High morality did not characterize many Americans at the end of the eighteenth century. Especially on the frontier, immoral activities appear nearly as rampant as they do today. Ministers of the day lamented the profaning of the Sabbath, prevalence of vulgarity in speech and action, rampant fraud, drunkenness, gambling, lewdness, and an overall disinterest in spiritual matters.

Revival burst into this context in the mid-1700s then waned quickly. The first Great Awakening, which is the descriptive title given to the mid-eighteenth century revival, hit New England the hardest although it appeared in the southern colonies as well. The second Great Awakening which burst on the scene at the end of the century had its greatest impact on the frontier.

I. Revival in the east

The revivals which broke out in the 1790s are often considered a continuation of the earlier phenomenon. In some ways, that may be an accurate assessment. In spite of pockets of religious influence, however, Enlightenment humanism as seen in the writings of Voltaire and others influenced many.

The first expression of the "second wave" occurred in  Virginia in 1787. Hampden-Sidney, a small Presbyterian college founded during the War of Revolution, became a center of "the great interdenominational Awakening which marked the final triumph of Christianity in Virginia." (1) Revival spread from there to other colleges. From the colleges it spread to evangelical denominations, particularly the Methodists. A history of the Methodists contemporary to the events sum up the results of this Awakening:

It was thought, that in the course of that summer (1787), there were as many as sixteen hundred souls converted in Sussex circuit; in Brunswick circuit about eighteen hundred; and in Amelia circuit about eight hundred. In these three circuits we had the greatest revival of religion; but in many other circuits there was a gracious work, and hundreds were brought to God...." (2)

In New England, it was Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, to emerged as the Awakening's natural leader. Dwight served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army and was a former pastor, educator, poet, and author. Called as President of Yale College, Dwight found the spiritual condition of the student body deplorable. Immediately upon installation, Dwight began attacking Deism and infidelity. In 1802, revival stirred at Yale. One-third of the student body converted in a single year.

From 1797 on, revivalism spread throughout New England Congregationalism. Dwight trained his ablest students as revival preachers. Among them were Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), Moses Stuart (1780-1858), and Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786-1858).

II. Revival in the west -- the Camp Meeting

A. The situation in Kentucky. Perhaps the best example of frontier conditions can be found in Kentucky at the turn of the century. At that time, newcomers flooded the region. When Kentucky became a state in June 1792, the population stood at just over 75,000. By 1800, it climbed to 220,000. At the same time, church membership in 1800 Kentucky was only five percent of the population.

B. James McGready. James McGready is recognized as the leading frontier revivalist of the period. McGready led Kentucky to revival in 1797. Kenneth Scott Latourette, one of America's premier church historians, describes him as:

Unprepossessing in appearance, his small, piercing eyes, his coarse, tremulous voice charged with gravity, his intense earnestness, and his stern denunciation of sin had several years before made a remarkable impression in North Carolina. (3)

Restoration Historian James DeForest Murch cites Barton Stone's description of McGready in nearly the same terms.

McGready migrated west when opposition in the east drove him out. In the summer of 1799, revival broke out in Green River, Kentucky. Both Methodists, who generally hold that man possesses free will, and Presbyterians, those who hold firmly to predestination, participated in the meetings. Reports circulated widely that a number of extreme emotional manifestations appeared in the meetings.

The Green River meeting birthed the "camp meeting." A camp meeting called Christians in a given area together for the purpose of observing the Lord's Supper. Preachers charged those attending to closely examine their consciences. Exhortations followed and these generated a spirit of renewal and revival. Announcements of such meetings drew people from miles to the site. Because of the distance involved, such attenders were prepared to sleep in their wagons or in tents. When they arrived at a camp meeting site the campers found that:

Rude platforms had been erected and rough seats formed of hew logs [were arranged for seating]. A number of clergymen were present. Excitement mounted and ... converts [were made]. (4)

When it came time for the meeting, preachers mounted these platforms to preach.

C. The Cane Ridge Meeting Barton W. Stone heard about the camp meetings and decided to attend one of them in Logan County, Kentucky, in the spring of 1801. During the meeting, he saw religion at "fever pitch." He reported numerous strange phenomena, much of which he attributed to fanaticism. Stone returned to Cane Ridge determined to plant revival in Bourbon County.

It is my opinion that the Cane Ridge Meeting climaxed the second great awakening. The revival, held August 7-12, 1801, near the Cane Ridge meeting house located approximately eight miles from modern Paris, Kentucky, is usually described as the greatest and best attended of all the camp meetings. As in other camp meetings, a central pulpit stood over the assembled group. Stone and other Presbyterian preachers in the region sponsored the meeting but Methodists and Baptists also mounted stumps or climbed into wagon beds to speak to the people of God's love for them. It is reported that:

At its height, about twenty thousand were said to have been in attendance. Religious services of praying, singing, exhorting, and preaching were kept up day and night. Physical expressions of the excitement were numerous and sometimes took bizarre forms. The groans and screams of those under conviction mingled with the shouts of those who had found release and joy. The fear of hell and damnation and the hopelessness of the lost would be succeeded by the bliss of assured salvation. The most common physical experience was "falling." About three thousand are said to have been prostrate at the Cane Ridge meeting. Some of the "fallen" were insensible. Others were aware of what was happening about them but were powerless to move. Women and children were especially suggestible and were the most affected. Yet men were also among "the slain." ... A little later in the course of the revival, hundreds displayed convulsive physical contortions which were known as "the jerks." Frequently those who came to remonstrate or ridicule were themselves sudden victims. Barking, running, jumping, and trances were common. (5)

Stone never accepted all these strange occurrences as normative for revival. Still, these things left their impression on him. The revival dramatically altered his understanding of evangelism. Some writers seen the Cane Ridge meeting as the "beginning of the Restoration Movement." I think it is better understood as the last of the great frontier revivals. While camp meetings continued, they never reached the size, intensity, or fervor of the Cane Ridge meeting. That meeting, for all intents and purposes, ended an era. It did not begin one.

III. The Revivals' results

Frontier revivals such as the Cane Ridge meeting did, however, prepare the soil for the sowing of restoration seed.

A. Phenomenal growth Western churches experienced fantastic growth as a result of the meetings. Between 1800 and 1803, the Kentucky Baptists gained nearly 10,000 new members while the Methodists reached more than 6,000 in just two years. (6) Presbyterians also enjoyed substantial growth, but not nearly in such significant numbers. As mentioned above, revivals continued in the west for a time, but by the War of 1812 they were generally nonexistent.

B. New methods Churches did use camp meetings and methods associated with them to continue small scale outreach events. Methodists called their annual assemblies "Camp Meetings" and there were always a few conversions reported at these gatherings. Isolated settlements also employed revival meetings for social reasons as well as religious outreach. Such meetings provided an excuse to get everyone together, to have a good time, and to renew commitments. As frontier towns grew, frontier revivalism died out. Charles G. Finney and others continued to use revivals, but they all developed new methods.

C. Blurred denominational distinctions Those of various theological views cooperated during the revivals. Camp meetings promoted good will among the various frontier religious groups during the meeting, at least. This good will carried over and obscured denominational distractions and reduced competition.

D. Division Oddly enough, even though the denominations enjoyed greater good will toward each other, the revivals promoted division with denominations. Presbyterians, for example, divided into "New Light" and "Old Light" factions such as Congregationalism did during the awakening of the mid-1700s. Several early restoration leaders found themselves victims of divisive critical spirits: Barton W. Stone, Richard McNemar, David Purviance, John Thompson, and Robert Marshall were set upon the by Synod of Kentucky and forced out. More on them later.


Revivalism carries with it a mixed bag of blessing and curses. Revivals can bring men to Christ, but often carries within it the seeds of controversy and division. Cane Ridge serves as a good example:

Some saw the working of Satan; others, a marvelous outpouring of the Spirit and power of God. Some saw fanaticism and disorder; others, a miraculous transformation of lives. (7)


(1) Smith, Handy, and Loetscher, American Christianity: An Interpretation with Representative Documents (New York: Scribners),

(2) Ibid.

(3) Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, IV (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), p. 192.

(4) Ibid., pp. 192-93.

(5) Ibid., p. 193.

(6) Ibid., p. 194.

(7) Enos E. Dowling, The Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard, 1964), p. 29.

Frontier Revivalism

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