Baptist History Homepage

Kentucky Baptist History -- 1770-1922
By William D Nowlin

Chapter 5 -- The Great Revival of 1800

[p. 62]

In the great revivals between 1797 and 1812, especially in Kentucky, most marked mental and spiritual phenomena appeared, such as "the Jerks," "The falling exercise," etc.

The first instance noted was in 1797, under the preaching of McGready and McGree, Presbyterian ministers. From thence it spread rapidly over Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, and soon became inseparable from the" camp meetings," then so popular throughout the country. The following account is taken from Anti-Missionism (17-19) by Dr. B. H. Carroll, Jr.:
"Some fell suddenly as if struck by lightning, while others were seized with a universal tremor the moment before, and fell shrieking. Piercing shrieks were uttered by many during the whole period of prostration, intermingled with groans, cries for mercy, and exclamations of "Glory to God!" In general there was no complaint of pain, but of general weakness during and after the paroxysms. Women would fall while walking to and from the meeting-house, engaged in narrating past exercises, or drop from their horses on the road. In this condition the subject would lie fifteen minutes or two or three hours; and we are even told of a woman's lying, without eating or speaking, for nine days and nights. Some were more or less convulsed, and wrought hard in frightful nervous agonies, the eyes rolling widely. But the greater number were quite motionless, as if dead or about to expire in a few moments. Some were capable of conversing, others were not. During the syncope, and even when conscious and talking on religious topics., the subject was insensible of pain. Vinegar

[p. 63]
and hartshorn were applied with no perceptible effects. . . . During the great camp meeting at Cane Ridge, August 6, 1801, three thousand were computed to have fallen.

"A similar affection to this was 'the jerking exercise,' or as it was commonly called, 'the jerks.' In this exercise the subject was instantaneously seized with spasms or convulsions in every muscle, nerve and tendon. His head was jerked from side to side with such rapidity that it was impossible to distinguish his visage, and the most lively fears were entertained lest he should dislocate his neck, or dash out his brains. His body partook of the same impulse, and was hurried on by jerks over every obstacle, fallen trunks of trees, or, in a church, over pews and benches, apparently to the most imminent danger of being bruised and mangled. It was useless to attempt to restrain or hold him, and the paroxysm was permitted gradually to exhaust itself.

"Wicked men were often taken with these strange exercises, and many would curse the jerks while they were under their singular operation. Some were taken at the tavern with a glass of liquor in their hands, which they would suddenly toss over their heads or to a distant part of the room. Others were taken with them at the card table, and at other places of dissipation, and would by a violent and unaffected jerk throw a handful of cards allover the room.

"The rolling exercise, the running exercise, the; dancing exercise, the barking exercise, the laughing exercise, and visions and trances were frequent concomitants of camp meetings in Kentucky and Tennessee during the great revival. These exercises were simply such variations of the foregoing as their names would naturally suggest."
It is generally conceded by historians that the Baptists declined to join in general camp meetings, and were therefore but little affected by these strange phenomena. "In 1800, in Kentucky, the statistics compared with those of 1799 show a falling off of 100 per cent in Baptist membership
[p. 64]
in proportion to increase in population," says Spencer. This was the ten years just prior to the great revival. The ten years just following the revival -- 1800 to 1810 -- show a great Baptist gain. Doctor Spencer says, "The revival of 1800. was one of the most wonderful events of modern times. It appeared more like the sudden conversion of a nation than the regeneration and reformation of individuals." After telling of the marvelous manifestations in the jerks, rolling, jumping, dancing, etc., Doctor Spencer says, "Doubtless there were many people truly converted," but he adds, "it is equally certain that great evil resulted." This, of course, would be expected. Periods of great religious excitement are often prolific of much evil.

According to Spencer Baptists took but little part in these camp meetings where there was wild excitement. In fact, he says "they joined in only one of these union meetings so far as is known." Again he says, "It is certain that the Baptists in Kentucky were generally exempt from the excesses of the great revival of 1800 that so sorely afflicted the Presbyterians. And instead of its resulting in discord, it healed the only schism there was among them." (Spencer, Vol. I, p. 536.)

There were other good results. "The revival had an especially happy effect on the Baptists in disposing them to make more effort to heal some unhappy divisions that existed among them, and in enlarging the spirit of missions. Hitherto their missionary operations had been confined to sending their ministers to look after their destitute brethren in Kentucky and in the adjacent borders of Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio. But in 1801, at the meeting of Elkhorn Association, which comprised one-third of the Baptists in the state; and probably more than two-thirds of their wealth and influence, a request came up from South Elkhom Church 'to send mis- sionaries to the Indian nations'" (Spencer, Vol. I, p. 543). As a result of this request a committee was
[p. 65]
appointed to take charge of the matter, and at leaet one missionary was sent out, for the records show that "John Young was approved by the committee and sent as a missionary to the Indians."

In the account of this revival, given by Mr. Roosevelt ("The Winning of the West," Vol. VI, p. 175), after saying many of the so-called converts went back into utter unbelief and sinful practices worse than the ones they had given up, he adds, "Nevertheless, on the whole there was an immense gain for good. The people received a new light, and were given a sense of moral responsibility such as they had not previously possessed. Much of the work was done badly, or was afterwards undone, but very much was really accomplished."

Weare very much inclined to agree with Mr. Roosevelt at this point. While there were wild excesses and evil results, there was much good on the whole accomplished by this great revival. The spiritual interest and gain in membership in our churches indicate this.

[William D. Nowlin, Kentucky Baptist History, 1922, pp. 62-65. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

Go to next chapter
Baptist History Homepage