FRONTIER FRENZY…and Silent Tears

…And Silent Tears


James B. Finley attended as a skeptical observer. Later he described the scene:

Multitudes were swept down in a moment as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened up on them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very Heavens.

Some lay motionless for hours, others cried out as if in torment, seeking peace. Some laughed uncontrollably and hysterically and others jerked back and forward like crazed puppets.
Confessed Mr. Finley,

My heart beat tumultuously, my lip quivered and I felt as if I must fall to the ground. I fled into the woods a second time, and wished I had stayed at home.

Camp Meeting

Camp Meeting

No – this is not a description of a fringe Pentecostal/Charismatic sect. As a matter of fact this event had been organized primarily by Presbyterians! Baptists and Methodists had also been invited and some took part.
No – this was not an isolated event which somehow got out of hand. Such goings-on became a regular feature of these meetings.
It happened in Kentucky in 1801 at a Camp Meeting convened for the preaching of God’s Word and participation in the Lord’s Supper.

Of course critics dismissed the whole thing as demonic, which is not surprising. However thousands were gloriously converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ, their lives were forever changed and through them the whole Frontier. This Revival – of which the Camp Meetings were just a part – changed the entire nation. Historian Mark Noll has described it as, “the most influential revival of Christianity in the history of the United States.” We now call it, “The Second Great Awakening.”

Though these dramatic Frontier meetings were only one aspect of the Revival they were certainly the most talked-about. They are of interest to us in this series, not only because they were part of a great Revival, but also because similar manifestations have been happening again in various places over the past twenty years. Claims of a new revival have been both made and called into question.

It all began in Toronto, Canada in the 1990s.

“The Toronto Blessing”

In January 1995, while staying in the home of my son in Oakville, near Toronto, Canada, I tuned in to a popular religious TV broadcast knowing there was to be a discussion of the strange happenings at, what was then, the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church that became the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship and, since 2010, is currently known as Catch the Fire Toronto, and is the flagship church of the Catch the Fire movement.

This church had become somewhat famous. Since early in 1994, the meetings at the church had been characterized by the most extraordinary physical phenomena, reminiscent of those described in the opening paragraphs of this chapter. Most common of all was the tendency of hundreds of those present to fall down into a kind of swoon which was attributed to the direct activity of the Holy Spirit (“slain in the Spirit”). In addition some people were given to hysterical and uncontrollable laughter (“holy laughter”), violent shaking and jerking, jumping around the auditorium (“pogoing”), and – most bizarre of all – making various loud animal noises such as barking like a dog, clucking like a chicken, or roaring like a lion. Over the years since 1994 the same manifestations have been experienced in similar groups in the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of the world.

Those who have experienced one or more of these phenomena profess to have come into a new awareness of God accompanied frequently by great joy and peace together with other benefits, such as healing – occasionally physical, more often emotional. Pastors claim a fresh anointing upon jaded ministries and couples upon jaded marriages. Thus the experience became known as the “Toronto Blessing”, and literally thousands flew in from all over the world to obtain this blessing and carry it back to their home churches. The Airport church moved to a much larger auditorium; airlines and local hotels offered discount rates; and “Toronto Life” magazine awarded the church the dubious title of top tourist attraction for 1994.
Most influenced has been Great Britain, where, it is claimed, some four-thousand churches were affected. Though I do not recall ever hearing it mentioned in southern Florida, when we visited England in those years it seemed to be the main topic of conversation amongst Christians.

My interest in the TV discussion I viewed in 1995 was twofold:

  1. I had heard some speak of the “Toronto Blessing” as a mighty Revival in the succession of the great Revivals which God has granted to his people throughout history. My deepest longing is to see such a work in our own day – that is why I have written, and still write, about it.
  2. I myself had attended a meeting at the Toronto Airport church and had seen and heard these things (or some of them) at first hand. Though I had not myself fallen down nor personally experienced any of the other phenomena, I had come away from the visit with much to think about. If this was NOT revival (which, to my disappointment, I do not think it is), then what was it?

As I recall, all of the panelists, consisting of (Pentecostal-Charismatic) pastors and professors, had no doubt that what was happening was a great work of God and most spoke in terms of a Revival. At least one opined that this was the last great world-wide Revival before the Coming of the Lord.

A history professor described how these phenomena were not new. The First Great Awakening of the mid-18th Century had seen such things, he said, under the powerful preaching of Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitefield. He particularly drew attention to the Second Great Awakening and the Frontier Camp Meeting Revivals when the sort of bizarre behavior described above had been very much in evidence.

In this chapter we will describe these Frontier meetings and consider some of the questions raised by the extraordinary phenomena which accompanied them and their implications for today. I will also mention some other aspects of the Second Awakening of a much different character.

This introduction with the reference to recent and present day happenings demonstrates that we are not writing about matters which are of merely antiquarian interest. Quite the reverse. An article in “Christianity Today” described the Toronto Airport phenomena as “a jet age version of the frontier camp meetings.”

First, however, we must consider the devastating decline in American Christianity in the second half of the eighteenth century which made a Revival so necessary.


Following the War of Independence, Christianity in America went into a steep decline. Even New England, home of the Puritans and principal beneficiary of the Great Awakening under Edwards and Whitefield, now had entire towns where the churches saw fewer new members in a year than can be counted on one hand. Some saw no new members at all.

Throughout America, Presbyterians and Congregationalists struggled; Methodists were losing far more members than they were gaining; the Baptists said it was their “most wintry season.” Things grew so bad for the Lutherans that they even considered uniting with the Episcopalians – except that the latter were suffering the worst of all.

One historian described the two decades after the war as a period when American Christianity had “less vitality than at any other time in history;” another as, “the ebb tide of Christianity” in America.

John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, asserted that the church was too far gone to salvage. Voltaire and Paine hoped so and predicted the total demise of the church within thirty years.

With the decrease in faith went an increase in depravity. Immorality, gambling, lawlessness, and drunkenness became commonplace. In a population of five million, three-hundred-thousand were confirmed alcoholics.

Princeton University, which had sprung out of the Great Awakening as a Presbyterian School, by 1782 had only two students who professed to be believers, and Harvard only one. In the universities and colleges not only was religion ridiculed by the holding of such ceremonies as “mock communions,” there was even a “movement for the promulgation of dirty speech.”

Causes of the Decline

What factors had brought about this sad state of affairs?

1. The War

With no external threat to unite the nation in prayer for deliverance it seemed, now that victory had been achieved, the desire for land and economic prosperity became the passionate goal of the majority. Besides this, where the war had been fiercely fought many church buildings had been destroyed; and both men and women, hardened by the horrors of war, seemed disinclined to rebuild them.

Pre-Revolution ties between Church and State were irrevocably severed. Hardest hit was the Episcopal Church because of its links with England; but even the Congregationalists of New England, who had generally supported the Revolution, were affected. Furthermore, with “liberty, equality and fraternity,” went a widespread rejection of authority. Every man must think for himself and look out for his own affairs.

2. The French

French political and military support during the war opened the way for the French export of Enlightenment philosophy which regarded Christianity as a fable imposed upon oppressed people. Americans did not buy into everything that came out of France – especially when they learned of the “Reign of Terror” of France’s own revolution. Nevertheless, the exaltation of Reason over Revelation became the fashion.

Ethan Allen, war hero who had captured Fort Ticonderoga “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress,” soon forgot Jehovah when, in 1784, he published his, “Reason the Only Oracle of Man.”

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Ten years later, Thomas Paine wrote a best seller, “The Age of Reason,” and described the Bible as “the word of a demon (rather) than the word of God.” He boasted, “I have gone through the Bible . . . with an axe and felled trees. Here they lie and the priest may replace them but they will never grow.” His book was published in France and shipped in huge quantities to the United States to be sold for pennies or even given away.

Not surprisingly the universities were most influenced. Jacobin Societies flourished widely, and Deism became the theology of convenience. Deism teaches that God is neither interested in, nor involved with, this world; and all tales of supernatural occurrences – even in the Bible – are but myths, including the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ.

Thomas Jefferson, who was a Deist (of course he had been Ambassador to France), actually prepared and published a New Testament omitting all references to the super–natural. His Secretary of War, General Dearborn, asserted that stable government was impossible as long as the churches stood.

3. The West

By the year 1800 nearly a million people had made their way west. They settled in the area west of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia; in Kentucky; in Tennessee; in the Northwest and in the Indian Territory. In 1803 came “The Louisiana Purchase” which doubled the area of the United States and gave a further impulse to western migration.

In the north-west the new settlers tended to establish communities with the local church still prominent – even if attendance was formal and belief merely notional. Further south, however, the farmers were scattered and isolated and lacked both churches and pastors. Thus they became irreligious.

To sum up: a French nobleman who made a tour of the United States near the end of the century reported, “Religion is one of the subjects which occupies the least attention of the American people.”


If this was the ebb tide of Christianity the question was, could the tide turn again? The answer lay with Almighty God, who alone rules the tides be they natural or spiritual. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Across the new Republic, therefore, God’s faithful gave themselves to prayer. Yes – God still had many people who had not grown cold nor bowed to idols. Nor had all thinking people by any means embraced Rationalism and Deism, or their twin daughters, Unitarianism and Universalism.

In 1784 Isaac Baccus, a leading Baptist pastor who had been converted through the ministry of George Whitefield in 1741 gathered together a number of other ministers in New England. They wrote a circular letter and sent it out all over the Eastern seaboard, calling upon believers to pray for an awakening. They were urged to pray “that God would avert his judgments: prevent the spread of error and iniquity – and pour out his Spirit in plentiful effusions on our guilty land.” In response to these calls numerous prayer groups sprang up in New England and elsewhere. Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others united in special prayer for revival.

In 1798 the Presbyterian General Assembly asked that a day be set aside for fasting, humiliation, and prayer to redeem the frontier from its “Egyptian Darkness.” Pastors began to remind their people of the great visitation of God in the 1740s. They took as their texts promises such as, Isaiah 44:3, “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants;” and prayers such as, Psalm 85:4-6, “Restore us again, O God our Savior, and put away your displeasure towards us. Will you be angry with us for ever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” and, Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Bishop Francis Asbury

Bishop Francis Asbury

They called upon the faithful to cry to God for another mighty work.

The pioneer Methodist leader, Bishop Francis Asbury, also called upon his people to pray in a similar fashion.

God was to graciously and mightily answer these earnest prayers.

What happened in the early decades of the nineteenth century?



That is our story.

Part 2


The editor of a re-publication of the writings of Jonathan Edwards in 1832 commented upon the events he had been privileged to witness,

Never before has the Holy Spirit been poured out in so many places at once: never before has the Lord Jesus gathered so many into His churches in the same space of time, “of such as shall be saved.”

We have already quoted contemporary historian Mark Noll’s verdict, “the most influential revival of Christianity in the history of the United States.”

British contemporary historian, Iain Murray, has written,

The decline of Christian influence before a revival has sometimes been exaggerated in order to emphasize the scale of the transformation. The Second Great Awakening in America requires no such distortion of history in order to justify its title. By any assessment an extraordinary period of Christian history began about the beginning of the new century.

As an example of the dramatic change let me just, for now, mention a couple of things.

The Connecticut Bible Society in its report for 1816 commented on Voltaire’s claim that soon the Bible would have “passed into the limbo of forgotten literature.” Instead, they said, “The atheism of Voltaire is gone down to the grave and the blasphemies of Paine are remembered only to be abhorred;” and that Americans were living in “the age of the Bible and missionaries.”

I quoted earlier a French nobleman’s gloomy comment in the 1780s that, “Religion is one of the subjects which occupies the least attention of the American people.” In 1831 another Frenchman toured the United States – Alexis de Tocqueville. His report stated: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”

If it were not for the fact that this amazing change is thoroughly documented and beyond dispute we would think it hardly believable. How can it be explained?

There is no way to explain it but the gracious intervention of Almighty God. God had not abandoned his people. He was (and still is) the God of Revivals – the God of Edwards, the Tennants, Whitefield, and Wesley. Furthermore, this Awakening would last much longer than the first (from approximately 1795 to 1835); be much more extensive (Canada to Georgia, Maine to Tennessee); and its effects, by way of such things as the birth of the modern missionary movement and social reform would be incomparable.

Let us consider two contrasting aspects of this remarkable Revival.


Conditions on the American Frontier were extremely primitive and the pioneer farmers lived hard, lonely and dangerous lives. No place was more dangerous than Logan County in the south west corner of Kentucky. It had the nickname, “Rogues Harbor,” and the pioneering and indefatigable Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright explained why: “Here many refugees from almost all parts of the Union fled to escape justice or punishment…Murderers, horse-thieves, highway robbers and counterfeiters fled there until they combined and actually formed a majority.”

Rev. James McGready

Rev. James McGready

Into Rogues Harbor in 1796 came Rev. James McGready. He was to pastor three small Presbyterian churches at Muddy River, Red River, and Gasper River. Thirty-three years old McGready had, on a visit to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, first-hand experience of one of the several revival fires which were beginning to break out in scattered places as the Lord answered the earnest prayers of his people.

McGready was a large imposing man with piercing eyes and a penetrating voice. It was said that his fiery preaching had been too much for some of the folk of North Carolina who drove him out. At any rate within a year of his settlement in Kentucky he made a covenant with his flock:

We bind ourselves together to observe the third Saturday of each month, for one year, as a day of fasting and prayer for the conversion of sinners in Logan County and throughout the world. We also engage to spend one half-hour every Saturday evening, beginning at the setting of the sun, and one half-hour every Sabbath morning at the rising of the sun, in pleading with God to revive his work.

Wrote McGready, “A remarkable spirit of prayer and supplication was given to Christians, and a sensible, heartfelt burden of the dreadful state of sinners out of Christ; so that it might be said with propriety that Zion (the church) travailed in birth to bring forth her spiritual children.”
Thus we see again, when revival is on its way God frequently gives notice of it by empowering a special earnestness in the Prayer Meeting.

McGready preached for what he prayed for, and week after week he powerfully held forth the fearful terrors of Hell awaiting the impenitent, and the wonderful beauties of Heaven for all who have embraced the Savior. His hearers were constantly challenged on the brevity and uncertainty of life (especially on the Frontier), and the urgency of all to examine themselves before God and flee to Christ before it was too late.

1800 – Red River and Gasper River

Following the Scottish tradition, the Presbyterians administered the Lord’s Supper infrequently, sometimes only once each year when the occasion was marked by four or five days of preaching meetings. Visitors from other churches and even other denominations would be invited, and where necessary hospitality would be offered. At the Red River and Gasper River communion season of 1799 some of the most notorious sinners began to weep and seek the Lord, and some were so overcome with emotion that they fell down. This was a foretaste of the things to come the following year.

In June of 1800 about five hundred participants were drawn together for the communion season at the Red River Church. Five ministers were to take part including the McGee brothers. William McGee had been converted under McGready and was also Presbyterian, but John had become a Methodist itinerant preacher and had been seeing revival in various places, especially in neighboring Tennessee.

Red River Church

Red River Church

Usually the meetings were characterized by solemnity and stillness, and so it was at Red River until the last day. As the local minister concluded his sermon a woman who had been seeking assurance suddenly gave a great shout of joy and began singing praises. The meeting was closed but the congregation refused to be dismissed – anticipating some further work of the Holy Spirit. The atmosphere was electric.

John McGee made to move among the people and exhort them further, but the Presbyterians cautioned their Methodist colleague against the dangers of “emotionalism”.

He later wrote: “I turned to go back, and was near falling; the power of God was strong upon me. I turned again and, losing sight of the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy and the floor was soon covered with the slain [their screams for mercy pierced the heavens.” Some, it seems, fell down under agony of guilt and others in the ecstasy of forgiveness.

Sensitive though he was to the stimulation of mere human emotions, James McGready was nevertheless so convinced that what had taken place was a work of God that he arranged for a similar communion season to be held a month later at the Gasper River Church. The word spread and eight thousand made their way there, some traveling a hundred miles. Since most could not be accommodated in homes they camped out in wagons and tents. Thus the “Camp Meeting” was born.

As at Red River, now at Gasper River, the first couple of days passed with an expectant solemnity, but on the Saturday night the Holy Spirit seemed to move in conviction and conversion. McGready wrote, “Sinners were lying powerless in every part of the house, praying and crying for mercy…no person seemed to wish to go home – hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody – eternal things were the vast concern.”

John McGee wrote, “The mighty power and mercy of God was manifested. The people fell before the Word, like corn before a storm of wind, and many rose from the dust with divine glory shining in their countenances.”

1801 – Cane Ridge

The camp meetings spread throughout Kentucky and Tennessee with much blessing attending each. One of those who witnessed one of these revivals was Rev. Barton W. Stone, the pastor of the Cane Ridge Presbyterian Church, north east of Lexington, Kentucky. He confirmed the other reports, “The scene to me was new and passing strange…Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparent 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 most fervently uttered.”

So impressed was Mr. Stone that he arranged for a “Camp Communion” at his own church in August 1801. It was to last for a full week. He invited Methodists, Baptists, and others, as well as Presbyterians; with preachers from all these denominations. Though Lexington itself had a population of only two thousand, an immense crowd assembled, some traveling from as far away as Tennessee and Ohio. Because people came and went through the week, and because of the chaos which at times prevailed, estimates of the numbers in attendance vary, but the lowest is ten-thousand, and the highest twenty-five thousand.

Cane Ridge Revival

Teams of men cleared the trees and the bamboo from the hillsides (the abundance of the latter gave rise to the name of the church), and built several raised and covered platforms in front of which plank seats were arranged in horseshoe formation. Thus several meetings would be held at the same time. An area for seekers was reserved in front of the platform. Boys called ‘runners’ chased out the hogs and dogs. There was a prayer meeting at 7:00 a.m., and preaching services at 11:00 a.m., 3:00 and 7:00 p.m..

A detailed account of what took place is impossible especially as Barton Stone himself wrote, “A particular description of this meeting would fill a large volume, and then half would not be told.” It seems that at times the meetings were marked by deep solemnity but at other times the shrieks and cries and groans of so many under conviction, and the shouts and laughter of those finding salvation, together with the hymn singing, caused one eye-witness to say, “The noise was like the roar of Niagara.”

Cane Ridge became famous, then, not only for its numbers but because of the highly charged emotion and the excessive physical phenomena which accompanied the spiritual work. Those obviously included the falling down – which became a common feature of these camp meetings – and the vocal cries mentioned above.

Let Barton Stone himself describe some of the others:

jerks – sometimes affecting “one member of the body, sometimes the whole system. When the head alone was affected it would be jerked backward or forward or from side to side so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished;”

dancing – “Sometimes the motion was quick and sometimes slow. Thus they continued to move forward or backward in the same track or alley till nature seemed exhausted.”

barking – according to Stone this was the name “opposers contemptuously called it, but it was nothing but the jerks. A person…would often make a grunt or bark, if you please, from the suddenness of the jerk.”

laughing – “a loud hearty laughter. The subject appeared rapturously solemn, and his laughter excited solemnity in saints and sinners. It is truly indescribable.”

singing – as well as the hymn singing there was a singing “not from the mouth or nose but entirely from the breast…it was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it.”

Apparently these phenomena were manifested only by a minority and were discouraged by most of the ministers and leaders; but others accepted them as a necessary part of what God was doing even though reports of them brought criticism of the whole event and camp meetings in general.

The question is: was God at work or can the whole thing be explained in human and psychological terms? Considering the cultural situation – the primitive nature of frontier life, the immensity and intensity of the crowd, the fact that many meetings were at night lit only by torches, the direct and emotional preaching – it would be tempting to dismiss the frontier revival as carnal. That would be mistaken. Thousands and tens of thousands were truly converted and added to the churches; one thousand at Cane Ridge alone.


Says Noll,

The results at Cane Ridge were electrifying…The renewed interest in faith touched off at Cane Ridge and similar camp meetings led to rapid growth in Presbyterian churches in the South. By comparison, however, Presbyterian efforts paled beside the accomplishments of the Methodists and Baptists. Methodist circuit riders and Baptist farmer-preachers fanned out through the South and the opening West in unprecedented numbers. By the 1830s these groups had replaced the Congregationalists and Presbyterians as the largest denominations not only in the South, but the whole United States.

When Francis Asbury came to the colonies in 1771, there were only 600 Methodists. When he died in 1816 there were 200,000. The number had grown from 1 in 5,000, to 1 in 40 of the total population, largely because of the continuation of the camp meetings and the dedicated ministry of the circuit riders. By 1805 the Presbyterians had largely dropped the use of Camp Meetings but Asbury counted four-hundred in 1811 and one-thousand in 1820.

In 1800 Kentucky Baptists had 5,119 members meeting in 106 churches. Only three years later there were 219 churches and 15,119 members. Some local Baptist churches reported extraordinary harvests. In one year the Bryant Station church baptized 421 and the Great Crossing church 407.
Circuit Riders and Farmer Preachers

Who were these circuit riders to which reference has been made? With the Westward territorial expansion there had come a change in demographics.

Circuit rider on Indiana border

Circuit rider on Indiana border

Now most Americans were living in widely scattered farms or in tiny remote villages. They loved to come together for the social and spiritual uplift of the Camp Meetings and many were truly converted there. But who would then minister to them when they returned home? Who would carry the Gospel to those not yet won for Christ?

The older denominations failed to keep up with the spiritual needs of the expanding frontier, especially as their ministers tended to stay for many years serving one local church. Bishop Asbury, therefore, sent out an army of traveling preachers who met the challenge – but only with incredible zeal and self-sacrifice. In this they followed in the footsteps – or hoof-prints – of Asbury himself and their founder, John Wesley.

Most of them were single, came from an artisan background – as did the Savior they preached – and they often had little income save that which came from the Bibles and books they could carry with them to sell. So hardy were they that the joke was that on a bitterly cold January day a frontier farmer would remark, “No-one will be out today save crows and Methodist preachers.” Half of them died before the age of thirty-three.

Space forbids further description of these heroic, black-coated equestrian evangelists. Their deeds are recorded in Heaven.

The same dedication applied to the Baptist preachers. They toiled all week on their farms and then on Sundays would preach the best they could to a gathered church, frequently also diligently giving what pastoral care they were able.

In view of the problems created by over-indulgence in liquor, some of these Frontier preachers included temperance in their preaching. Being often intemperate in their language, this sometimes brought abuse upon them and occasionally even physical violence. However, it could have its amusing side.

One of my favorite stories concerns a preacher who decided to bring visual aids into his presentation. Holding up a glass of water, he proceeded to drop a live worm into it. The worm wriggled vigorously. He then held up for inspection a glass of whisky and dropped the worm therein. It died instantly.

“Now,” asked the preacher triumphantly, “what does that show you?”

A red faced farmer near the back called out: “It shows that if you drink plenty of whisky, you’ll never have worms!”

Part 3


Because of the dramatic nature of the phenomena which accompanied the Frontier camp meetings some have imagined that this was the main characteristic of the Second Great Awakening. Actually that is not so. In other parts of the States quiet reverence was the norm. Pastors would continue to preach the Gospel they had always preached except that instead of the former indifference and barrenness they would begin to notice eager attention and deep conviction. Let me give just a few first hand reports:

A College President reported, “The means employed in these revivals have been but two – the clear presentation of divine truth and prayer…The meetings have been still and orderly, with no other sign of emotion in the hearers than the solemn look and the silent tear.”

A pastor in Connecticut reported, “The work was by no means noisy, but rational deep and still. Poor sinners began to see that everything in the Bible was true, that they were wholly sinful and in the hand of a sovereign God. The first you would know of persons under awakening was that they would be at all the religious meetings, and manifest a silent and eager attention.”

…and another in Vermont,
“Our Prayer-meetings were crowded, and solemn to an amazing degree. No emotions more violent than shedding of tears…Nothing appeared but a silent, fixed attention, and profound solemnity…Infidelity retired, or was overcome by the bright manifestations of divine power and grace.”

…and from New York,
“A deep solemnity spread over the whole community and everywhere meetings were crowded.”

Ordination of Francis Asbury

Ordination of Francis Asbury

Nor was it just the Frontier and New England that saw revival. The Middle States of the Eastern Seaboard were not overlooked in this mighty work of the Holy Spirit. As early as 1800 Francis Asbury wrote in his journal, “Surely we may say our Pentecost has fully come this year, when we recollect what God hath wrought in Edisto in South and Guildford in North Carolina; in Franklin, Amelia and Gloucester in Virginia; in Baltimore and Cecil in Maryland; in Dover, Duck Creek and Milford in Delaware.”

Abel Stevens, another Methodist chronicler, said of the Awakening; “In Baltimore it prevailed mightily. It extended all through Maryland and Delaware; the chapels and meetings in private houses were crowded in the evenings, and by day the harvest fields, work shops and forests where the wood-cutters were cutting timber, were vocal with Methodist hymns. It seemed that all the population were turning to the Lord.”


One significant aspect to the Second Awakening was the work of God in the colleges. For example: in the autumn of 1787 the liberal arts college of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia reconvened for the start of a new term. During the summer two or three of the students had become Christians and began to meet every Saturday afternoon to pray for their fellow students and for revival. They usually met in the woods but on one rainy day they took a room in the college and, anticipating trouble, locked the door. Their fears were well founded for as soon as word spread of the meeting taking place, an unruly mob gathered outside whooping and swearing and hammering at the door. The prayer-meeting broke up but not before a near riot had ensued only quietened by the intervention of professors.

John Blair Smith

John Blair Smith

That evening at the compulsory prayers in the college chapel the President, Rev. John Blair Smith, demanded to know the cause. Two or three ring leaders stepped forward and declared that “some students had shut themselves up in one of the rooms of the college and begun singing and praying and carrying on like Methodists.” Meaning to imply by that term, extreme religious fanaticism.

To the consternation of the complainers the President rebuked their leaders as those who, “will neither serve God themselves nor suffer others to do so.” He caused further astonishment by announcing that the prayer meeting the following Saturday would be held in his own parlor with himself leading it!

The day came and the room was full. Then they had to move it to the College Hall. The power of God came down upon them and many students were converted (some reports said half the student body). The awakening spread from the College to the surrounding churches and neighborhoods over a distance of three counties.

When the President’s father visited the following year he wrote in a letter, “The half was not told me of the display of God’s power and grace among them, not the tenth part…I have seen nothing like it since the years 40-41 (he himself had been converted under George Whitefield)…they run far and near to sermons, sacraments and societies…The blessed work has spread among people of every description, high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, orthodox and heterodox, sober and rude, white and black, young and old…”

It was during a visit to this College and its revival that James McCready became fired up before going to Rogues Harbor.

Timothy Dwight & Yale

Timothy Dwight was the grandson of the great Jonathan Edwards and had been a chaplain during the Revolutionary War.

Yale University

Yale University

In 1795 he was elected President of Yale College and found a student body almost bereft of Christian believers but abounding in skeptics, Deists, and libertarians. Believing that, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Ps 126:5), he began a systematic program of teaching, preaching and prayer.

For six months he lectured on the falseness of the Deist philosophy, the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture, and the truth of the Gospel. He invited students to come and discuss and debate and many students came. Nevertheless a year later there were still hardly a dozen who professed faith.

The young President labored on sowing “precious seed” as he preached through a four year cycle of sermons on the Fundamentals of the Faith. At last, after seven years, in the spring of 1802 his faithfulness was rewarded. Two students came under great conviction of sin, publicly confessed their faith in the Savior and joined the church. It was as if these were the first drops of revival rain before the deluge.

Lyman Beecher

Lyman Beecher

Soon wherever students gathered the great topic was eternal salvation. One third of the student population of 230 was converted and from their number many became preachers who themselves saw revival in the places where they ministered. One of them became one of the greatest preachers of the Awakening and of American history, Lyman Beecher.

Further revivals followed in subsequent years, like successive waves of an incoming tide, and the awakening spread to other colleges such as Princeton.

It is interesting to note that the scholarly Dwight disapproved of excessive displays of emotion – even those which had occurred during his grandfather’s meetings during the Great Awakening. Thus all things were done “decently and in order;” but the results were just as real.


There were other important and very significant aspects to the Second Awakening especially the controversial ministry and teaching of Charles Grandison Finney. To some he was one of the greatest preachers and leaders of all time. Others say that he changed American and British Christianity from God-centered to man-centered.

So – let’s return to where we started and go…

 Back to the “BLESSING” … how all this relates to us today.

Part 4


What are we to make of reports of extreme physical phenomena whether happening today or in the great Revivals of bygone years? Does the presence of such things PROVE that a work is of God? Or are such things so clearly demonic that we may reckon that God is telling us to steer clear of the whole thing? Or are they incidental – the chaff among the wheat – preferably to be discouraged?

Little wonder the Apostle Paul enjoins us to, “Test everything; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

In a series the intention of which is to awaken interest in this great subject of Revival and to stimulate prayer among God’s people for an Awakening in our own day, some comment on this is called for, however brief. Here then are a few of my own conclusions.

1.         The presence of strange or excessive physical phenomena does not OF ITSELF authenticate a work as being of God, however pretentious the claims to divine inspiration.

Man is a complex creation; spiritual, emotional, rational, volitional, physical and social. Given certain circumstances human beings are capable of very bizarre behavior. Swooning, jumping, jerking, screaming, and even speaking in tongues are displayed among Hindu sects, New Age groups, hypno-therapy ministries and other non-Christian communities. For example: according to an article in “Christianity Today” (9/11/95),

Rajineesh, the infamous Indian, would touch his followers who would then convulse in uncontrollable shaking or laughter or simply pass out. Da Free John, an American guru, would sit with large crowds of his devotees and wave his hand toward groups of them who would then collapse in ecstatic laughter. These disciples described the after effects of the phenomena as joy and peace.

Mention has been made of Peter Cartwright, one of the greatest of the Methodist circuit riders and preachers. He met up with Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church and reported on the encounter in his autobiography.

I found him to be a very illiterate and impudent desperado in morals but, at the same time, he had a vast fund of low cunning…I began to inquire into some of the tenets of the Latter Day Saints. He explained. I criticized his explanations until, unfortunately, we got into a high debate. The next pass he made at me was upon my fears. He said that in all ages of the world, the good and right way was evil spoken of, and that it was an awful thing to fight against God.
“Now,” said he, “if you will go with me to Nauvoo, I will show you many living witnesses that will testify that they were, by the Saints [Mormons], cured of blindness, lameness, deafness, dumbness, and all the diseases which human flesh is heir to. And I will show you,” said he, “that we have the gift of tongues, and can speak in unknown languages, and that the Saints can drink any deadly poison and it will not hurt them.”

It is clear then that our judgment as to whether the Mormon church, the Toronto church, First Presbyterian, First Baptist, St Elmo’s Episcopal, or, for that matter ANY church, is experiencing a true outpouring of the Spirit of God must rest on other criteria than extraordinary happenings or bizarre behavior.

2.      Conversely, the presence of such things does not automatically DISQUALIFY a work either.

Some became opponents of both the First and Second Awakenings because of what they took to be entirely manifestations of the flesh or even of the devil; and dismissed what history has shown to be truly remarkable works of God. They thus threw out the baby with the bath-water.

3.       Even in a Work of God some happenings may be merely carnal (that is: not spiritual) or even demonic.

It would not be surprising if Satan tried to discredit a work of God by injecting some things of his own into it, nor even if he infiltrated it with devilish agents bent on destroying it. There was a Judas in the Twelve.

There was certainly much carnality in the Camp Meetings. Some who came just for a “good time” brought strong drink leading to drunkenness. Some States had to pass legislation forbidding the sale of intoxicating liquor within one or two miles of the camp site.

Then, in the emotional and exciting atmosphere of these gatherings there was a frequent problem with immorality. At some camp meetings watchmen carrying long white sticks patrolled the meeting grounds each evening to stop any sexual mischief. Enemies of camp meetings sneered that “more souls were begot than saved.”

There are always the exhibitionists who will resort to anything to be the center of attention.

Others respond with better motives. When we are constantly pressured, as we are today, into looking within ourselves and seeking healing for our “emotional hurts” – real or imagined, those seeking some kind of emotional or psychological therapy, those crying out for help, those undergoing some degree of emotional breakdown, may exhibit physical symptoms which, however therapeutic to that person’s individual needs, have nothing to do with that deep spiritual work of God which we call “Revival”.
All this does not rule out the possibility that God is ALSO doing a genuine work in the gathering. Yes, there may be chaff but there may be wholesome wheat as well! Or, if you prefer, even the true fire may blow some smoke!

4.      Where there is a deep and genuine work of the Spirit of God upon the souls of men and women I would expect there to be some emotional reactions. Perhaps sometimes even extreme.

Can a person sorrow over their sins and not feel that sorrow and perhaps even shed tears? Can a sinner tremble at the awful judgment of Hell and feel nothing? Can a penitent, cleansed by the blood of Jesus and assured of eternal happiness in Heaven when his sins will be remembered no more – either by God or men – not “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory,” and perhaps even dance for it! We are not always compartmentalized. One aspect of our being affects another.

When people fell, or cried out, or whatever, in times of revival, is it not possible they were responding with their whole being to what God was doing in them and for them by His Spirit? I think so.

Furthermore, there may be actions which are human responding to activities which are Divine. We may then need to control the former, but I sure wish we had more of the latter!

This leads me, however, to an important point, perhaps the most important point of the whole consideration.

5.      The falling came during the preaching of the Word, as God’s truth empowered by the Spirit pierced the heart.

Those who were “slain” and fell down did so under conviction of sin; and those who cried out for help were crying out for mercy, lest they die in those sins. Those who laughed and danced did so for the joy of sins forgiven.

Cane Ridge Memorial on the site of the old Meeting place

Cane Ridge Memorial on the site of the old Meeting place

Do you remember what John McGee said of Gasper River? “The people fell before the Word…”

George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and even the leaders of the Kentucky revival such as McGready, NEVER called people forward to blow on them, or touch them on the forehead, lay hands on them, or do anything else to cause them to fall over.


6.      Most of the leaders of the Revival DIScouraged excesses of emotional and physical behavior.

They were, in any case, only a small minority of those spiritually affected and were tolerated by the leaders. Those who opposed the revival exaggerated them in order to seek to discredit the Revival.
Many preachers actually forbade such displays and if they occurred the person was carried out. One Baptist preacher stopped preaching at the first sign of a man beginning to jerk. In a loud and solemn tone he said, “In the name of the Lord I command all unclean spirits to leave this place.” The jerker jerked no more!

7.      Revivals, to be deep and abiding works of God, do not of necessity have to be either novel or noisy.

As we have seen; though the dramatic nature of the Frontier Camp Meetings has received much attention, far more of the Revival was characterized by solemnity, stillness and silent tears.

The Revival did not come because of the introduction of some new methods which had never been thought of hitherto. It came by prayer and preaching. That was just as true in the Camp Meetings as the churches. We must not lose confidence either in the methods or the message laid down in Scripture.They preached not themselves but Christ and him crucified.

8.      When the Apostle warns us to “test everything,” we may ask, “How are we to test it?” The answer is: “By Scripture.”

God’s Word is, “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.” The work of God’s Spirit is always to bring conviction of sin, a turning to Christ for salvation, and a dedication to a life of obedience in service to Jesus as Lord. We are not encouraged to seek an experience for its own sake or to separate the Spirit from the Word.
May I also add: God never blesses us by reducing us to the behavior of animals. When God once did that – to King Nebuchadnezzar – it was as an act of judgment not blessing (see Daniel 5:20,21).

9.      A fresh outpouring of the Spirit of God enlivens and enlightens the mind, it does not bypass it.

We must beware of anything which claims to be of God but which appeals first to the feelings ignoring the mind. When men and women present their bodies to God as “living sacrifices” (as they do in times of Revival) he renews the MIND not anesthetizes it

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:1-2).

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13).

When the emotions are awakened by the Spirit of God it is always in response to the Truth of God. The blessing of God is not a matter of having warm, fuzzy feelings.
(By the way, Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” – does not COMPARE fullness of the Spirit with drunkenness, which is so often supposed, it CONTRASTS it – as a consideration of the context soon shows.)

10.      Some of us, however, are more zealous when it comes to analyzing and rejecting false fire than we are at crying to God for the real.

When the Apostle gives us the instruction to “test everything”, it is in the same context as, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

We may quench the Spirit’s fire by unbelief, worldliness, disobedience, prayerlessness, and many other things. We can also do so by being so strait-jacketed in our traditions and comfortable in our ways that we would not want the Fire of God, even if he granted it to us. It would be too disturbing.

What is Revival? Revival is not a vague blanket of “blessing”, it is a deep, life-changing work of God in the heart of each individual. In other words, if I cry to God for Revival, I must want it for myself. What then am I praying for?

In the first article in this series, “What is Revival?” I considered some of the marks of a true work of God. May I repeat them in outline?

Principally these are:

(i)     a deep conviction of sin and repentance of it;

(ii)    overflowing joy at the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ and a renewed love for the Savior;

(iii)    new life in the Spirit wherein the activities and pleasures of the world seem of little interest compared with the sweet fellowship of the People of God. Thus there are frequent gatherings for prayer and praise, and an insatiable hunger for the anointed preaching of God’s Word;

(iv)    an awesome sense of God’s Presence in holiness and grace. A revived people are a people saturated with God;

(v)     an abundant harvest. The blessing spills out beyond the church as multitudes of sinners, compelled by an unseen force, come crowding into the meetings, eager for the Gospel and peace with God. The Savior has come once again to seek and save.

All these marks were present in the Second Awakening, in the Camp Meetings, college campuses, and the local churches; whether in frontier frenzy or silent tears.

Do we really want God to visit us with these blessings or do we have our own agenda? Do we not too often say, “Bless me, bless me, Lord – and here’s how I want you to bless me!”

May this writer and his readers, in calling upon God for a fresh outpouring of his Spirit in these days of superficiality and barrenness, be prepared – and eager – for it to begin in our own (maybe?) cold hearts.

O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us,
Revive Thy church with life and power,
O Breath of Life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit Thy church to meet this hour.

O Wind of God, come, bend us, break us,
Till humbly we confess our need;
Then in Thy tenderness remake us,
Revive, restore; for this we plead

O Breath of Love, come, breathe within us,
Renewing thought and will and heart:
Come, Love of Christ, afresh to win us,
Revive Thy church in every part.

Bessie Porter Head