Bourbon County Historical Markers: Cane Ridge Meeting House
Historical Marker #51 in Bourbon County highlights the history of the Cane Ridge Meeting House and the famous revival of 1801 and its results. Six miles east of Paris on KY 537.
Cane Ridge Meeting House, built in 1791, is a very special place for many reasons. Hardy pioneers, following the advice of Daniel Bone, came to this ridge of cane between two creeks to make their homes and build their church in the county of Kentucky in the state of Virginia. From the surrounding virgin forest, these pioneers cut blue ash logs and built their church 50’ x 30’ without heat or chinking between the logs. There were doors on the east end and the west end with the pulpit and communion table on the north side. The pulpit was approached by several steps so that the preacher looked down on the congregation. He looked up, however, to the gallery where the slaves sat. They entered a high opening on the west end by an outside ladder, which was removed in 1829 with the gallery during a modernizing so that the slaves then sat downstairs with their masters and enjoyed full membership.
During the Great Revival years, beginning in 1799, many revivals took place, but the largest was at Cane Ridge August 7 – 12, 1801. Estimates claimed that 20-30,000 people attended this revival, interested in salvation and socializing. There was a great spirit of freedom left over from the Revolutionary War, and the worshipers threw off their fear of the wrath of God and rejoiced in the love of a forgiving Lord. This freedom of belief, especially in the New Testament, eventually led to the establishment of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ.
Under the leadership of Barton Warren Stone, the Presbyterian minister at Cane Ridge, the members agreed to pull away from the Presbyterian Church in 1804 and create their church on the Bible alone – no creeds, no Calvinistic doctrine. The denomination grew and joined with a similar movement led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell in 1832.
Revival at Cane Ridge
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 Great Revival” lasted about five to seven years, depending on what year you count as its beginning. It is generally held to have begun in the year of our Lord 1800, but some of the local people placed its beginnings even earlier, some placing its origins as far back as 1797. (Early Times In Middle Tennessee, Carr.) As early as 1797, grown men, members of one or another of James McGready’s three little churches, were spending days at a time in the woods, under deep conviction, praying, crying, weeping, and seeking God for an assurance of their personal salvation. In some writings of James McGready’s published in 1837, some twenty years after his death, and appropriately titled The Posthumous Works of James McGready, McGready spoke of an “awakening” among his congregations beginning in 1797, during the Spring following his arrival in Logan County. He goes on to say, “But the year 1800 exceeds all that my eyes ever beheld on earth.” (The Posthumous Works of James McGready, Vol. I. p.ix).
When the revival began, it began without warning. At a meeting at Red River Meeting House in June of 1800, tho some attendees cried and wept, and others fell to the floor under conviction of their sinfulness, and tho there were conversions, it seemed, as the last day of the meetings closed, that there would be no great move of God at that time. Disappointed, James McGready and two ministers who had been assisting him left the building.
A visiting minister from nearby Sumner County, Tennessee, William McGee, looking sorrowfully around, suddenly felt impressed to shout to the people, “Let the Lord God Omnipotent reign in your hearts!” At this, pandemonium broke forth among the congregation. Some of the lost began to scream, others fell to the floor, sometimes writhing, sometimes perfectly still, having swooned, as fainting was called in that day. In modern religious terminology, they had been “slain in the spirit”. (Describing the event years later, McGee said that he felt as if one greater than himself was speaking.) Several members went to McGee and urged him to try to stop what was happening, saying that Presbyterians (this was a Presbyterian congregation) could not allow such goings on. Instead, William McGee went throughout the building, shouting praises to God and encouraging the people to yield themselves wholly to God. Many were changed forever that night. In the words of James McGready, “a mighty effusion of [God’s] Spirit” came upon the people, “and the floor was soon covered with the slain; their screams for mercy pierced the heavens.”
The revivalists of the early 19th Century, men such as Presbyterian Charles Finney, used the “mourner’s bench” or “anxious seat” to encourage members of the audience to truly repent.
History of the Spirit in the Restoration Movement
The Restoration Movement has a surprisingly mixed history in its teachings on the Spirit. There’s Alexander Campbell’s view — and then there’s Barton W. Stone’s view. And they are not the same…
Stone’s view is likely best seen through the lens of the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801. The Revival was a communion meeting. In those days, Kentucky was sparsely settled frontier territory, and there were very few churches and even fewer preachers ordained to offer communion. Many people had gone years without taking communion. According to Peter Cartwright, a minister who was present,
Ministers of almost all denominations flocked in from far and near. The meeting was kept up by night and day. Thousands heard of the mighty work, and came on foot, on horseback, in carriages and wagons. It was supposed that there were in attendance at times during the meeting from twelve to twenty-five thousand people. Hundreds fell prostrate under the mighty power of God, as men slain in battle. It was not unusual for one, two, three, and four to seven preachers to be addressing the listening thousands at the same time from the different stands erected for the purpose. The heavenly fire spread in almost every direction. It was said, by truthful witnesses, that at times more than one thousand persons broke into loud shouting all at once, and that the shouts could be heard for miles around. …
Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers, of different denominations, would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together; and, indeed, I have known these camp-meetings to last three or four weeks, and great good resulted from them. I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon, and I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the high praises of God at once;
Two astonishing things happened. First, the meeting was simultaneously conducted by Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Many were impressed with the power of giving up denominational ties and the power of God to save in a setting that many would condemn. Indeed, this caused Stone to doubt the doctrine of election as he’d been taught it.
Second, the “exercises” of passing out and shouting led some to seek a more obvious manifestation of the Spirit. Stone describes the exercises in more detail in his autobiography —
The scene to me was new, and passing strange. It baffled description. Many, very many fell down, as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparently breathless and motionless state–sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered. After lying thus for hours, they obtained deliverance. The gloomy cloud, which had covered their faces, seemed gradually and visibly to disappear, and hope in smiles brightened into joy–they would rise shouting deliverance, and then would address the surrounding multitude in language truly eloquent and impressive.
After attending to many such cases, my conviction was complete that it was a good work–the work of God; nor has my mind wavered since on the subject. Much did I then see, and much have I since seen, that I considered to be fanaticism; but this should not condemn the work. The Devil has always tried to ape the works of God, to bring them into disrepute. But that cannot be a Satanic work, which brings men to humble confession and forsaking of sin–to solemn prayer–fervent praise and thanksgiving, and to sincere and affectionate exhortations to sinners to repent and go to Jesus the Savior.
Stone describes the “exercises” in some detail —
Sometimes the subject of the jerks would be affected in some one member of the body, and sometimes in the whole system. When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked backward and forward, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. When the whole system was affected, I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, their head nearly touching the floor behind and before. I have seen some wicked persons thus affected, and all the time cursing the jerks, while they were thrown to the earth with violence. Though so awful to behold, I do not remember than any one of the thousands I have seen ever sustained an injury in body. This was as strange as the exercise itself.
The dancing exercise. This generally began with the jerks, and was peculiar to professors of religion. The subject, after jerking awhile, began to dance, and then the jerks would cease. such dancing was indeed heavenly to the spectators; there was nothing in it like levity, nor calculated to excite levity in the beholders. The smile of heaven shone on the countenance of the subject, and assimilated to angels appeared the whole person. Sometimes the motion was quick and sometimes slow. Thus they continued to move forward and backward in the same track or alley till nature seemed exhausted, and they would fall prostrate on the floor or earth, unless caught by those standing by. While thus exercised, I have heard their solemn praises and prayers ascending to God….
I shall close this chapter with the singing exercise. This is more unaccountable than any thing else I ever saw. The subject in a very happy state of mind would sing most melodiously, not from the mouth or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such music silenced every thing, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it. Doctor J. P. Campbell and myself were together at a meeting, and were attending to a pious lady thus exercised, and concluded it to be something surpassing any thing we had known in nature.
Convinced that these exercises were the work of God, Stone continued to follow this pattern of revival preaching —
At our night meeting at Concord, two little girls were struck down under the preaching of the word, and in every respect were exercised as those were in the south of Kentucky, as already described. Their addresses made deep impressions on the congregation. On the next day I returned to Caneridge, and attended my appointment at William Maxwell’s. I soon heard of the good effects of the meeting on the Sunday before. Many were solemnly engaged in seeking salvation, and some had found the Lord, and were rejoicing in him. … The crowd left the house, and hurried to this novel scene. In less than twenty minutes, scores had fallen to the ground–paleness, trembling, and anxiety appeared in all–some attempted to fly from the scene panic stricken, but they either fell, or returned immediately to the crowd, as unable to get away. In the midst of this exercise, an intelligent deist in the neighborhood, stepped up to me, and said, Mr. Stone, I always thought before that you were an honest man; but now I am convinced you are deceiving the people. I viewed him with pity, and mildly spoke a few words to him–immediately he fell as a dead man, and rose no more till he confessed the Savior. The meeting continued on that spot in the open air, till late at night, and many found peace in the Lord.
Stone clearly considered these “exercises” to be from God and to have been effective in bringing many people to Jesus. However, the practice did not continue long after the famous revival. Rather, in Stone’s own preaching, the biggest impact was to cause him to leave both Calvinism and denominationalism, as he saw with his own eyes that people could be saved by the faithful preaching of the gospel and receive the Spirit on the spot.