachian frontier, the Presbyterians held sway. By 1820 the Baptists and Methodists had outstripped them in numbers and in influence and would continue to grow faster than Presbyterianism for many more decades. In Indiana during 1812, for instance, only one Presbyterian church existed in a territory of 24,000 persons, while the Baptists had established 29 congregations, the Methodists had 1,210 members, and the New Lights possessed six congregations. Three years later, after numerous missionary visits, the Presbyterians still only had four congregations, despite Indiana's growth to 70,000 people.  All three denominations rapidly grew during this time, but the Arminian Baptists and Methodists advanced much faster that their Calvinistic brethren.
Simultaneously, orthodox Presbyterianism moved during this time from being an insurgent religion to becoming an establishment religion. During the 18th century, Presbyterians had been members of a frontier denomination and a denomination of the common person. Partly because of its rejection of revivalism during the early 19th century, it increasingly came to be viewed as (and viewed itself as) a member of the religious establishment. It increasingly became urbanized and as it did so, it lost its grip on the mostly rural frontier. Eastern missionaries made moderate successes in western urban settings, but generally could not compete with revivalists in more rural settings. As with the rejection of revivalism, the net effect of these changes was a decrease in the relative denominational strength of the Presbyterian Church throughout the West by the late 1820s.
These occurrences provide valuable insights about the relationship of the trans-Appalachian frontier and the Eastern Seaboard in the early 19th century. This turn of events should, therefore, draw the attention of historians of Early National America working outside the fields of religious or ecclesiastical history. It is indeed a case study of how actions in the West affected decisions in the East which then caused significant changes back in the West. To a significant degree, the events in Kentucky between 1800 and 1810 caused the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, based in Philadelphia and dominated by eastern concerns, to withdraw its support and encouragement for revivalism as an evangelistic tool. Instead the assembly increasingly turned to institutionalized mission and tract work to spread the gospel. Those dual decisions helped accelerate Presbyterianism's decline as the dominant denomination in the trans Appalachian West.
Certainly there were other forces at work to assist this decline chiefly the rise of democratic, antiauthoritarian sentiment that historians generally have associated with Thomas Jefferson and later with Andrew Jackson. But the course of action chosen by the Presbyterian Church between 1800 and 1820 accentuated rather that attenuated its problems on the frontier. The historical irony is that the early success in McGready's revival meetings eventually led (because of the schisms which soon flowed from them) not to Presbyterianism's triumph, but to its decline in the West. As for the West itself, it rapidly grew into an agricultural powerhouse (North and South) and by the 1830s began to change the way American economics and politics worked. As indicated by this case study, however, trans-Appalachian influence on the course of American history began more than two decades before Andrew Jackson's "boys" finally occupied the White House.
1. The most recent and best general account of the Great Revival is John Boles, The Great Revival 1787-1805 (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1972).
2. See, for instance, Peter G. Mode, The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923); Catharine Cleveland, The Great Revival in the West 1797-1805 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916); Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting (1955 reprint. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985); Dickson Bruce, Jr., And They All Sang Hallelujah (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1974).
3. For a fuller explanation of James McGready's background see J.T. Scott, "James McGready: Son of Thunder, Father of the Great Revival" (Ph.D. dissertation, The College of William and Mary, 1991).
4. For a fuller description of this Ulster revivalist tradition see Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Triumph of the Laity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
5. James McGready, The Posthumous Works of the Reverend James McGready ed. James Smith (Nashville: J. Smith's Steam Press, 1837). For analyses of his theology see Scott, "McGready" and also James Opie, "James McGready: Theologian of Frontier Revivalism," Church History, XXXIV (December, 1965), 445-456.
6. Scott, "McGready," pp. 151-152.
7. "General State of Religion," New York Missionary Magazine, III (1804), 266-267.
8. Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from its Organization in A.D. 1789 to A.D. 1820. Inclusive (Philadelphia; Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847), p. 378.
9. "Report of the Committee on Missions to the General Assembly, May, 1805," Evangelical Intelligencer, I (May, 1805), 258.
10. "Report of the Committee on Missions to the General Assembly, May, 1806," Evangelical Intelligencer, II (May, 1806), 291.
11. Mary Aline Polk, Helen Polk, and Mary R. Hribal, eds., Minutes of the Session of Indiana and Upper Indiana Presbyterian Churches, 1812-1873 (typescript, Vincennes University, 1965), pp. 2-3.
12. John F. Schermerhorn and Samuel J. Mills, "A Correct View of that Part of the United States which lies West of the Allegheny Mountains," as well as Samuel J. Mills and Daniel Smith, "Report of a Missionary Tour," both in To Win the West, Missionary Viewpoints, 1814-1815 (New York: Arno Press, 1972), pp. 15-16, 30-31; L.C. Rudolph, Hoosier Zion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963), p. 30.
Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011