Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 1, 1971
NUMBER 46, PAGE 2b-3,5-6b

Camp Meetings And Resultant Divisions

Colly Caldwell

Having looked at frontier religion from the standpoint of the denominations involved and the social influences present, let us look more closely at the religious activity itself which the people of the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier experienced.

James McGready

The trans-Allegheny phase of the Second Great Awakening began in Logan County, Kentucky, under the influence of a Presbyterian named James McGready. This vigorous and determined minister, recently arrived from North Carolina, was appalled at the prevailing impiety and urged upon the congregation with whom he worshipped a systematic program of prayer. One Saturday of each month and all Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings would be devoted exclusively to prayer sessions "for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Logan County, Kentucky, and throughout the world.1" This statement reflects the belief, which was held by most frontier preachers, that the Holy Spirit acts miraculously today as He did in the first century.

In June, 1800, McGready went further and called for a massive joint sacramental meeting at the Red River church. Including both Methodist and Presbyterian participants, it became a protracted meeting in which shouting and physical extravagances (of the type which became characteristic of the Holiness movement's activities) became the order of the day. It also established a precedent for inter-denominational activity which characterized the camp meetings which were to follow.

Barton W. Stone

Among those who attended was Barton W. Stone, a young Presbyterian minister then preaching in the Cane Ridge area of Kentucky. Stone at first was amazed at the strange exercises but became convinced during the services that they were "the works of God" and evidence of the sincerity of the communicants.2 Evidently Stone, too, was caught up in the emotionalism of the frontier revival efforts.

Stone left the Logan County meeting with a determination to conduct similar services in his own area. He organized a protracted meeting at Cane Ridge in August, 1801, and continued it for one week. The results inspired his followers who estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 attended. Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist preachers joined hands in these services. "All appeared... of one mind and one soul," Stone said, "and the salvation of sinners seemed to be the great object of all." Little was said of the differences in belief between the denominations until later when the churches sought to draw in the believers to their particular communions The thousands camped in the area listened to sermons, participated in emotional displays, and disbanded only, Stone said, when "provisions for such a multitude failed in the neighborhood." Many additional camp meetings followed.

Physical Displays

The camp meetings and the accompanying physical extravagances — were peculiarly western phenomena of the awakening. There were few similar events in Virginia and North Carolina. Devised as a practical method of bringing scattered people together, the camp meeting met social and recreational as well as spiritual needs. The settlers longed for relief from the dull monotony of wilderness life and the encampments provided the diversion.3 Long, emotional sermons were presented in which preachers loudly described the yawning gates of hell and the eternal damnation of the doomed in such a manner as to cause even the most hardened sinner to quake with fear. The results were emotional and physical disturbances which were cited by the participants as the miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit. The "Holy Jerks" was the most widely practiced manifestation. It was an exercise in which the person's head, and sometimes his entire body, would jerk violently. "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow (as he is sometimes called), a frontier preacher, described the exercise thus:

"Here I saw the jerks. .. a strange exercise indeed; however, it is involuntary, yet requires the consent of the will; i.e., the people are taking to jerking irresistibly, and if they try to resist it, it worries them much, yet it is attended by no bodily pain, and those who are exercised to dance, which in the pious seems as antidote to the jerks; if they resist, it brings deadness and barrenness over the mind; but when they yield to it, they feel happy, although it is a great cross. . . . Their eyes when dancing seemed to be fixed upwards as if upon an invisible object and they lost to all below."4 It is readily seen in Dow's description that the exercises of these people were emotional displays. Perhaps these were thought to be involuntary and difficult to explain by those involved, but they are easily explained by those who view the environment of the camp meetings as a whole. Preachers where also sometimes affected by these displays but more often they influenced others. Usually the degree of jerking depended upon the sermon and the preacher's attitude toward the emotional displays. If he indicated disapproval, the extravagances did not appear.5

Denominational Acceptance

As the revival progressed, Methodist and Baptist leaders generally embraced the movement and Presbyterians opposed it. While Baptists did not join as a denomination, individual members and preachers worked in the encampments and aided in the tremendous numerical growth of the denomination as a whole. The same was true of the Methodists, although they did not increase as rapidly as the Baptists.

Although McGready participated, many Presbyterians remained aloof. It was the extravagant physical exercises which brought about the determined opposition of the Presbyterians. They became critical of alleged immoral conduct, unspiritual teachings, McGready's unorthodox methods of preaching and exhorting sinners individually, and the general easing of educational and doctrinal standards. The principal objection of the Presbyterians, however, was that the nerve of revivalism (the doctrine of "free-will salvation") was inconsistent with their Calvinistic beliefs. Schisms within the church hindered the growth of the Presbyterians and led to the establishment of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the New Light movement.

Cumberland Presbyterian Church

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church grew out of friction within the Transylvania Presbytery in Kentucky. In 1801, the leadership of the Transylvania Presbytery relaxed its ordination rules and licensed three men who were not fully trained according to Presbyterian standards. The next year a peaceful division of the presbytery resulted from its growth. The churches in Middle Tennessee and Central Kentucky were organized into the separate Cumberland Presbytery. The majority of members (called "Revivalists") living in these areas favored the relaxing of ordination and licensing regulations. In the meeting of 1803-04, the Revivalists assumed control of the Presbytery and immediately enacted their views into formal resolutions. By 1805, they had licensed more than two dozen ministers with less than what had previously been considered the proper training.

Between 1805 and 1810, the conservative element met separately and adopted a strict interpretation of the Confession of Faith. This was a deliberate attempt to bring the Revivalists back into step with the church. The Calvinist principles on which the Confession stood repudiated the "free-will" theology of those who promoted the encampments. The efforts of the conservatives failed, and the Revivalists took the occasion to officially abandon the doctrines of election and reprobation. All this illustrates the trouble that can be found in these inter-congregational presbyteries.

On February 3, 1810, Finis Ewing, Samuel King, and Samuel McAdow met with Ephraim McLean in McAdow's home in Dickson County, Tennessee to discuss the formation of a separate denomination, the Cumberland Presbytery. The next day they adopted a constitution. This document accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith but gave to preachers the right to reject the Calvinist principles which they believed opposed revivalistic procedures.

New Light Movement

The other major Presbyterian schism began in North Carolina and Virginia and spread to the West. It consisted largely of "liberal" professors and ministers who called themselves "New Lights." They taught that the will of God was made manifest to each man who honestly sought to learn it from the Bible. This manifestation was made, they said, by an inward light which shone into the hearts of man- Armenian and Wesleyan in principle, it contradicted the Calvinist principle of predestination.

Stone and McGready were among those who became affiliated with the New Light movement. Stone, who had been converted under McGready's preaching, described the disciples of the movement as people who were interested in searching the Bible for "the saving gospel," and not in conforming simply to some "man-made creed."

Stone had been wrestling with his conscience for several years. After being licensed in Virginia by the Orange Presbytery, he had moved, in 1796, to Bourbon County, Kentucky, where he began to question the Presbyterian Confession of Faith on such matters as the Trinity, election, reprobation, and predestination. It was these issues which eventually led him to repudiate his Presbyterian membership.

In the autumn of 1798, Stone was called to complete his ordination. Still reluctant to accept the creed, he requested that the ceremony be postponed and explained to the examining board his reasons for hesitating. Evidently unaware of the depth of his convictions, the members of the board allowed a minor change in the ceremony and insisted that he proceed. Many years later, Stone explained the change he had made in one answer given to the committee:

They asked, "Do you receive the Confession of Faith and adopt it as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible?" I answered aloud, so that the whole congregation might hear, "I do, as far as I see it consistent with the word of God." No objection being made, I was ordained. 6 The immediate circumstance which resulted in Stone's break with orthodox Presbyterianism was the trial of a preacher named Richard McNemar. In 1803, McNemar was brought before the Washington Presbytery in Springfield, Ohio, on charges of preaching anti-Calvinistic doctrines. Having been condemned, he appealed to the Synod of Kentucky at Lexington. Lending support to McNemar in Lexington were two other preachers from Ohio who held similar views, John Thompson and John Dunlavy. Stone and Robert Marshall of Kentucky also stood with him. Their combined appeals had little effect upon the Synod, and McNemar was again found guilty and expelled. The others withdrew. Together the five men issued a document which they called An Apology for Renouncing the Jurisdiction of the Synod of Kentucky. In it they insisted that they were still Presbyterians but affirmed that they were abandoning all written creeds but the Bible.7 They established the independent Springfield Presbyterians, but as their preaching became more dogmatic their differences from the Presbyterian main-stream became more and more apparent. After only one year, they forsook the name "Springfield Presbytery." Their preaching against the Presbyterian system of government, their repudiation of the authority of the Synod, and their anti-Calvinistic views on doctrine made it impossible for them to maintain Presbyterian status.

On June 28, 1804, they issued the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. In it they decreed their own dissolution as a presbytery and their separation from the Presbyterian faith. Stone insisted that they take only the name "Christian." Converted from pedobaptism by Marshall, he requested immersion for remission of sins. Finding that his position of rejecting human creeds was very similar to Alexander Campbell's "no creed but the Bible" appeal, Stone led a movement which eventually merged with the "Disciples of Christ.8


1 Robert Davidson, History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), pp. 132-33.

2 Stone, Autobiography, pp. 34-38.

3 Robert L. Shurter, "The Camp Meeting in the Early Life and Literature of the Mid-West," East Tennessee Historical Society's Publications, No. 5, (1933), 143.

4 Lorenzo Dow, The History of a Cosmopolite or Lorenzo Dow's Journal (Washington, Ohio: 1848), p. 215.

5 Catharine C. Cleveland, The Great Revival in the west, 1797-1805 (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1959), pp. 125.

6 Stone, Autobiography, p. 30.

7 Barton W. Stone, Apology for Renouncing the Jurisdiction of the Synod of Kentucky (Lexington: Joseph Charless, 1804). Microfilm copy in the Disciples of Christ Historical Library in Nashville, Tennessee.

8 Stone, Autobiography, pp. 65-76.