By Mark Galli, former editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY
Two hundred years ago this week, on July 1, 1800, the earliest recorded Methodist camp meeting in America was held in Logan County, Kentucky, near Gaspar River. No one had expected the annual "Presbyterian Communion" to turn into a revival, and the widespread spiritual renewal that followed the event was even more surprising.
During the six years preceding 1800, the Methodist Church declined in national membership from 67,643 to 61,351 (heirs of organizational genius John Wesley, the Methodists always kept excellent records). 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. James Smith, after traveling through Kentucky, wrote, "I trust he [God] will yet bring good out of this evil, and that the glory of scriptural religion, obscure for the present, will shine forth hereafter with redoubled luster."
Religion began to "shine forth" in Kentucky when James McGready arrived in Logan County in 1798 to pastor three small churches: the Red River, Gaspar River, and Muddy River congregations. He brought with him from North Carolina a well-deserved reputation for fiery preaching. Barton Stone, pastor of the Cane Ridge Church (and leader of the famous Cane Ridge Revival in August 1800), said of McGready after hearing him preach, "My mind was chained by him, and followed him closely in his rounds of heaven, earth, and hell with feelings indescribable."
McGready's preaching so stirred his congregations that when the Red River church sponsored its annual Communion in June 1800, the spiritual climate was charged. ...