4/18/13 - the loneliness of the frontier and the second great awakening

In today's encore selection -- prior to the American Revolution, the British had forbidden the colonists from moving beyond the Appalachian mountains. With American independence, the metaphorical floodgates were opened and there was a massive westward migration of Americans. But this migration had a cost -- the wholesale disruption of the support provided by family, community and church, and the loneliness and alienation of the frontier. For Protestant church leaders in the East, who were already under assault from the deism of the American intellectual elite, this disruption in church membership was a crisis, and they began to form missionary societies and use revivals to take the gospel to the West. With this came a pivotal moment in American history -- the Great Revival of 1801 and the Second Great Awakening:

"[Encouraged by the smaller but successful Gasper River revival in 1800, Barton] Stone announced a sacramental service for August 6, 1801. While he surely believed that people would come, neither he nor anyone else could possibly have been prepared for the response that ensued. Eye­witness accounts estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people came to Cane Ridge. At the time there were only a quarter-million peo­ple in all of Kentucky and only 1800 in Lexington, Kentucky's largest city. Technically this was a Presbyterian meeting, but there were many Baptists and Methodists present, including preachers from those denominations. Preaching stands were erected at several points across the camp-meeting field so that several preachers could speak at once to separate audiences. Hundreds were converted, either for the first time in their lives or as part of what Protestants often called a rededication.

"James Finley, who would later become a Methodist minister, was one of those converted at Cane Ridge, and his story was not unusual. He was 21 years of age at the time, the wayward son of a Princeton-trained Presbyterian minister. He had drifted off to the frontier and taken to drinking, dancing, and assorted other activities, all considered serious sins in the Protestant faith of the time. He went to Cane Ridge merely to observe the excitement, being determined not be drawn in. He was also an educated young man, and the frontier emotionalism of revivals was not for him. As he watched hundreds of people shrieking and gyrating in spiritual agony, he was deeply moved and felt physically weak.

"He rushed first to the woods, then to a tavern, where he took a stiff drink to calm himself. He returned to the meeting and walked again among the people caught up in revival, feeling the weight of his own sins pressing on his conscience. After a nearly sleepless night in a haystack, the next day he headed for home. Along the way he stopped in a woods to pray and fell to the ground, unable to move. Neighbors found him, took him to a nearby home and put him to bed. When he awoke, he reported, he felt spiritual release and was able to continue his journey home with the assurance that his sins were forgiven. Finley's is just one of the more vivid and detailed accounts of conversion at Cane Ridge. Another account has Rachel Martin entering into what was called 'catalepsy.' She lay in bed for nine days without moving, speak­ing, or eating before gaining spiritual release and conversion.

"When the revival was completed, it was referred to widely as the greatest outpouring of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost in the first cen­tury, when St. Peter and the other apostles preached and saw thousands converted to the new faith. Stone himself ... wrote a treatise describing in system­atic fashion some of the emotional gyrations that people experienced during the revival. In addition to Rachel Martin's catalepsy, he cata­logued these as spiritual exercises: 'the falling exercise, jerking exer­cise, dancing exercise, barking exercise, laughing exercise, running exercise, and singing exercise.' Such emotional responses have made it very difficult to evaluate the Cane Ridge revival, and many of these physical manifestations were viewed unfavorably even by contempo­raries. Hardly anyone in that day or since can be objective about such things.

"As one might guess, those who opposed the revivals used the 'barking exercise' to argue that these meetings were excessive. Accounts of that particular exercise described people in the throes of spiritual agony rocking back and forth, causing grunts and groans. The faster they rocked, the louder and more staccato the noise, until it even­tually sounded like a bark. Critics also pointed out that along with the spiritual experiences were other more sensate and sensory excesses. Specifically, there was a good deal of alcohol consumed by those who came to the revivals more out of carnal than spiritual curiosity. Huck­sters sold whisky from wagons on the outskirts of the encampment. Moreover, for those who attended primarily to be part of a good party, there were sexual liaisons, leading some to claim that more souls were conceived than saved. While revivals were almost always emotional affairs with crying, shouting, and sometimes falling, excesses such as barking and treeing the devil, often cited to discredit the revivals, were limited. With the possible exception of the early meetings, they never became regular features of the Second Great Awakening. ...

"Cane Ridge set off waves of revivals that would last for years, and this Great Revival is generally regarded as the beginning of the Second Great Awakening."


Barry Hankins


The Second Great Awakening and The Transcendentalists


Greenwood Press Publishing Group, Inc.


Copyright 2004 by Barry Hankins


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