America’s Pentecost

© Chris Light | English Wikipedia

Inside the Cane Ridge Meeting House © Chris Light | English Wikipedia

About thirty miles northeast of Lexington Kentucky is the Cane Ridge Meeting House. It sits on the site of what historian Paul Conklin said was “the clearest approximation of an American Pentecost.” From August 6th through August 12th in 1801 thousands of people gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “It arguably remains the most important religious gathering in all of American history, both for what it symbolized and for the effects that flowed from it.”

The events in Cane Ridge were initially organized as a traditional Scottish and Ulster Presbyterian communion service. Communicants were carefully screened by the presiding ministers, and when approved, given a small lead token to admit them to the communion table. The bread and wine were served as the communicants sat at long tables. If the assembly was large enough, the communion tables were filled repeatedly, with the service continuing until sunset.

The minister described the origins and purposes of the sacrament, blessed the elements, and then took a seat at the head of the table. Those assembled at the tables passed and partook of the bread and wine. They would eat and drink quantities that approximated those of a real meal, and not just consume a mere token amount of bread and wine. After a corporate prayer, they returned to their seats.

Over time, the communion service was expanded into a three to five day affair. There was a day of self-examination with fasting and prayer; Friday and Saturday sermons; and the Sunday communion service. A follow-up thanksgiving service on Monday was common. The preaching and exhortation was more like later revivals, quite different than that of the weekly pastoral sermon. The emotion tenor made it a likely time for conversion. The great communions also became a kind of festival or fair, with thousands of noncommunicant individuals attending. The crowds of spectators required most of the preaching to be outdoors on canopied platforms—tents.

Many of the wilder bodily effects that occurred at Cambuslang Scotland and later at Cane Ridge first occurred in 1625 at a series of services in Ulster Ireland in that have come to be known as the Six Mile Water Revival. In Cane Ridge, Conklin noted how it was the Ulster communions that first reported people fainting dead away and being carried outside in a trance.  “By the 1740s almost all the exercises that Cane Ridge would make famous, including not only sobbing, shouting, and swooning but bodily convulsions or jerks, had erupted in one or more congregations.” Similar revivals were occurring in Scotland, with Cambuslang being the penultimate example (See “Swift as Lightning”).

In Scotland and Ulster, as later in America, these huge regional communions proved very divisive.  The extended communion normally functioned as a routine ritual that was loved by almost all Scottish Presbyterians. . . . But in the three or four waves of revival, the huge rural gatherings, with all the extreme physical exercises, dismayed or frightened possibly a majority of Presbyterian clergymen.

By the mid-eighteenth century criticism of the spectacle at these communion services was taking place. This centered on the spectators who remained on the fringes of the religious services. Some came for fun or socializing, some to observe or ridicule, some to exploit the occasion by marketing goods. Their behavior was largely uncontrollable, despite carefully developed rules. To this crowd, communion was a carnival. Some critics saw the services as an embarrassing throw back to medieval fairs. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote satirically of these communions in his poem: “The Holy Fair.” But devout Presbyterians held the yearly communion season to be the peak religious experience of the year.

Conklin observed that the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, with their custom of communion seasons described above, were the most suitable institutional setting for periodic revivals in America. Fittingly then, the area around Cane Ridge was settled by a group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians in 1790, who built the meeting house in 1791.  In Logan County, over two hundred miles to the south and west of Cane Ridge, James McGready accepted a call as the minister to three small congregations in 1796. As soon as he arrived, he began preparing his congregations for a revival. He stressed an experiential religion and recommended a day of prayer and fasting each month. He also made use of the traditional four-day Scottish communion service. He timed the communions so that members of the three widely scattered congregations he pastored (named after local rivers: Red, Muddy, and Gasper) could travel to each of the other services, “thus creating the critical mass of people needed for a fervent revival.”

By the spring of 1797, he noted a brief awakening at Gasper River. By the summer of 1800, the Gasper River communion service drew people from distances as much as a hundred miles away. At the opening Friday session, there were already twenty to thirty wagons, with provisions, encamped nearby the meetinghouse. “The number of wagons on the grounds at Gasper River, and the informal tents created around some of the wagons, also gave Gasper River a disputed but pervasive claim to being the first camp meeting in America.” But according to McGready, the final sacrament at Muddy River exceeded that at Gasper River.

Revivals of various types “seemed to be popping up not only all over Kentucky but all over the United States in 1801.” Beginning in early May near the Licking River in northeastern Kentucky, there were a series of communion services leading up to the Cane Ridge service. Barton Stone, the minister of the Cane Ridge church, traveled to several of these, inviting those in attendance to come to his Cane Ridge communion beginning on Friday, August 6th. There had been anticipation for weeks before the service that Cane Ridge would not be “an ordinary summer sacrament.”

Services began on Friday, but rain held back the crowds. By Saturday, the roads were jammed with people traveling to Cane Ridge. The Saturday morning services were “reasonably quiet,” but by the afternoon, the preaching was continual, from both the meetinghouse and the tent. The excitement built, and before dark the noise from the cries and shouts of the penitent, mixed with the screaming of children and crying of babies and the neighing of horses led one visitor to refer to it as the roar of Niagra. “People could hear it as great distances.”

Although only ministers preached prepared sermons, or had allocated times to perform, literally hundreds of people served as exhorters at Cane Ridge. In the tumult the distinction between prepared sermons (with a theme or a text taken from the Bible and carefully developed points or arguments) and more spontaneous exhortations (extemporaneous or even impromptu practical advice, or tearful appeals or warnings) dissolved, particularly when outlying members of the audience could not even hear the sermons.

Some estimates have 20,000 to 30,000 people of all ages coming to the grounds around the Cane Ridge Meeting House on Saturday the 7th or Sunday the 8th of August. Conklin suggested that a more likely and more accurate estimate, mostly for logistical reasons, was there were at most 10,000 people on the grounds at one time. But he did acknowledge there could have been 20,000 at Cane Ridge at some point during the communion weekend and the following six days.

The majority of people at Cane Ridge were casual visitors or outsiders—those who came for the spectacle of the event. However, Conklin said this does not mean that all but a small minority was unresponsive to the religious content of the services. Many came to hear the preaching of able ministers besides observe the event and join in the excitement. While the communion service was orderly enough, the wildest exercises occurred outside the meetinghouse. Conklin said:

Outside, the groaning and falling continued. Some people experienced only weakened knees or a light head. . . . Others fell but remained conscious or talkative; a few fell into a deep coma, with the symptoms of a grand mal seizure or a type of hysteria. Crowds gathered around each person who swooned. Estimates of the number slain rose by Tuesday to 3,000, surely an exaggeration (more modest estimates ranged from 300 to 1,000).

A letter from a minister who was at Cane Ridge described the scene as follows:

Sinners dropping on every hand, shrieking, groaning, crying for mercy, convoluted; professors [of religion] praying, agonizing, fainting, falling down in distress, for sinners, or in raptures of joy! Some singing, some shouting, clapping their hands, hugging and even kissing, laughing; others talking to the distressed, to one another, or to opposers to the work, and all this at once—no spectacle can excite a stronger sensation.

Two ministers who went afterwards to assess the legitimacy of the revival in Kentucky and at Cane Ridge, Samuel McCorkle and George Baxter, had a sense that the extreme physical effects were incidental to what happened spiritually. Baxter has seen them in other revivals. However, McCorkle saw it was easier to be skeptical at a distance, as his own son was struck down in one of the meetings. While he was persuaded there could be a spiritual component to the extreme physical effects, McCorkle discounted the religious significance of the more violent exercises. “Sinners and saints were both susceptible.” McCorkle thought it was irresponsible for ministers to incite such exercises, since they were incidental to religious life.

Such “physical exercises” have occurred periodically within times of Christian revival before Cane Ridge and afterwards. The Cambuslang revival of 1742 and the Azusa Street Revival beginning on April 9, 1906 are two examples of physical exercises associated with times of revival. But the true test of a revival is not in the physical effects that occurred, but in the changed lives afterwards. George Baxter wrote to a fellow minister on January 1, 1802 that where Kentucky had been previously known for its debauchery, “I found Kentucky the most moral place I have ever been in.” Among the after effects of the Western revival, David Rice observed:

A considerable number of individuals appear to me to be greatly reformed in their morals. This is undoubtedly the case within the sphere of my particular acquaintance. Yea, some 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.

Ian Murray’s evaluation of the Kentucky revival in his book Revival and Revivalism noted parallels to Jonathan Edwards’ discussion of the Great Awakening. All awakenings are begun with the return of a profound conviction of sin. Many are brought from attitudes of indifference and cold formality to concern and distress so suddenly, that a temporary physical collapse could occur. By its very nature, a revival is bound to be accompanied by emotional excitement. Yet its progress, along with its abiding fruit and purity, is directly related to how such excitement is handled by its leaders.

When the degree of the Spirit’s work is measured by emotional strength, or when physical effects of any kind are considered proof of God’s action, fanaticism will follow. And those who adopt such beliefs suppose that any check on emotion or physical phenomena is equivalent to opposing the Holy Spirit. Murray concluded that the awakening in Kentucky was accompanied by the “chaff” of hysteria. He quoted Archibald Alexander of Princeton Seminary as saying:

It is not doubted, however, that the Spirit of God was really poured out, and that many sincere converts were made, especially in the commencement of the revival; but too much stress was laid on the bodily affections, which accompanied the work, as though these were supernatural phenomena, intended to arouse the attention of a careless world.


Swift as Lightning

© mayboro | stockfresh.combackground

© mayboro | stockfresh.combackground

Despite the opposition of the most influential resident of the parish, William M’Culloch became the minister at Cambuslang, Scotland on April 29th, 1730. He would remain as the minister of the church in Cambuslang until his death forty years later. M’Culloch was a capable and faithful minister, notable for his learning and piety, but he was not an eloquent preacher. Even his son said his father was not “a very ready speaker.” This lack of eloquence was significant for the “Cambuslang work” in 1742; it could not be attributed to his preaching. You never heard of Cambuslang? George Whitefield looked upon the “Cambuslang work” as the greatest revival he ever witnessed.

About five miles from Glasgow, the size of the Cambuslang parish was roughly 900 by 1742, and it had a long association with evangelical faith. M’Culloch would rise and study from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., allowing 2 or three hours for relaxation during that time. He also spent some of this time in private prayer. M’Culloch had been preaching on the doctrine of regeneration and newness of life to his congregation for about a year before the initial awakening in February of 1742. A narrative drawn up by M”Culloch in 1742 confirmed this practice.

After the Sunday evening sermon, M’Culloch would read to his congregation from the accounts of the ministry of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and others. A Narrative of Surprising Conversions, by Edwards, was first published in London in 1837. It described the process of Christian conversion and the beginning of the Great Awakening in Northampton Massachusetts. Whitefield’s Journals were first published separately between 1738 and 1741. George Whitefield had been on a preaching tour to America, which was covered in his fifth Journal. You can read a copy of D. MacFarlane’s The Revivals of the Eighteenth Century, which highlights Cambuslang here; and The Journals of George Whitefield here.

So the revival in Cambuslang came to an informed people. They had been reading and hearing about revival in other places, and were prayerfully hoping it would happen with them. For several months before the Cambuslang Awakening, M’Culloch preached to crowded congregations. There was a more than ordinary concern about religion evident among his people. Whitefield himself had preached in Scotland during the summer of 1741, but he had not yet been to Cambuslang.

M’Culloch wrote to Whitefield of the fruit of his work, noting where fifty persons were “savingly converted” through the power of his sermons in the Glasgow area. MacFarlane said that many of those who afterwards who were “brought under the power of the truth” at Cambuslang, spoke of these sermons by Whitefield as among the first means to awaken in them a concern for their salvation. M’Culloch noted the immediate visible fruits were seen in the visible reformation of former sinners. Some individuals who had been known for their swearing and cursing now didn’t.  Others who drank to excess were sober. Among the people, there was also a forgiveness of injuries, a making of restitution for harms done, and more.

An air of expectancy increased throughout the parish of Cambuslang as the winter of 1741 progressed. One woman was “much and oft” taken up in praying for a revival of Religion so that she seemed in a great measure to forget herself and her own concerns. Then on February 14th, a Sabbath, it began when a young woman of seventeen, Catherine Jackson, came under extreme conviction and distress, and was escorted from the service. M’Culloch counseled with her for about three hours afterwards. She had several semi-hysterical outbursts, convinced that her sins were too many to be received by Christ.

Catherine was finally calmed in prayer, saying that Christ had told her that He cast all her sins behind her back. There were many other people in the room, including several of her friends and her two sisters. Many of these others were also weeping and crying out. The next few days saw the repeat of similar circumstances of spiritual counseling. That Thursday, February 18th, M’Culloch preached on Jer. 23:6. About fifty men and women sought out the minister afterwards for prayer and conversation.

Afterwards, crowds of people came to Cambuslang. Sermons were provided almost daily. Several of the local ministers assisted M’Culloch in the teaching and exhorting of the ever-growing crowds. Other ministers traveled from distant parts of Scotland to participate in Cambuslang. Afterwards they sent attestations of the genuineness of the work to their own people. Whitefield was among the first to receive the news about Cambuslang. He hoped upon his return to Scotland to see “greater things than ever.” M’Culloch, in a letter to Whitefield at the end of April, said he was still holding daily sermons and longed to see Whitefield at Cambuslang. His hope was soon realized.

On Tuesday, July 6, Whitefield came to Cambuslang, and preached three times: at two, six and nine o’clock. The attendant commotion far outdid all he ever saw in America. The weeping and distress of the people—smitten by the scores—was beyond description. Whitefield likened it to a battlefield, where those struck were carried off and brought into the house like wounded soldiers. Throughout the entire night prayer and praise was still heard in the fields where Whitfield had preached. M’Culloch invited Whitefield to assist at the annual communion service scheduled to occur that weekend.

Whitefield preached to twenty thousand people on Saturday. He also preached on the Sabbath and again on Monday. Each day the crowd was approximately twenty thousand. Whitefield said on Monday, the motion passed “swift as lightning” from one end of the audience to the other. Thousands were bathed in tears; others wringing their hands; some almost swooning; others crying and mourning over a pierced Savior. The communion service was so impressive, that contrary to the church custom of yearly times of communion, Dr. Webster of Edinburgh, proposed that a second one be held soon. A decision was reached by the Cambuslang session of elders to again dispense the sacrament again on August 15th.

The second sacrament saw crowds even greater than at the first; upwards of 30,000 people came. For comparison, the estimated population of the city of Glasgow in 1740 was only 17,034! There were three thousand communicants, and another thousand who could not get tokens. Someone wanting to participate in the communion service but who was from another parish (and thus not known by the presiding minister) would receive a lead token from their own minister. The token represented them as a member in good standing and approved to receive communion by their own minister.

The Sunday worship began at 8:30 in the morning, and the last communion table was being served at sunset. One of the original Marrow Men, John Bonar, then 72, was present as an assisting minister. He was an ancestor of the distinguished Bonars of the eighteenth century: Horatius, John and Andrew. His health was so frail that it took him three days to ride the eighteen miles from his home to Cambuslang. This second communion was the high-water mark of the Cambuslang revival. Whitefield said: “Such a passover has never been heard of.” Whitefield thought it was the greatest revival he had ever witnessed.

The great scandal of religious enthusiasm during the Enlightenment, an Age of Reason, meant that the news about Cambuslang spread like wildfire. There were faintings, outcries, and “bodily agonies.” A nineteen year-old youth couldn’t walk or speak, and scarcely could draw his breath. A woman had pains under spiritual conviction akin to those of childbirth. Another woman frightened her poor husband when she roared out twice in a manner not like a human, after family devotions. She had trembling and a terrible thirst; smelled an odor she associated with the Bottomless Pit. A man said his body was almost taken off from the place where he was. He remained in this state about two hours, then had a vision akin to that of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, followed by another of a shower of manna.

Concern over the physical manifestations at Cambuslang raised the fear of the spirit of Quakerism, crypto-Camizards (French Prophets), or other enthusiastic sects. So the “Cambuslang Wark” was disparaged. In a testimony dated April 30, 1751, M’Culloch admitted that in 1742 there were many who fell under various bodily agitations and commotions. He stated that we cannot conclude that such persons were under the influence of the Spirit. These agitations could have been a result of the power of the imagination, or from a bodily disorder. He cautioned that no one should suspect themselves, merely because they had not experienced such effects.

Conversely, we cannot infer that the because of such effects, the cause was not divine. Referring to the crying out during worship, he said it was best to avoid extremes. Hearers should resist the urge if they can (and not disrupt the service).  Preachers should not encourage such expressions, nor rebuke them too severely. He noted how God had used such outcries to contribute to the awakening of others. He noted how some who tried to restrain themselves from crying out began bleeding from the mouth and nose, continuing for some time to the injury of their health and the alarm of all nearby. MacFarlan, author of Revivals of the Eighteenth Century, argued that tears, groaning, fainting and even strong bodily agitations should be expected effects to those brought to the conviction of their sin. He suggested that the crowds response at Pentecost was probably similar to that of Cambuslang; the bodily agitations are the natural effects of such feelings as are here expressed.

A true assessment of the reality of a revival is the fruit that it bears, and Cambuslang did have it. One example was evident to visitors of Cambuslang. They were impressed by the warm affection and sense of community found among the residents. Above we noted the changes in the live of sinners: the profane became reverent; the drunkards became sober. However, the telling fruit of any revival is the Christ-likeness of the participants: those who truly love Christ will do as he commands. On April 22, 1751, M’Culloch compiled a list of four hundred awakened in the 1742 revival, who had continued from then until their death, or until 1751 to behave in a good measure “as becometh the gospel.” He had been careful to gather his information by either personal observation, or written and verbal information from persons of established character who knew those of whom they report.

The above experiences at Cambuslang sound much like those associated with the Toronto Blessing of twenty years ago. But we should remember that Cambuslang happened in a time when the experience of high or intense “religious affections” was suspect; perhaps even more so than today. Additionally, they occurred within the context of a Presbyterian communion service. I think the following quote from Thoughts on the Revival, by Jonathan Edwards gives a balanced perspective on the existence and experience of these religious phenomena.

There is a great deal of difference in high and raised affections, which must be distinguished by the observer. Some are much more solid than others. There are many exercises of the affections that are very flashy, and little to be depended on; and oftentimes a great deal appertains to them, or rather is the effect of them. . . . that which sometimes more especially obtains the name of passion, is nothing solid or substantial. But it is false philosophy to suppose this to be the case with all exercises of affection in the soul, or with all great and high affections; and false divinity to suppose that religious affections do not appertain to the substance and essence of Christianity. On the contrary, it seems to me that the very life and soul of all true religion consists in them.