Old School Tent Revival

While looking up information about the various denominations that are common in the particular area, I discovered something I didn’t know: The Second Great Awakening was a time of continued revival in the United States, in Kentucky, the Revival of 1800 took place. At this time, the church had come to realize that European practices worked a lot better in Europe than in America, needless to say they were having some serious problems. (one pastor complained that Kentuckians were worldly people whose conversations were “of corn and tobacco, or land and stock…. the name of Jesus has no charms; and it is rarely mentioned unless to be profaned.”) They realized that they had to do one of two things: either return to Europe and resist change, or realize that they were in the middle of America and start making changes accordingly. The Holy Spirit inspired them to do the latter.

At this particular time, many Scottish and Irish immigrants had come to call Kentucky home, bringing with them their Presbyterian beliefs and practices. There were also a few Methodists in the region, but for the most part, Kentucky wasn’t exactly the first place you thought of when you thought about church – it was where you went for good farmland. In the warm summer months, the Presbyterian ministers would begin their sacred season, think of it as like a tent revival, only more sacred, more official, more traditional, and more ancient. This tent revival would go on for days, with everything from feasting to preaching, and most other church rituals taking place. Traditionally, when the tent revival came to town, people would make arrangements to stay with their nearest relatives and travel to the site of the meetings the best way the could … but as the Holy Spirit swept through the region, people founding camping at the site was far easier. (Can you imagine camping at the site of a tent revival, being there all day, all night, all week?)

Here’s a fascinating description of it all getting started: “All was silent until Monday, the last day of the feast. … While Mr. Hodge was preaching, a woman in the East end got an uncommon blessing, broke through order, and shouted for some time and then sat down in silence.” McGee continued, relating that most of the ministers were already gathered outside the meeting house while the people remained seated inside, unwilling to leave, when his brother, William, “felt such a power come on him that he quit his seat and sat down in the floor of the pulpit.” John McGee began to tremble as weeping erupted through the congregation. The woman in the east end began to shout again and McGee started toward her just as someone reminded him that his Presbyterian hosts were “much for order” and would not “hear this confusion; go back and be quiet.” McGee turned to go back and was “near falling” when he changed his mind and “went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy.” (Using the term that came to be associated with the revival phenomenon of collapsing in a state of physical helplessness, McGee continued:) “The floor was soon covered with the slain; their screams for mercy pierced the heavens.”

In other words: Mr. Hodge was preaching to a still and quiet congregation. Suddenly one woman got up and started shouting. Then she sat down silently. Most of the ministers were outside trying to figure out what to do because the people inside wouldn’t leave! William (the author’s brother) sat down at the floor of the pulpit while he (the author) began to tremble just as the people began to weep. Looking around, somebody said, “Hey, the Presbyterians hosting this gig won’t stand for this kind of disorder! We have to find a way to go back and quiet things down!” He (the author) was just about to go back from where he was and he nearly fell down, when he caught the shouting bug, ran through the building shouting gladly. Just after that, the people fell down from their chairs and were all over the floor … crying and screaming for mercy.”

The McGee noted that Presbyterians and Methodists were in on it big time, from the start to the end, Baptists were ‘generally opposed to the work’ though a few pastors got in on it, too. Now at first it sounds like some excitement at just one meeting, but this minister criss-crossed Kentucky and Tennessee to preach to people from meeting to meeting, more people were getting saved: 10 at the first meeting, 45 at the second (some of the attendees returned home, described what happened and as a result 20 of their friends and family members were also converted … so second-hand conversion does exist!), 50 at the third and fourth, and 80 more at the fifth meeting. Word spread fast, some people traveled as far as 100 miles (by horse & cart) to experience a meeting for themselves. Some estimates of the meetings put a total attendance between one and five thousand people. I’m just sayin’ you’d be hard pressed to get 5,000 people at a tent revival meeting in this region of Kentucky today – getting them emotional or to move would even more challenging – 80 conversions would represent five years worth of Sunday morning preaching.

What I love about this particular revival is that it’s not all on one church or one denomination – it was mostly led by Presbyterian and Methodist ministers, with a few open-minded Baptists thrown in for good measure. Not only were they working together, but they realized that they needed help – they let anybody be an exhorter. An exhorter is a lay person (as in, regular person) who preaches an informal or impromptu sermon to others, usually just after they’ve been converted. (So they’d been Christians for just about a minute and they start preaching to anybody who’s within ear-shot. I bet you don’t see that today.) Men, women, white, black, elders, children, free, and slaves – they all started preaching to each other. McGready (one of the big preachers) was fascinated with how the children could preach with wisdom beyond their years.

Of course, people falling all over and preaching and shouting and jerking and jumping i bound to raise a few eyebrows among the religiously traditional, it didn’t take long for the revival to start to lose steam and eventually come to a close. What I learned was that this revival was what started the Restoration Movement and as a result began both the Cumberland Presbyterian Church denomination (the first to ordain women as ministers in the 1820s, the Southern Baptists didn’t decide it was o.k. until 1964, but they eventually changed their minds on that stance.) and also inspired the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination.

The Second Great Awakening wasn’t the first, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I’ve never heard about any of this – and my grandparents church was a Disciples of Christ church. As a random resident of Kentucky exactly 214 years after the Revival of 1800, I don’t how I would have felt to have been there, seen it or experience it for myself. I’m sorry to say I missed it, it sounds like it would have been amazing.


...Anyway, that's just how I feel about it ... What do you think?

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