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History of the Kentucky Baptists
The Christian Repository, 1857
By Samuel H. Ford

Chapter X. - Extravagances of the Great Revival - Rise of the Reformation

It is saddening to trace in everything earthly, however exalted and holy, a mingling of folly and sin. "Now there came a day," says the inspired poet, "when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them." "If we look back," says Edwards, "into the history of the Church of God in past ages, we may observe that it has been a common device of the devil to overset a revival of religion, when he finds he can keep men quiet and secure no longer; then to drive them into excesses and extravagances. He holds them back as long as he can, but when he can do it no longer, if possible runs them upon their heads."

In these remarks is much truth; and never was it more fully or painfully illustrated than in the Great Revival of Kentucky.

The disorderly proceedings witnessed at most of the Presbyterian camp-meetings and places of worship, was in itself deplorable, and often shameful. At Walnut Hill, in 1803, after sermon, the people broke out into a loud burst of prayer, hundreds using their voices at the same time. While the preacher was praying for a woman, her voice rose louder than his; others, meanwhile, praying, singing, groaning, and shouting all around. Screams of anguish and terror would follow. The conscience, the passions, the feelings, the whole soul roused to the highest pitch of frenzied excitement, lost all command of the powers of the body; and as though struck by a bolt from heaven, men and women were prostrated to the earth. This was termed

THE FALLING EXERCISE - Reference has already been made to the first instances of the falling exercise in one of Mr. McGready's congregations. We have noticed the rapidity with which it was propagated through upper Kentucky.

"It was very common," says Mr. Stone, "among all classes, the saints and sinners, of every age, and of every grade, from the philosopher to the clown. The subject of this exercise would, generally with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead. I have seen very many pious persons fall in the same way from a sense of the danger of their unconverted children, their neighbors, and of a sinful world. I have heard them agonizing in tears and strong crying for mercy to be shown to sinners, and speaking like angels to all around."1

Some fell suddenly, and lay as dead. Others uttered piercing shrieks during the whole period of their prostration. Many spoke of a sweet feeling darting through their body preceding the falling down. Others complained of a numbness, and pricking, as of needles.2 In general, there was no complaint of pain, but only of great weakness, both during and after the paroxysm; and it was observed that a person, who had fallen once, was predisposed to fall again, and that under circumstances and exercises by no means extraordinary.3 While walking from the meeting-houses; while engaged in conversation on scenes which had transpired, or while on horseback, returning home, persons were frequently known to fall. Nor did bodily injury succeed. To strike a tree or stump in falling, produced no effect, and even when conscious, and talking or shouting, they were insensible to pain.

These exercises were not without precedent. They had occurred under the preaching of Whitefield, and Edwards, and others. They have been witnessed in our own day, and have fallen under our own observation. But peculiar to this revival was the phenomenon to be described -

THE JERKING EXERCISE. - It was without example in Christian lands. At a Presbyterian sacrament, in East Tennessee, it was first witnessed, when several hundred persons, of both sexes, were seized with these strange paroxysms. 4 The person was suddenly seized with a convulsive jerking, which threw his head from side to side, with such rapidity that the features of the face could not be distinguished. "When the whole system was affected," says Stone, "I have seen the person stand in one place and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, his head nearly touching the floor, behind and before. I have seen some wicked persons thus affected, and all the time cursing the jerks, while they were thrown to the earth with violence." The following graphic description is from an eye-witness, a Presbyterian minister, who participated in these scenes, and afterwards became their apologist:

"Nothing in nature could better represent this strange and unaccountable operation, than for one to goad another, alternately on every side, with a piece of red-hot iron. The exercise commonly began in the head, which would fly backward and forward, and from side to side, with a quick jolt, which the person would naturally labor to suppress, but in vain; and the more any one labored to stay himself, and be sober, the more he staggered, and the more his twitches increased. He must, necessarily, go as he was stimulated, whether with a violent dash on the ground, and bounce from place to place like a foot-ball, or hop round, with head, limbs, and trunk twitching and jolting in every direction, as if they must inevitably fly asunder. And how such could escape without injury, was no small wonder to spectators. By this strange operation the human frame was commonly so transformed and disfigured, as to lose every trace of its natural appearance. Sometimes the head would be twitched right and left, to a half round, with such velocity, that not a feature could be discovered, but the face appear as much behind as before; and in the quick progressive jerk, it would seem as if the person was transmuted into some other species of creature. Head dresses were of little account among the female jerkers. Even handkerchiefs bound tight round the head, would be flirted off almost with the first twitch, and the hair put into the utmost confusion; this was a very great inconvenience, to redress which the generality were shorn, though directly contrary to their confession of faith. Such as were seized with the jerks, were wrested at once, not only from under their own government, but that of every one else, so that it was dangerous to attempt confining them, or touching them in any manner, to whatever danger they were exposed; yet few were hurt, except it were such as rebelled against the operation, through willful and deliberate enmity, and refused to comply with the injunctions which it came to enforce."5

That these jerks were involuntary, is beyond all doubt. Persons were often known to conceal whips on their bodies, to use on those seized with the contortions, but were themselves suddenly affected in a similar manner, and the whips jerked out of their hands to a distance. Persons seeing others affected near them, have sought refuge in flight, but found it unavailing, and fell prostrate.

THE DANCING EXERCISE - This generally began with the jerks, and was peculiar to professors of religion. "The subject, after jerking, worships in concert with singing hymns and spiritual songs. The whole society, old and young, male and female, could commonly unite in this mode of worship, and taking each other by the hand, would shake, not only the hands, but their whole bodies, like one churning. This they called rejoicing, and in this worship they considered it the privilege of every one to unite who believed the new doctrine of atonement, according to the observation of Bro. Stone, when he first heard that doctrine stated."

Thus agreed are those eye-witnesses in their approval and description of the holy dance. It was performed by a gentle and not ungraceful motion, to a lively tune, and with little variety in the steps.

The writer, and doubtless many of his readers, have mingled in scenes very similar in kind, if not in degree, and witnessed exercises of the same character, though not carried to the same extravagant lengths. At meetings where there has been a sudden awakening , and a warm, unusual state of feeling, a lively song, sung and felt by the whole audience, is often accompanied by a waving motion of the body, and a movement of the head, hand, or feet, in unison with the accent, or inflections of the tune. I have seen this carried to such an extent that the whole audience moved backward and forward to the swell of the inspired song; and here and there a super-excited female would break the monotony, and sweep up and down the aisle in a kind of graceful dance. I have seen a dozen thus dancing at once. At the meetings of colored people it is frequently witnessed. Among Baptists such exercises are always discouraged. Among them, during the revival, it was rarely seen carried to fanatical excess. That it was encouraged by those educated Presbyterian preachers, Stone, McNemar, Thomson, and others, was at least indicative of the extremes, to which even cultivated men may suddenly pass, and the diverse and dangerous errors too which they were already tending.

THE BARKING EXERCISE - Nor was the acme of absurdity yet reached, or if it was the cap-chef of extravagance was still to be added. An old Presbyterian preacher, of East Tennessee, had gone into the woods for private devotion, and was seized with the "jerks." Standing near a sapling, he caught hold of it to prevent his falling; and as his head jerked backward and forward, he uttered a grunt or noise similar to the bark of a dog, while his face was turned upward. Some person finding him in this position, reported that he found him barking up a tree.6 The affection, or exercise, spread. The subject would take the position of a dog, moving about on all fours, growling and snapping with an emulation so natural, as to deceive any person whose eyes were not directed to the spot. Nor was this confined to the ignorant or vulgar, "but persons who considered themselves in the foremost ranks, possessed of the highest improvements of human nature, both men and women, were forced to personate that animal whose name, appropriated to a human creature, is counted the most vulgar stigma."7

The many other strange exercises need but an incidental mention. Laughter, such as still is witnessed among Cumberland Presbyterians, was frequent. "It was a loud, hearty laugh," says Stone, "but one sui generis; it excited laughter in none else."

"The running exercise was nothing more than that the persons feeling something of these bodily agitations, through fear attempted to run away, and thus escape from them."8

"The rolling exercise," says McNemar, "consisted in being cast down in a violent manner, doubled, with the head and feet together, and rolled over like a wheel, or stretched in a prostrate manner, turned swiftly over and over, like a log."

"The singing exercise," says Stone, (and with him agree Stuart, Lyle, Dunlavy, and McNemar) "was more unaccountable than anything else I ever saw. The subject, in a very happy state of mind, would sing melodiously, not from the mouth, or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such music silenced everything, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None ever could be tired of hearing it. Dr. J. B. Campbell and myself were together at a meeting, and were attending to a pious lady thus exercised, and concluded it to be something surpassing anything we had known in nature."

VISIONS AND TRANCES - There is a great lesson taught in the constant recurrence of extremes meeting, or one extreme being abandoned for its most distant opposite. Those exercises mentioned, and attributed to the extraordinary agency of the spirit, were followed, in almost every case, by a rebound, which in many instances, reached a positive denial of the personal agency and operation of the Spirit in any way. To those who fell, or were filled with the joy of the Spirit, it was believed something like divine illumination was imparted. As the subject awakened to consciousness, with shoutings and exhortations, in strains supposed to be far beyond their ordinary ability, it was at once attributed to the Spirit's direct inspiration. "While in raptures, quite out of the body, they professed not only to have interviews with departed friends, but to have learned the allotments of life, the results of different meetings, the persons who would fall, and the ministers who should preach." The sun, moon, and stars, mountains, rivers, plains, seen in rapt vision, were at once interpreted and applied to the kingdom of Christ. "Some saw the air darkened with flocks of ravenous birds, commissioned to devour the carcasses of all dead beasts." To the intense gaze of another, "a track of light, a thousand miles in length, was seen stretching away in the distance, along which messengers were approaching, bring news from afar."

"It was very common for them to be caught up, or carried away by the same spirit of faith, and be shown, in bright and heavenly visions, the indisputable reality of what they before contemplated in a simple belief." * * * * "Others, in their transports, would seem to use their clay tenement as a kind of instrument to sign out of and represent to the spectators what the active spirit saw in vision, independent of any of its mean organs. The general import of their visions respected things that we darkly hinted at in the Scriptures, and hard to be understood."

Of the philosophy of those exercises I venture no opinion. I have often witnessed, frequently under my own ministry, exercises similar to some of those described. While preaching in Missouri, some sixteen years since, in a crowded house, and in a warm, hortatory manner, I saw a man, of middle age, sink on his knees at his seat, with sobs and profuse weeping. Immediately a female, who had seen his agitation, rose and in piercing accents, exclaimed "Jesus, Jesus have mercy!" She immediately fell, apparently lifeless. The scene alarmed and embarrassed me. I was but a youth, and had seen nothing of this character previously. I ceased preaching, and sat down. James Suggett, an aged man, formerly pastor at Great Crossing, Ky., who had passed through the Great Revival in Kentucky, was with me in the pulpit. He immediately struck up a hymn, after which he invited mourners to come forward. Many came up, and the meeting passed off as usual. Had we endeavored to excite further the deep state of feeling in the audience, or encouraged its manifestation, perhaps scores might have fallen, and wild extravagance followed. On other occasions I have witnessed a state of feeling in a congregation where the most solemn silence reigned, which, if exhibited fully in words or exercises, would, doubtless, have resulted in excitement or wild confusion. The action of mind on mind, the painful effects of sympathy, the influence of the feelings and passions on the body -- of fear, horror, hope, sorrow, joy, on the whole nervous system -- we may often have witnessed, but we are unprepared to explain. Claxton, the door-keeper of Congress dropped dead at the news of Cornwallis' capture. A Greek expired with joy on learning that his two sons were crowned victors in the games. Fear blanches the cheek, often checks the whole circulation. The heart, that bounds beneath the light of new-found joy, may almost cease its beatings when smitten with sudden sadness. Horror, or ecstasy has, in a single night, frosted over the raven hair of youth. And yet who dare doubt, that in such cases, the joy or grief was real, because of those effects? Our passions, our sympathies, the influence of the mind on the body who can comprehend?

"We are such stuff as dreams are made of."
Man is an unfathomable, mysterious being. A word brings moisture to his eye, a rush of blood to his cheek, or sends a chill through his whole frame. Who can account for it? I shall not make the attempt. The person's previous mental habits; his want of habitual control over his emotions; the encouragement to permit his feelings to sweep on unchecked; the power of sympathy, as corresponding emotions, are manifested by those around him; all these must be taken into account in passing judgment on such fanatical exhibitions as frequently characterize great revivals. A man who stands pale and motionless as marble when sentence of death is being passed on him, may feel as deeply as another who trembles, shrieks, and swoons. Many a strong man has wept for hours in private, whose eye never quailed before man, or was never moistened with a tear. In public, his emotions were held in abeyance; when all restraint was removed an out-gush of feeling followed. In those exciting meetings, among a population unused to any rigid control of feeling, with their fears and hopes thoroughly awakened, their deepest, strongest powers roused, and then encouraged by the most stirring appeals not to stifle their emotions, or "quench the Spirit," and at the same time conscious of guilt, and alarmed for eternity, some enthusiasm might be expected, and accounted for. But for all we have recounted, no apology can be offered but the weakness and mysteriousness of poor human nature.

To the general effects of this revival, attention must now be directed. That great good results from it, cannot be denied. Among the Baptists, I have given some of the results. "This revival," says an eminent writer,9 "was a death-blow to infidelity throughout this Valley. Not a few continued infidels and scoffers, but they were shorn of their strength. So many of their number had been converted, some of whom became efficient preachers of the gospel; that infidelity could no longer boast. It was a turning scale in public morals. A great and manifest change was wrought. We have once alluded to the wild and reckless habits of South Green River, in Kentucky. For more than a quarter of a century that part of the State has been distinguished for its moral and religious influence. "But every part of the Mississippi Valley feels the effects." Numerous, indeed, are the testimonies that might be here transcribed to the great and lasting effects of this revival.

But as I have tried to mark the differences in the circumstances, origin, and exercises of the revival among the Baptists and Presbyterians, I shall further trace its different results among these denominations. Its immediate effects on the Baptists will be principally confined to the history of the Elkhorn Association. Among the Presbyterians its consequences must be followed along the line of New Lights, on the one hand, and Shakerism on the other, passing over what is termed the Cumberland schism.

B. W. Stone, Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, Richard McNemar, John Thomson, and David Purviance - among the most active during the excitements of the revival, and each of them ever after the apologist for its extravagances -- broke the trammels of Presbyterianism; threw the Confession, with all "man-made creeds, overboard, and took the name, Christian." And "from this period," says the venerable Stone, "I date the commencement of that Reformation which has progressed to this day." At this period, and amid these circumstances, we date its birth and its growth, of which it will be our next business to speak. Nor can a calm survey of its history, its progress, its defeats, and its triumphs, if fairly conducted, give an offence. Indeed, such a survey will remove many prejudices which still exist, and lead to a better understanding among parties who, for half a century, have been waging an exterminating warfare. To effect peace, and not to kindle into flames old and smouldering animosities, in the prayer and the hope of him who will, in the next chapter, commence "the History of the Reformation in Kentucky."


1 Stone's Biography, page 39.
2 Lyle, page 20.
3 Lyle, as quoted by Davidson, page 441.
4 Dr. Clelland Bibb, Rep. Vol. VI, p. 348.
5 McNemar, pp. 61, 62.
6 Stone, p. 41.
7 McNemar, p. 66.
8 Stone, p. 41.
9 J. M. Peck, Christian Repository, Vol. XVII, p. 513.


[From Samuel H. Ford, editor, The Christian Repository, January, 1857, pp. 5-13. The footnotes are changed to endnotes; symbols are changed to numbers. - Jim Duvall]

Chapter Eleven
Ford's Kentucky Baptist History
Baptist History Homepage