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Christian History Home > 1995 > Issue 45 > Revival at Cane Ridge

Revival at Cane Ridge
What exactly happened at the most important camp meeting in American history?
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christian History. | posted 1/01/1995 12:00AM

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Friday, August 6, 1801—wagons and carriages bounced along narrow Kentucky roads, kicking up dust and excitement as hundreds of men, women, and children pressed toward Cane Ridge, a church about 20 miles east of Lexington. They hungered to partake in what everyone felt was sure to be an extraordinary “Communion.”

By Saturday, things were extraordinary, and the news electrified this most populous region of the state; people poured in by the thousands. One traveler wrote a Baltimore friend that he was on his way to the “greatest meeting of its kind ever known” and that “religion has got to such a height here that people attend from a great distance; on this occasion I doubt not but there will be 10,000 people.”

He underestimated, but his miscalculation is understandable. Communions (annual three-to-five-day meetings climaxed with the Lord’s Supper) gathered people in the dozens, maybe the hundreds. At this Cane Ridge Communion, though, sometimes 20,000 people swirled about the grounds—watching, praying, preaching, weeping, groaning, falling. Though some stood at the edges and mocked, most left marveling at the wondrous hand of God.

The Cane Ridge Communion quickly became one of the best-reported events in American history, and according to Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin, “arguably … the most important religious gathering in all of American history.” It ignited the explosion of evangelical religion, which soon reached into nearly every corner of American life. For decades the prayer of camp meetings and revivals across the land was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”

What was it about Cane Ridge that gripped the imagination? Exactly what happened there in the first summer of the new century?

Egyptian Darkness

Five years earlier, few would have predicted the Cane Ridge revival. Since the American Revolution, Christianity had been on the decline, especially on the frontier. Sporadic, scattered revivals—in Virginia in 1787–88, for example—dotted the landscape, but they were short-lived. Religious indifference seemed to be spreading.

On a trip to Tennessee in 1794, Methodist bishop Francis Asbury wrote anxiously about frontier settlers, “When I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion, but rather to get plenty of good land, I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls.”

Andrew Fulton, a Presbyterian missionary from Scotland, discovered in Nashville and in “all the newly formed towns in this western colony, there are few religious people.” The minutes of the frontier Transylvania Presbytery reveal deep concern about the “prevalence of vice & infidelity, the great apparent declension of true vital religion in too many places.”

Rampant alcoholism and avaricious land-grabbing were matched by the increasing popularity of both universalism (the doctrine that all will be saved) and deism (the belief that God is uninvolved in the world). Methodist James Smith, traveling near Lexington in the autumn of 1795 feared that “the universalists, joining with the Deists, had given Christianity a deadly stab hereabouts.”

Hyperbole, perhaps. Still, during the six years preceding 1800, the Methodist Church—most popular among the expanding middle and lower classes—declined in national membership from 67,643 to 61,351. In the 1790s the population of frontier Kentucky tripled, but the already meager Methodist membership decreased.

Churches and pastors did not merely wring their hands; they clasped them in prayer—at prayer meetings, at worship, and at national conventions. In 1798 the Presbyterian General Assembly asked that a day be set aside for fasting, humiliation, and prayer to redeem the frontier from “Egyptian darkness.”

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