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The Second Awakening

The closing years of the eighteenth century show the lowest low-water
mark of the lowest ebb-tide of spiritual life in the history of the
American church. The demoralization of army life, the fury of political
factions, the catchpenny materialist morality of Franklin, the
philosophic deism of men like Jefferson, and the popular ribaldry of Tom
Paine, had wrought, together with other untoward influences, to bring
about a condition of things which to the eye of little faith seemed
almost desperate.

From the beginning of the reaction from the stormy excitements of the
Great Awakening, nothing had seemed to arouse the New England churches
from a lethargic dullness; so, at least, it seemed to those who recalled
those wonderful days of old, either in memory or by tradition. We have a
gauge of the general decline of the public morals, in the condition of
Yale College at the accession of President Dwight in 1795, as described
in the reminiscences of Lyman Beecher, then a sophomore.

Before he came, college was in a most ungodly state. The
college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were
skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were
kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and
licentiousness were common. I hardly know how I escaped....
That was the day of the infidelity of the Tom Paine school.
Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom
Paine and believed him; I read and fought him all the way.
Never had any propensity to infidelity. But most of the class
before me were infidels, and called each other Voltaire,
Rousseau, D'Alembert, etc.[231:1]

In the Middle States the aspect was not more promising. Princeton
College had been closed for three years of the Revolutionary War. In
1782 there were only two among the students who professed themselves
Christians. The Presbyterian General Assembly, representing the
strongest religious force in that region, in 1798 described the then
existing condition of the country in these terms:

Formidable innovations and convulsions in Europe threaten
destruction to morals and religion. Scenes of devastation and
bloodshed unexampled in the history of modern nations have
convulsed the world, and our country is threatened with
similar calamities. We perceive with pain and fearful
apprehension a general dereliction of religious principles and
practice among our fellow-citizens, a visible and prevailing
impiety and contempt for the laws and institutions of
religion, and an abounding infidelity, which in many instances
tends to atheism itself. The profligacy and corruption of the
public morals have advanced with a progress proportionate to
our declension in religion. Profaneness, pride, luxury,
injustice, intemperance, lewdness, and every species of
debauchery and loose indulgence greatly abound.

From the point of view of the Episcopalian of that day the prospect was
even more disheartening. It was at this time that Bishop Provoost of New
York laid down his functions, not expecting the church to continue much
longer; and Bishop Madison of Virginia shared the despairing conviction
of Chief-Justice Marshall that the church was too far gone ever to be
revived.[232:1] Over all this period the historian of the Lutheran
Church writes up the title Deterioration.[232:2] Proposals were set on
foot looking toward the merger of these two languishing denominations.

Even the Methodists, the fervor of whose zeal and vitality of whose
organization had withstood what seemed severer tests, felt the benumbing
influence of this unhappy age. For three years ending in 1796 the total
membership diminished at the rate of about four thousand a year.

Many witnesses agree in describing the moral and religious condition of
the border States of Kentucky and Tennessee as peculiarly deplorable.
The autobiography of that famous pioneer preacher, Peter Cartwright,
gives a lively picture of Kentucky society in 1793 as he remembered it
in his old age:

Logan County, when my father moved into it, was called
'Rogues' Harbor.' Here many refugees from all parts of the
Union fled to escape punishment or justice; for although there
was law, yet it could not be executed, and it was a desperate
state of society. Murderers, horse-thieves, highway robbers,
and counterfeiters fled there, until they combined and
actually formed a majority. Those who favored a better state
of morals were called 'Regulators.' But they encountered
fierce opposition from the 'Rogues,' and a battle was fought
with guns, pistols, dirks, knives, and clubs, in which the
'Regulators' were defeated.[233:1]

The people that walked in this gross darkness beheld a great light. In
1796 a Presbyterian minister, James McGready, who for more than ten
years had done useful service in Pennsylvania and North Carolina,
assumed charge of several Presbyterian churches in that very Logan
County which we know through the reminiscences of Peter Cartwright. As
he went the round of his scattered congregations his preaching was felt
to have peculiar power to arouse false professors, to awaken a dead
church, and warn sinners and lead them to seek the new spiritual life
which he himself had found. Three years later two brothers, William and
John McGee, one a Presbyterian minister and the other a Methodist, came
through the beautiful Cumberland country in Kentucky and Tennessee,
speaking, as if in the spirit and power of John the Baptist, to
multitudes that gathered from great distances to hear them. On one
occasion, in the woods of Logan County, in July, 1800, the gathered
families, many of whom came from far, tethered their teams and encamped
for several days for the unaccustomed privilege of common worship and
Christian preaching. This is believed to have been the first American
camp-meeting--an era worth remembering in our history. Not without
abundant New Testament antecedents, it naturalized itself at once on our
soil as a natural expedient for scattered frontier populations
unprovided with settled institutions. By a natural process of evolution,
adapting itself to other environments and uses, the backwoods
camp-meeting has grown into the Chautauqua assembly, which at so many
places besides the original center at Chautauqua Lake has grown into an
important and most characteristic institution of American civilization.

We are happy in having an account of some of these meetings from one who
was personally and sympathetically interested in them. For in the spring
of the next year Barton Warren Stone, a Presbyterian minister serving
his two congregations of Concord and Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, and
oppressed with a sense of the religious apathy prevailing about him,
made the long journey across the State of Kentucky to see for himself
the wonderful things of which he had heard, and afterward wrote his

There, on the edge of a prairie in Logan County, Kentucky,
the multitudes came together and continued a number of days
and nights encamped on the ground, during which time worship
was carried on in some part of the encampment. The scene was
new to me and passing strange. It baffled description. Many,
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 piercing shriek, or by a
prayer for mercy fervently uttered. After lying there for
hours they obtained deliverance. The gloomy cloud that had
covered their faces seemed gradually and visibly to disappear,
and hope, in smiles, brightened into joy. They would rise,
shouting deliverance, and then would address the surrounding
multitude in language truly eloquent and impressive. With
astonishment did I hear men, women, and children declaring the
wonderful works of God and the glorious mysteries of the
gospel. Their appeals were solemn, heart-penetrating, bold,
and free. Under such circumstances many others would fall down
into the same state from which the speakers had just been

Two or three of my particular acquaintances from a distance
were struck down. I sat patiently by one of them, whom I knew
to be a careless sinner, for hours, and observed with critical
attention everything that passed, from the beginning to the
end. I noticed the momentary revivings as from death, the
humble confession of sins, the fervent prayer, and the
ultimate deliverance; then the solemn thanks and praise to
God, and affectionate exhortation to companions and to the
people around to repent and come to Jesus. I was astonished at
the knowledge of gospel truth displayed in the address. The
effect was that several sank down into the same appearance of
death. After attending to many such cases, my conviction was
complete that it was a good work--the work of God; nor has my
mind wavered since on the subject. Much did I see then, and
much have I seen since, that I consider to be fanaticism; but
this should not condemn the work. The devil has always tried
to ape the works of God, to bring them into disrepute; but
that cannot be a Satanic work which brings men to humble
confession, to forsaking of sin, to prayer, fervent praise and
thanksgiving, and a sincere and affectionate exhortation to
sinners to repent and come to Jesus the Saviour.

Profoundly impressed by what he had seen and heard, Pastor Stone
returned to his double parish in Bourbon County and rehearsed the story
of it. The congregation was affected with awful solemnity, and many
returned home weeping. This was in the early spring. Not many months
afterward there was a notable springing up of this seed.

A memorable meeting was held at Cane Ridge in August, 1801.
The roads were crowded with wagons, carriages, horses, and
footmen moving to the solemn camp. It was judged by military
men on the ground that between twenty and thirty thousand
persons were assembled. Four or five preachers spoke at the
same time in different parts of the encampment without
confusion. The Methodist and Baptist preachers aided in the
work, and all appeared cordially united in it. They were of
one mind and soul: the salvation of sinners was the one
object. We all engaged in singing the same songs, all united
in prayer, all preached the same things.... The numbers
converted will be known only in eternity. Many things
transpired in the meeting which were so much like miracles
that they had the same effect as miracles on unbelievers. By
them many were convinced that Jesus was the Christ and were
persuaded to submit to him. This meeting continued six or
seven days and nights, and would have continued longer, but
food for the sustenance of such a multitude failed.

To this meeting many had come from Ohio and other distant
parts. These returned home and diffused the same spirit in
their respective neighborhoods. Similar results followed. So
low had religion sunk, and such carelessness had universally
prevailed, that I have thought that nothing common could have
arrested and held the attention of the people.[236:1]

The sober and cautious tone of this narrative will already have
impressed the reader. These are not the words of a heated enthusiast, or
a man weakly credulous. We may hesitate to accept his judgment, but may
safely accept his testimony, amply corroborated as it is, to facts which
he has seen and heard.

But the crucial test of the work, the test prescribed by the Lord of the
church, is that it shall be known by its fruits. And this test it seems
to bear well. Dr. Archibald Alexander, had in high reverence in the
Presbyterian Church as a wise counselor in spiritual matters, made
scrupulous inquiry into the results of this revival, and received from
one of his correspondents, Dr. George A. Baxter, who made an early visit
to the scenes of the revival, the following testimony:

On my way I was informed by settlers on the road that the
character of Kentucky travelers was entirely changed, and that
they were as remarkable for sobriety as they had formerly been
for dissoluteness and immorality. And indeed I found Kentucky
to appearances the most moral place I had ever seen. A profane
expression was hardly ever heard. A religious awe seemed to
pervade the country. Upon the whole, I think the revival in
Kentucky the most extraordinary that has ever visited the
church of Christ; and, all things considered, it was
peculiarly adapted to the circumstances of the country into
which it came. Infidelity was triumphant and religion was on
the point of expiring. Something extraordinary seemed
necessary to arrest the attention of a giddy people who were
ready to conclude that Christianity was a fable and futurity a
delusion. This revival has done it. It has confounded
infidelity and brought numbers beyond calculation under
serious impressions.

A sermon preached in 1803 to the Presbyterian synod of Kentucky, by the
Rev. David Rice, has the value of testimony given in the presence of
other competent witnesses, and liable thus to be questioned or
contradicted. In it he says:

Neighborhoods noted for their vicious and profligate manners
are now as much noted for their piety and good order.
Drunkards, profane swearers, liars, quarrelsome persons, etc.,
are remarkably reformed.... A number of families who had lived
apparently without the fear of God, in folly and in vice,
without any religious instruction or any proper government,
are now reduced to order and are daily joining in the worship
of God, reading his word, singing his praises, and offering up
their supplications to a throne of grace. Parents who seemed
formerly to have little or no regard for the salvation of
their children are now anxiously concerned for their
salvation, are pleading for them, and endeavoring to lead them
to Christ and train them up in the way of piety and virtue.

That same year the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in its
annual review of the state of religion, adverted with emphasis to the
work in the Cumberland country, and cited remarkable instances of
conversion--malignant opposers of vital piety convinced and reconciled,
learned, active, and conspicuous infidels becoming signal monuments of
that grace which they once despised; and in conclusion declared with joy
that the state and prospects of vital religion in our country are more
favorable and encouraging than at any period within the last forty

In order successfully to study the phenomena of this remarkable passage
in the history of the church, it is necessary to bear in mind the social
conditions that prevailed. A population perfervido ingenio, of a
temper peculiarly susceptible of intense excitement, transplanted into a
wild country, under little control either of conventionality or law,
deeply ingrained from many generations with the religious sentiment, but
broken loose from the control of it and living consciously in reckless
disregard of the law of God, is suddenly aroused to a sense of its
apostasy and wickedness. The people do not hear the word of God from
Sabbath to Sabbath, or even from evening to evening, and take it home
with them and ponder it amid the avocations of daily business; by the
conditions, they are sequestered for days together in the wilderness for
the exclusive contemplation of momentous truths pressed upon the mind
with incessant and impassioned iteration; and they remain together, an
agitated throng, not of men only, but of women and children. The student
of psychology recognizes at once that here are present in an unusual
combination the conditions not merely of the ready propagation of
influence by example and persuasion, but of those nervous, mental, or
spiritual infections which make so important a figure in the world's
history, civil, military, or religious. It is wholly in accord with
human nature that the physical manifestations attendant on religious
excitement in these circumstances should be of an intense and
extravagant sort.

And such indeed they were. Sudden outcries, hysteric weeping and
laughter, faintings, catalepsies, trances, were customary concomitants
of the revival preaching. Multitudes fell prostrate on the ground,
spiritually slain, as it was said. Lest the helpless bodies should be
trampled on by the surging crowd, they were taken up and laid in rows on
the floor of the neighboring meeting-house. Some lay quiet, unable to
move or speak. Some talked, but could not move. Some beat the floor with
their heels. Some, shrieking in agony, bounded about, it is said, like a
live fish out of water. Many lay down and rolled over and over for hours
at a time. Others rushed wildly over the stumps and benches, and then
plunged, shouting 'Lost! Lost!' into the forest.

As the revival went on and the camp-meeting grew to be a custom and an
institution, this nervous epidemic took on certain recognizable forms,
one of which was known as the jerks. This malady began in the head
and spread rapidly to the feet. The head would be thrown from side to
side so swiftly that the features would be blotted out and the hair made
to snap. When the body was affected the sufferer was hurled over
hindrances that came in his way, and finally dashed on the ground, to
bounce about like a ball. The eccentric Lorenzo Dow, whose freaks of
eloquence and humor are remembered by many now living, speaks from his
own observation on the subject:

I have passed a meeting-house where I observed the
undergrowth had been cut for a camp-meeting, and from fifty to
a hundred saplings were left breast-high on purpose for
persons who were 'jerked' to hold on to. I observed where they
had held on they had kicked up the earth as a horse stamping
flies.... I believe it does not affect those naturalists who
wish to get it to philosophize about it; and rarely those who
are the most pious; but the lukewarm, lazy professor is
subject to it. The wicked fear it and are subject to it; but
the persecutors are more subject to it than any, and they have
sometimes cursed and sworn and damned it while

There is nothing improbable in the claim that phenomena like these,
strange, weird, startling, were so much like miracles that they had the
same effect as miracles on unbelievers. They helped break up the
apathetic torpor of the church and summon the multitudes into the
wilderness to hear the preaching of repentance and the remission of
sins. But they had some lamentable results. Those who, like many among
the Methodists,[241:1] found in them the direct work of the Holy Spirit,
were thereby started along the perilous incline toward enthusiasm and
fanaticism. Those, on the other hand, repelled by the grotesqueness and
extravagance of these manifestations, who were led to distrust or
condemn the good work with which they were associated, fell into a
graver error. This was the error into which, to its cost, the
Presbyterian Church was by and by drawn in dealing with questions that
emerged from these agitations. The revival gave rise to two new sects,
both of them marked by the fervor of spirit that characterized the time,
and both of them finding their principal habitat in the same western
region. The Cumberland Presbyterians, now grown to large numbers and
deserved influence and dignity in the fellowship of American sects,
separated themselves from the main body of Presbyterians by refusing to
accept, in face of the craving needs of the pastorless population all
about them, the arbitrary rule shutting the door of access to the
Presbyterian ministry to all candidates, how great soever their other
qualifications, who lacked a classical education. Separating on this
issue, they took the opportunity to amend the generally accepted
doctrinal statements of the Presbyterian churches by mitigating those
utterances which seemed to them, as they have seemed to many others, to
err in the direction of fatalism.

About the same time there was manifested in various quarters a generous
revolt against the existence and multiplication of mutually exclusive
sects in the Christian family, each limited by humanly devised
doctrinal articles and branded with partisan names. How these various
protesting elements came together on the sole basis of a common faith in
Christ and a common acceptance of the divine authority of the Bible;
how, not intending it, they came to be themselves a new sect; and how,
struggling in vain against the inexorable laws of language, they came to
be distinguished by names, as Campbellite Baptist, Christ-ian (with
a long i), and (+kat' exochên+) Disciples, are points on which
interesting and instructive light is shed in the history by Dr. B. B.

* * * * *

The great revival of the West and Southwest was not the only revival,
and not even the earliest revival, of that time of crisis. As early as
1792 the long inertia of the eastern churches began to be broken here
and there by signs of growing earnestness and attentiveness to spiritual
things. There was little of excited agitation. There was no preaching of
famous evangelists. There were no imposing convocations. Only in many
and many of those country towns in which, at that time, the main
strength of the population lay, the labors of faithful pastors began to
be rewarded with large ingatherings of penitent believers. The
languishing churches grew strong and hopeful, and the insolent
infidelity of the times was abashed. With such sober simplicity was the
work of the gospel carried forward, in the opening years of this
century, among the churches and pastors that had learned wisdom from the
mistakes made in the Great Awakening, that there are few striking
incidents for the historian. Hardly any man is to be pointed out as a
preëminent leader of the church at this period. If to any one, this
place of honor belongs to Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards,
whose accession to the presidency of Yale College at the darkest hour
in its history marked the turning-point. We have already learned from
the reminiscences of Lyman Beecher how low the college had sunk in point
of religious character, when most of the class above him were openly
boastful of being infidels.[243:1] How the new president dealt with them
is well described by the same witness:

They thought the faculty were afraid of free discussion. But
when they handed Dr. Dwight a list of subjects for class
disputation, to their surprise, he selected this: 'Is the
Bible the word of God?' and told them to do their best. He
heard all they had to say, answered them, and there was an
end. He preached incessantly for six months on the subject,
and all infidelity skulked and hid its head. He elaborated his
theological system in a series of forenoon sermons in the
chapel; the afternoon discourses were practical. The original
design of Yale College was to found a divinity school. To a
mind appreciative, like mine, his preaching was a continual
course of education and a continual feast. He was copious and
polished in style, though disciplined and logical. There was a
pith and power of doctrine there that has not been since
surpassed, if equaled.[243:2]

It may be doubted whether to any man of his generation it was given to
exercise a wider and more beneficent influence over the American church
than that of President Dwight. His system of Theology Explained and
Defended in a Series of Sermons, a theology meant to be preached and
made effective in convincing men and converting them to the service of
God, was so constructed as to be completed within the four years of the
college curriculum, so that every graduate should have heard the whole
of it. The influence of it has not been limited by the boundaries of our
country, nor has it expired with the century just completed since
President Dwight's accession.

At the East also, as well as at the West, the quickening of religious
thought and feeling had the common effect of alienating and disrupting.
Diverging tendencies, which had begun to disclose themselves in the
discussions between Edwards and Chauncy in their respective volumes of
Thoughts on the Great Awakening, became emphasized in the revival of
1800. That liberalism which had begun as a protest against a too
peremptory style of dogmatism was rapidly advancing toward a dogmatic
denial of points deemed by the opposite party to be essential. Dogmatic
differences were aggravated by differences of taste and temperament, and
everything was working toward the schism by which some sincere and
zealous souls should seek to do God service.

In one most important particular the revival of 1800 was happily
distinguished from the Great Awakening of 1740. It was not done and over
with at the end of a few years, and then followed by a long period of
reaction. It was the beginning of a long period of vigorous and
abundant life, moving forward, not, indeed, with even and unvarying
flow, yet with continuous current, marked with those alternations of
exaltation and subsidence which seem, whether for evil or for good, to
have become a fixed characteristic of American church history.

The widespread revivals of the first decade of the nineteenth century
saved the church of Christ in America from its low estate and girded it
for stupendous tasks that were about to be devolved on it. In the glow
of this renewed fervor, the churches of New England successfully made
the difficult transition from establishment to self-support and to the
costly enterprises of aggressive evangelization into which, in company
with other churches to the South and West, they were about to enter. The
Christianity of the country was prepared and equipped to attend with
equal pace the prodigious rush of population across the breadth of the
Great Valley, and to give welcome to the invading host of immigrants
which before the end of a half century was to effect its entrance into
our territory at the rate of a thousand a day. It was to accommodate
itself to changing social conditions, as the once agricultural
population began to concentrate itself in factory villages and
commercial towns. It was to carry on systematic campaigns of warfare
against instituted social wrong, such as the drinking usages of society,
the savage code of dueling, the public sanction of slavery. And it was
to enter the effectual door which from the beginning of the century
opened wider and wider to admit the gospel and the church to every
nation under heaven.

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