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History of American Christianity
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CHAPTER XIV.

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.”148148   “Autobiography of Lyman Beecher,” vol. i., p. 43. The same charming volume contains abundant evidence that the spirit of true religion was cherished in the homes of the people, while there were so many public signs of apostasy.

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.149149   Tiffany, “Protestant Episcopal Church,” pp. 388, 394, 395. Over all this period the historian of the Lutheran Church writes up the title “Deterioration.”150150   Dr. Jacobs, chap. xix. 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.”151151   “Autobiography of Peter Cartwright,” quoted by Dorchester, “Christianity in the United States,” p. 348.

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 reminiscences.

“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 delivered.

“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.”152152   See B. B. Tyler, “History of the Disciples,” pp. 11-17; R. V. Foster, “The Cumberland Presbyterians,” pp. 260-263 (American Church History Series, vols. xi., xii.).

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 years.”153153   Tyler, “The Disciples”; Foster, “The Cumberland Presbyterians,” ubi supra.

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 jerking.”154154   Let me add an illustrative instance related to me by the distinguished Methodist, Dr. David P. Durbin. Standing near the platform from which he was to preach at a camp-meeting, he observed a powerfully built young backwoodsman who was manifestly there with no better intent than to disturb and break up the meeting. Presently it became evident that the young man was conscious of some influence taking hold of him to which he was resolved not to yield; he clutched with both hands a hickory sapling next which he was standing, to hold himself steady, but was whirled round and round, until the bark of the sapling peeled off under his grasp. But, as in the cases referred to by Dow, the attack was attended by no religious sentiment whatever.
   On the manifestations in the Cumberland country, see McMasters, “United States,” vol. ii., pp. 581, 582, and the sources there cited. For some judicious remarks on the general subject, see Buckley, “Methodism,” pp. 217-224.

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 onunbelievers.” 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,155155   So Dr. Buckley, “Methodism,” p. 217. 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 (κατ᾽ ἐξόχην) Disciples, are points on which interesting and instructive light is shed in the history by Dr. B. B. Tyler.156156   American Church History Series, vol. xii.

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 preeminent 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.157157   See above, pp. 230, 231. 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.”158158   “Autobiography of Lyman Beecher,” vol. i., pp. 43, 44.

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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