Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer
Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: Revivalism to the Rescue
Excited students at Yale College gathered in a dormitory room to plan their strategy for victory. It was the opening fall term of the year 1795. A new president of Yale, Rev. Timothy Dwight, had recently been installed. Given their annual opportunity to select a subject for public debate, the students picked a topic which they were certain would be rejected. It was, "Are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament the Word of God?"
The students were astonished and full of glee when the new president accepted the proposed subject for debate. Never before had they been allowed to pick so radical a subject. The "poor new president" simply did not understand what he had done! He was giving the young deist students an opportunity to prove the foolishness of the Bible and so of Christianity.
Calling to each other in names adopted from deist writers, they gathered their forces for one great onslaught on revealed religion. They would show what would happen if a deist were given a free chance to state his views publicly and fully! This had to be an airtight case, so they worked feverishly and hard. Students ran in and but of the room with the writings of Tom Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau, and D’Alembert. They carefully perused the Scriptures, noting instances of supposed contradiction. They scrutinized the doctrines of the Christian religion, attempting to show their absurdity.
Finally they were prepared. The big day arrived. All the students and faculty were present for the annual debates. Mr. Dwight reminded the students that they were encouraged to take whichever side they wished; nobody would be held responsible for upholding the negative side. In fact they were encouraged to do so for the sake of debate. The students smiled and winked at each other. If only this naïve new president knew what was in store for him!
So the debate commenced. Student after student presented and upheld the view that the Old and New Testaments could not be called the Word of God. They pointed to the language difficulty. Why would God choose to speak in any one specific language which might easily be misunderstood? Even translation was not always satisfactory as it did not always convey the original sense of a passage. Would an almighty God who wished to make known his will choose such an uncertain method? Furthermore, they cried, just look at all the strange fables, impossible miracles, terrible murders, and atrocities on the pages of the Scriptures. How could this be the Word of God?
Mr. Dwight stood up. A large, distinguished gentleman, he carried his weight with dignity. As he glanced about the room straining to catch the expressions on his students’ faces, they recognized a scholar who was almost blind from long hours of study. Starting with a sincere compliment to the students for their attempt to explore the question, he proceeded to a thorough discussion of the issue. He had little difficulty in demolishing every argument of the students. He demonstrated how God had revealed his will in Scripture for the edification of the Church; he pointed to millions of people who had found God there, in their changed lives, and in the supremacy of Christian truth over all other forms of truth.
The students were astonished! Never had they heard such a full, frank, and reasonable discussion of the problem. Deism was defeated. Lyman Beecher, great Congregational preacher, wrote later of Dwight’s impact on the student body:
"Before he came college was in a most ungodly state. The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling, and licentiousness were common. . . .
"That was the day of infidelity of the Tom Paine school. Boys that dressed flax in the barn, as I used to, read Tom Paine and believed him; I read and fought him all the way. Never had any propensity to infidelity. But most of the class before me were infidels and called each other Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, etc."
Six months of steady preaching against deism helped to strengthen the cause of Christianity at Yale. But many boys still were not positively converted to the Christian religion. In 1798 some of the students took the Bible from the Yale chapel and never returned it.
Meanwhile revivals began to sweep New England and spread to include both churches and schools. These new revivals also included a political interest. Dwight and other preachers combated French infidelity, imported through Tom Paine, and its supposed results in Jefferson’s political party. Revivalists argued that good morality, good government, and a proper understanding of Christianity went together. Any who supported Jefferson supported deism and thus supported an irreligious movement.
Thus they tried to rally the people around revival Christianity and the Federalist political party which opposed Jefferson. The revivals were successful in gaining converts but unsuccessful in politics. Jefferson won and the nation was not destroyed morally. As a matter of fact, it grew and expanded.
Within Massachusetts and Connecticut, the stronghold of the old-type Puritans, the Congregational Church was still established by law and supported by public taxation. With the victory of the Jeffersonian party, first in the nation and then in the states, the Congregationalists were in danger of being cut off from State support. Dwight and Beecher argued that infidelity and Jeffersonianism would destroy Christianity in the State and open the door to unmorality. So the revivals once more became a means of winning Christians to fight the disestablishment of the Church.
Lyman Beecher painted a terrible picture of what would happen if infidels won the election:
"Thus would political atheism suspend the kind attraction of heaven upon us, and let out the storm of guilty passion and, by one disastrous move from stem to stern, make a clear breach over us, sweeping away what patriots and Christians and heaven have done to render us happy."
He argued that the Jeffersonian plea for the equality of men was a false plea. The poor could be protected only on the basis of revealed religion.
"My beloved countrymen: If there is an eye in the universe that pities you, or a heart that feels for you, or a hand stretched out for your protection especially, it is the eye and the heart and the hand of heaven -- it is your cause that the Christian revelation espouses. . . . It is the Bible, and the Sabbath, and the preaching of the gospel, and the schools, and the virtue, and the enterprise, and the equality which Christianity creates which dispel the darkness and open the prison door, and knock off the chains, and break off the yoke, and take off the burdens, which have in all nations and ages been the lot of persons in your condition."
Up and down Connecticut and Massachusetts rode the best revivalists. A systematic plan was worked out whereby both states were to be covered by revivals. They were conducted with zeal and sobriety. Their aim was to produce stable, moral, and enlightened Christians. But their plan failed. In 1819, Connecticut cut off the tax support for the Congregational Church, and in 1833, Massachusetts did likewise. Religious liberty and separation of Church and State had finally won!
Meanwhile the eastern revivalists found another battle on their hands. From within the bosom of the Congregational Church, a group of men around Boston gradually worked out a position that was contrary to the general Christian belief concerning God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. These new men were later named Unitarians because they believed that God was one and that therefore Jesus as the Christ was not both full God and full man. They argued that they were more concerned with the reasonableness of Christian beliefs and with a decent moral life.
The Congregationalists replied that such a misinterpretation of Jesus as the Christ would eventually destroy true Christian religion and true morality. Again revivals were called to the rescue! In order to win back people in and around Boston, Lyman Beecher invaded Boston and preached a series of impressive revival sermons in which he upheld the usual understanding of the Christian faith.
The success of the eastern revival was considerable. Unitarianism was confined largely to the Boston area. Deism was stopped. Students at the colleges and universities were converted and great numbers again presented themselves for the ministry. Within six months, 75 out of 235 students at Yale were converted.
While the eastern revivals were slowly getting under way in the 1790’s, religion out on the frontier was facing dark days. Not only was deism posing a threat, but also the problem of distance was proving difficult.
Before the Churches could make an impact on the frontier they had to contact the people. But before people could really be touched by the gospel, they had to be brought into groups. The small towns dotting the frontier were not favorable to religion. They were hideouts for men fleeing from justice.
Peter Cartwright, famous Methodist circuit rider, tells of his boyhood days in Kentucky:
"Logan County, when my father moved to it, was called ‘Rogues’ Harbor.’ Here many refugees, from almost all parts of the Union, fled to escape justice or punishment; for although there was law, yet it could not be executed, and it was a desperate state of society. Murderers, horse thieves, highway robbers, and counterfeiters fled here until they combined and actually formed a majority. The honest and civil part of the citizens would prosecute these wretched bandits, but they would swear each other clear; and they really put all law at defiance and carried on such desperate violence and outrage that the honest part of the citizens seemed to be driven to the necessity of uniting and combining together, and taking the law into their own hands under the name of Regulators. This was a very desperate state of things."
How could the Church prosper under such conditions? People were spread out over great spaces, miles apart. Indians, though defeated in great battles, still lurked in small, marauding bands. Criminals collected in frontier towns threatened the security of the farmers and other honest citizens. So distance and solitude were not the only hazards faced by the Churches.
Such people and such conditions could be met only with a gospel that hit head on. The revival preacher was the answer. But revivals were nothing new in the Churches. For many years ministers had preached with the primary object of convicting people of their sin and of showing the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ.
These sermons were direct and to the point. They painted a picture of sin, death, damnation, and salvation in bold strokes and with lurid colors. The results were astounding. People would be stricken with remorse and cry out for mercy. Often their lives would be completely changed as a result of the experience. This was the form of gospel that appealed to the frontiersman.
One of the men who helped to bring revivalism to the frontier was James McGready, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian. A powerful preacher who was famous for his eloquence and zeal, he traveled in the Carolinas converting sinners to the new life. Though not an impressive-looking man, his voice had an unearthly, somewhat ghostly tremor and his piercing eyes would not let one sinner rest.
Hear him as he exhorts his listeners:
"The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’
"He died accursed of God when his soul was separated from his body and the black flaming vultures of hell began to encircle him on many sides. Then all the horrid crimes of his past life stared him in his face in all their glowing colors. . . . The remembrance of misimproved sermons and sacramental occasion flashed like streams of forked lightning through his tortured soul; then the reflection that he had slighted the mercy and blood of the Son of God . . . was a poisoned arrow piercing his heart. When the fiends of hell dragged him into the eternal gulf, he roared and screamed and yelled like a devil. Then while Indians, pagans, and Mohammedans stood amazed and upbraided him, falling like Lucifer . . . sinking into the liquid, boiling waves of hell, and accursed sinners of Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah sprang to the right and left and made way for him to pass them and fall lower down even to the deepest cavern in the flaming abyss. Here his consciousness like a never-dying worm stings him and forever gnaws his soul; and the slighted blood of the Son of God communicates ten thousand hells in one. Now through the blazing flames of hell he sees that heaven he has lost. . . . In those pure regions he sees his father, or mother, his sisters, or brothers, or those persons who sat under the same means of grace with him, and whom he derided as fools, fanatics, and hypocrites. . . . They shine brighter than the sun when he shineth in his strength and walk the golden streets of the New Jerusalem; but he is lost and damned forever."
Sinners cried out for help -- some wept, others moaned, many were stricken in conscience and determined to follow the Lord. So the revivalist preacher made his impact. Many centuries previous a great scholar, Anselm of Canterbury, had used the identical text as a basis for an elaborate and very intelligent discourse to prove the existence of God. Now, on the frontier, the same text became the basis of a highly charged emotional appeal to leave off cursing, swearing, and sinning, and to accept the Lord Jesus Christ.
Up and down the frontier valleys, over the mountains, into the woods, traveled the preachers. Always their approach was the same -- appeal to the raw feelings of the frontiersmen, move them to repentance, and offer the redeeming love of God in Christ. Their message was heard.
Soon large numbers of people were converted. Little congregations and churches were gathered. What did it matter that often the believers had to walk ten miles each Sabbath? They had been called by the Lord! Indifference, deism, and hostility were attacked. The Church would not surrender or forget the masses on the frontier.
Just as the Great Revival was getting under way in the west, around 1800, the frontier developed a new form for the revivals. Because people sometimes had to travel several miles to reach the place where the preaching took place, they could not leave early enough to return home the same night. Therefore they began to bring equipment for camping on the spot. Also, the Presbyterians encouraged such activity by their great outdoor "sacramental meetings," which lasted several days. Soon there developed what were called "camp meetings." People would come from miles around and bring provisions for several days.
One of the first such meetings occurred in July, 1800, at Gasper River in Kentucky. The meeting started on Friday, continued during Saturday, and that evening nobody went to bed. Instead, the whole camp was swept by an outbreak of repentance and confession.
First, people discussed quietly among themselves. Soon the earnest conversation spread like a flame from group to group. The excitement and tension mounted. People began to cry out. Old men and women, little children, young folks, parents -- all began to cry for mercy. Turning and twisting, wringing their hands, beating their breasts, they struggled to be released from sin and to experience the new birth in Christ.
All night the ministers and converted Christians rushed about the camp praying and exhorting. In the darkness of the night, broken by the flaming campfires and the smoking torches, strange shadows reached out from the surrounding forest -- the probing fingers of the evil one trying desperately to clutch the sinners striving for release. Here and there a cry of victory broke through the moaning as a saint was born.
Nobody slept. On Sunday several ministers again mounted the rough platform and led the singing with great booming voices. Again the people fell to praying and preaching. Nobody wanted to cease praying, singing, exhorting, and listening. Even food was forgotten for the time.
Finally, all participated in the Lord’s Supper -- the great culmination of the meeting. Large numbers had been won for the Lord. The violence and indifference of the frontier had met its match. The camp meeting was a new way to preach the gospel. Henceforth the church building was to play a different role on the frontier. No longer was it to be so much the place where sinners were convicted. Rather, it became the place to which converted saints returned in order to show the effect of their religious experience.
The camp meeting, born of the necessities of the frontier, soon grew to be a regular part of the frontier life. In place of the earlier haphazard, unplanned meetings, the camp meeting arose controlled by the ministry and used as an instrument to further the Lord’s work. It was employed by all the large frontier Churches -- the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians. It spread from Kentucky to the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and to Ohio. From there it went to the entire midwest.
The largest of these early camp meetings was held in August, 1801, at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. It was jointly sponsored by the Methodists and Presbyterians. For several months before this great meeting other meetings had been held in the area; thus, many were looking forward to Cane Ridge. The meeting was to begin on Friday and end on Wednesday.
On Thursday the roads leading to Cane Ridge were crowded with horses, wagons, and people. From miles away one could see clouds of dust arising as the long, slow columns wound through the passes and over the bumpy roads. All trails led to Cane Ridge. People poured in from Ohio, from Tennessee, and from every section of Kentucky. Age made no difference -- the entire family, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest baby, was brought along. The frontier was alive with people on the march.
As the wagons rolled into camp, greetings were shouted to friends and relatives. Many were meeting for the first time in months or years. Soon the wagons were directed into position as the camp site was laid out in sections. Most brought their own provisions, but special wagons carried extra provisions for those who had not planned ahead.
While wagons, horses, and people arrived, many men were busy constructing platforms in various strategic places. They were rough stands erected for the purpose of preaching. In addition to these there was the meetinghouse, which was a permanent structure. Freshly felled logs also provided places for exhortation.
On Friday the preaching began. Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist ministers took turns exhorting; while some preached, others prayed. As the crowds grew, several preachers would hold forth simultaneously in different parts of the camp. Over twenty-five ministers were busily engaged. In addition many lay people also exhorted.
Soon people began to cry for mercy. The revival took hold as hundreds were confronted by their sins. All day the excitement mounted. When not shouting and praying, people and ministers sang hymns, and during the singing they often turned to their neighbors and shook hands indicating the right hand of fellowship.
It was an impressive sight to see a great mass of people swaying and pumping hands as they shouted in song:
"‘Without Thy sweet mercy, I would not live here;
"‘Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Or, again, a favorite line in a hymn that had mighty effect on the people was:
"Take your companion by the hand,
On into the night the revival moved, never ceasing. Some fell exhausted, others sought out their tents and wagons for a few hours’ rest. But others were always up and about. Preachers took turns and gave each other rest. As the days wore on people continued to stream into the camp and participated in the movement. There was no letup.
Nobody knows exactly how many people attended. Probably it was between 12,000 and 20,000. No exact count of conversions was kept, but it was several thousand. Around 800 people were permitted to attend the great Communion service. Truly, it was one of the greatest revivals in the history of the Church.
How did it affect the people? The religion of the frontier was the same as the rest of frontier life. It was uninhibited, emotional, and extremely personal, lacking all formality. Because the people were under constant threats of danger and so under great emotional strain, their emotions were released with joyous abandon in their religious services.
To be convicted of sin meant to be struck down by the wrath of God. These were not idle words to the frontiersman; they were an actual experience. As sinners listened to the revival preaching they actually fell to the floor, sometimes with great sighs and moaning, sometimes in complete silence. Usually the person would utter a piercing shriek and fall to the ground. Others would follow until great numbers were so affected.
While lying on the ground some would be as stiff as logs, as if in a trance, not speaking and hardly breathing. Others would continue to shout and shriek until completely exhausted and no power remained to whisper. Still other convicted sinners while lying on the ground often began to preach in a loud voice and could not stop. They would keep on so shouting for hours without ceasing. One man testified that the finest sermon that he had ever heard came from a person so stricken. Other strange reactions were those of barking like a dog or jerking violently until exhausted.
All the English-speaking groups in the west were soon influenced by revivalism. It moved out of Kentucky and Tennessee north of the Ohio River and west into the great Northwest Territory. Everywhere in the west the camp meetings were being developed and used. A new way had been found to bring the gospel to the west.
Revivalism enabled the Churches to reach great masses of frontier people and to win them for their own. Nobody was automatically a member of the Church in America. Either each person or family was won to the Church and kept in it by persuasion or the Church had no members. There was no compulsory membership by state law; there was only voluntary membership by consent. The revivals and camp meetings became the means whereby the Churches won masses of people and turned them from indifference and infidelity.
The camp meeting was not only of religious significance, it also played another role in the frontier. It enabled people to gather together under a common program to share their deepest emotions and convictions. This, frontiersmen needed. For too many months they were shut off from friends and neighbors with little or no opportunity to share their experiences. Thus camp meetings were also an important social institution in the west.
Another result of the Great Revival was the emergence of one of the most distinctive features of American Protestantism. It was highly emotional, almost anti-intellectual. What was of most importance for the revivalist was a gripping emotional experience. If one deeply felt his conversion, if one shed tears, or one had been stricken down, or if one had been possessed by the jerks, then chances were that one was converted.
This stress on the emotions of the believers was vastly different from the religion that prevailed in the east. When Dwight and Beecher carried on revivals they kept close control over the congregation. Yet the difference was one of degree rather than of kind. The average eastern clergyman, though well-educated, depended as much on the place of the emotions in conversion as did the frontier clergyman. The difference was that the former saw them as one part of a total religious life and expressed them in a more restrained manner while the latter was inclined to view bodily reactions as the very heart of the religious life.
There was something both good and bad in the emotionalism of the revivals. It was good insofar as it was the only possible religious approach for the frontiersman. It was of a piece with the rest of his life. It was not something foreign or forced. It was the genuine reaction of people deeply committed to the message they heard. It marked a full and complete response. There was little intellectual side to their faith because there was little intellectual life on the frontier. There was much theological disputation but little arbitration in terms of doctrinal consistency or proper Biblical exegesis.
The emotionalism was also very dangerous because it could easily be turned aside from a religious expression to a purely sensual expression. Ministers had to be careful at camp meetings lest rowdies and others would take advantage of the emotionalism and promote immorality. This, howeve; seldom happened. The real danger was that the stress on emotions could become so basic that all other sides of the religious life could be ignored. After all, the gospel spoke to the entire man, not just to part of the man. Revivalism could easily find that side of the frontiersman which readily responded, but could it carry him beyond his emotional state? The ministers attempted to do this through the tracts and books they distributed on the frontier, but their own inclination as well as the literature stressed the emotional and the moral aspects of the religious life.
Because revivalism reduced everything to a matter of simple choice -- Christ or the devil, sin or goodness, infidelity or faith -- it both answered the needs of western people and made it very difficult for them to pass on to a deeper understanding of the religious life. Faith was not always a simple matter of choice. One’s whole past life formed one’s decisions. To be sure, under the great emotional stimulus of the camp meeting one might be able to break through the past and to decide for God. But what happened when the emotional appeal was not present?
Simplifying the issues through emotional appeals made choices easier, but it overlooked many basic problems. It ignored the responsibility of the Christian faith to address current intellectual difficulties. It centered only on moral results. The consequence was that it was extremely successful in meeting the needs of the frontier, but it produced a spirit in American Christianity that made it difficult for Christianity to shift its emphasis in the face of new frontiers.
Thus its greatest success also produced its greatest temptation. The truly converted man was one who lived a moral life -- this meant that he did not smoke, drink, dance, or swear. These were the great evils of the frontier. Whisky was almost as common as water. The little country store usually had a great barrel of whisky with a tin cup on a chain hanging on the side. It provided the refreshment.
Converted Christians gave up completely all those evils of the frontier life. There was no such thing as moderation in these matters. If one did them even a little, he was a sinner. So sin was identified with such things as drinking, smoking, and dancing; righteousness was identified with abstinence from such actions. The whole thrust of revivals was to get results in the moral life. This could be done only by converting individual souls. Thus revivalism was not concerned so much with theology or with the structure of society; it was concerned with personal morality and personal conversion.
The Great Revival spread across all denominational borders. Because it appealed to individuals and to morality it overlooked theological differences between different Churches; thus, it led to co-operation among all revivalist Christians. The revivals reached their peak by 1806 and slowly died out until the ember was kept glowing only by sporadic outbreaks.
But revivalism would not disappear from the American scene, and it would not be displaced. On a beautiful autumn morning of 1821 a tall distinguished-looking young lawyer, Charles G. Finney, slowly walked down the street of Adams, New York, on his way to the woods. His head was bent in deep thought as he turned the corner and disappeared down the country road. In the woods this proud young man fell on his knees and spent the whole time until dinner in prayer. He was going through the struggle of conversion.
As he trudged back to town, he still was not certain of his spiritual state. But that evening in the back of his law office he fell to his knees and wept a great flood of tears, uttering choked confessions of his unworthiness. He surrendered to the Lord.
When he returned to the front room, he said: "The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not explain it any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings."
Finney had experienced justification by faith. No longer depending upon his own merit, he threw himself on God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ. As a result he determined to enter the ministry and to give up the practice of law. He had been retained as an attorney to represent a deacon in a law case. That very day he informed the man:
"Deacon B---- , I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause, and I cannot plead yours."
"What do you mean? " asked the astonished deacon.
"I have enlisted in the cause of Christ; I have a retainer from him to plead his case, so you must get somebody else to attend to your lawsuit," replied Finney.
After he studied theology under a local Presbyterian minister, Finney went out to preach. In a short time he was one of the greatest revival preachers in the nation. He swept through western New York in the 1820’s, converting thousands. Soon a band of helpers worked with him in exhorting and guiding sinners.
Finney was a Presbyterian, but his methods seemed somewhat unusual even for the revivalists. He prayed for sinners by name; thus individualizing his appeal. The "anxious seat" was introduced. It was a bench in the front of church to which all sinners and those in the struggle of rebirth were invited. Furthermore, he allowed women to pray in public. All these things were highly irregular.
Though Finney had astounding results and an outpouring of emotional response, he never deliberately encouraged extreme feelings. His sermons were like the lawyer’s plea. Using everyday language, hard logic, and a most persuasive presentation, he had no difficulty in converting sinners. In 1828 he invaded Philadelphia. All the other great eastern cities followed in order. Even New England, and Boston which had declared against him, accepted him. In New York City the Broadway Tabernacle was built especially for him, but within a short time he moved west to become the professor of theology at the newly founded Oberlin College. Later he was made president of that institution.
So revivalism came to the Church’s rescue. It became one of the distinctive features of American Protestantism. It defeated deism and indifference, it overcame the problem of space and won thousands of members for the voluntary Churches. In revivals the Churches found an answer to the question of how to present the judgment and redemption of God, yet in so doing they also limited their message and bound it to emotionalism.