Baptist History Homepage

Remarkable Revivals and Revivalists of the 19th Century.
By Samuel H. Ford

Ford's Christian Repository
December 1900

Revivalists — that is traveling ministers who give their life to special services with special methods, especially directing their energies to cities — were unknown to the earliest years of the past century. Indeed these professional revivalists and the current methods of revivals date their introduction to some sixty years ago.

But there were great awakenings, and great evangelists previous to that — of whom and of which George Whitefield, David Thomas and the results which followed their preaching are examples.

But as a general thing the "great awakenings" which periodically swept over whole regions, were without any prearranged methods, or special instrumentality. Their origin could be traced only to the influence of the Holy Spirit and while the extravagances which so often attended them and the perversion of the influence they exerted, were to be deplored — these were limited, while the good done was extensive.


Passing over several widespread revivals in New England we record [a] astonishing general revivals in the region known as the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. In doing this the investigations of J. H. Spenser will be followed.1

This, the most remarkable of any, began in the year 1801.

There is no way of accounting for it, except by acknowledging that it was produced by the direct power of God. Every known circumstance appeared unfavorable for such a visitation. For more than a dozen years the little churches scattered over the land had been seemingly dead. The few preachers in the country seemed as lifeless in spiritual things as were the churches; and many of them were deeply immersed in pecuniary speculation. The great mass of the people were imbued with infidelity as never before in the country. Dr. Peck intimated that more than half of the men were known skeptics or avowed infidels. Tom Paine's "Age of Reason," a course, vulgar, infidel book, had been recently published, and was far more extensively circulated than the Bible. Without premonition the revival came like a cyclone. It made its first appearance in the Green River region of Kentucky, in the first year of the century. This was, at that time, a Western frontier. The revival wave moved eastward till within a few weeks, it covered the whole State. It also reached the surrounding States, and within the year it had spread to the Atlantic coast. Many thousands of people were converted over all the broad Southland. But the greatest effects were manifest n Kentucky. Here, and in East and Middle Tennessee, the revival produced those unexplained phenomena called the falling exercise, the jerks, the rolling and barking exercises, trances, visions, and dreams and the religious dance.

The Revival continued about two years. To the Presbyterians the results were adverse rather than beneficial. Two schisms were produced among them, and two new sects were the results. The first took the name of the Christian Church. But its members were popularly known as Newlights, as they still are in some of the Western States. In Kentucky they were finally absorbed by the Campbellites. The other sect, which took from more slowly, assumed the name Cumberland Presbyterians, and still constitute a respectable and prosperous denomination. The Methodists were largely increased, with no other evil result than that of rekindling their old enthusiasm for the doctrine of perfect sanctification. The Baptists were greatly benefited in several directions. Their number was more than trebled, and new views of the Christian life were obtained. Their preachers had hitherto dwelt chiefly on the doctrines of election, predestination and kindred topics. They did not give up or even modify these doctrines. But they were moved to preach a more symmetrical system, to exhort sinners to repent, and Christians to greater activity. Deism, the prevailing infidelity of the period, was not wholly destroyed. But it received its death wound, and gradually perished. The excessive enthusiasm which prevailed among the Presbyterians towards the close of the revival, and which resulted in an immediate division of their church, led to the introduction into Kentucky of that singular sect of celibates who styled themselves the Millennial church, but who are popularly known as Shakers. Of these harmless enthusiasts two communities still exist in the State. But to give a detailed account of this wonderful revival, and its influences on the religious life and activities of the Western people, would require a volume. It was the great Pentecost of the Mississippi Valley.


The next revival of the century commenced in 1810. It made its fist appearance in Long Run Association, to the churches of which were added nearly a thousand members. There was no recurrence of the strange phenomena that accompanied the former revival. The awakening was about three years in spreading over the State. Many of the people were inspired with terror rather than with spiritual enthusiasm; for a series of violent earthquakes occurred during the revival, and the ignorant people feared that the world was coming to an end. This revival appears to have been less beneficial than the former. Many were induced to unite with the church through fear, caused by "these shakes," and when the danger was passed, they went back to the world -- proving that they had been frightened rather than converted. There were, however, many true Christians brought into the fold; and, in 1812, the first Baptist periodical published in Kentucky was established. It was called The Kentucky Missionary and Theological Magazine, showing that the spirit of missions had been awakened.


The next revival occurred in 1817. This was three years before it was due, according to the general order of the period; for it will be observed that all the revivals (except this one) of the early part of the century occurred at intervals of 10 years. But just at his period, the Baptists of the South were excited, for the first time, on the subject of foreign missions. A small element in the churches was bitterly opposed to the Foreign Mission Board, then located in Philadelphia. Many were indifferent on the subject. But not a few were enthusiastic in promoting the new movement. Five flourishing societies, auxiliary to the Foreign Mission Board, had been formed in Kentucky. The war between the factions in the churches had commenced with no small degree of bitterness. What the result would have been had not God interposed with this work of grace, may not be known, but the revival broke forth suddenly and with great power. Like its predecessor, it continued about three years, and large numbers were added to the churches. The anti-missionary element was not destroyed. But it was greatly paralyzed, and had it not been for the potent influence of Alexander Campbell, it might have gradually perished. As it was, the decisive battle was postponed twenty years.


The next revival began in 1827, and, like the two which next preceded, continued about three years. This period covered the flood-tide of the Campbellite agitation. The excitement was greater than it had been since the beginning of the century. Several of the prominent Baptist preachers had fully accepted the teaching of Mr. Campbell, while others were confused, and strongly inclined to the “reformation.” Great activity prevailed in religious circles all over the State. The followers of Mr. Campbell labored zealously to induce the people to be baptized, but more zealously to proselyte Baptists to their new views. One of them boasted that he had baptized 600 sinners, and capsized 1,500 Baptists within a single year. This was the spirit that generally prevailed. The movement was more enthusiastic propagation and reception of Campbellism than a spiritual revival. Something more than 15,000 were added to the Baptist churches in Kentucky. But it is to be feared that a majority of them were not converted according to the Baptist meaning of the term. When the Campbellites were cut off at the close of the revival, they carried a large proportion of the new converts with them. Indeed the violent activities of this great religious upheaval may be regarded as the birth-throes of the Campbellite sect in the Mississippi Valley.

But while this revival greatly weakened the Baptists, for the time, it was not barren of important results. It convinced the churches that they were destitute of a ministry capable of successfully defending their faith and practice. They had at that time, a number of brilliant pulpit orators; but they had only two educated preachers in the State. To supply this deficiency they resolved to establish an institution of learning for the purpose of educating young preachers. Accordingly, they procured a charter for Georgetown College in 1829. Another want emphasized by this great religious awakening was a general organization of the Baptist forces for the purpose of promoting Home Missions. The proposal to form such an organization met much opposition from the churches. But it was finally effected, by the constitution of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, in 1832, which was succeeded by the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky, five years later. A considerable number of Baptists had been infected by Mr. Campbell's heresy, before the revival of 1827 began. But they had been permitted to remain in the churches, with the hope that they would be reclaimed. But, during the revival, they became so aggressive and defiant that they could no longer be tolerated. Accordingly, in the fall of 1830, they were severed from the Baptist denomination and henceforth constituted an independent sect.


The next blessed awakening was a visitation in a dark hour to the churches in Ohio, Indiana, and especially in Kentucky.

The churches in these States and also in Illinois, and southward in Tennessee, seemed in a general state of decay. Alexander Campbell, with his active colaborers [sic], had wrecked many of the Baptist churches, deadened and distracted nearly all of them. Controversy, bitter and generally personal, was general and the spiritual life of the church seemed to have departed.

The revival -- the evident blessing of heaven in personal and widespread awakening and power -- came upon the Baptists of Kentucky, at the darkest hour they had known since the reign of infidelity at the beginning of the century. Since the close of the preceding revival, in 1829, they had lost over a third of their membership. Their college, in which they had felt so deep an interest, had been, and still was, involved in a series of legal complications, which rendered it inoperative and it remained little more than an empty charter with a disputed title. In 1832 they had they had organized their Baptist State Convention. But it met with but little favor from the churches, and had now become extinct. The anti-missionary element, composing nearly one-fourth of their members, still remained in the churches, and stubbornly opposed every aggressive move of the denomination. Meanwhile they had lost, by the cholera scourge, emigration and other causes, a majority of their ablest and most effective preachers. But they had still a few iron-hearted men who trusted in God even in that dark hour, and their courage did not fail. On the 20th of October, 1837, these met together in the First Baptist Church in Louisville, and formed a second general organization to which they gave the name of General association of Baptists in Kentucky. It was yet in the deepest depths of the spiritual night. But morning was about to break forth n glorious splendor. Only a few of us who witnessed that blessed day, live to hold it in sacred remembrance.

The revival made its first appearance in the church in which the General Association was formed, and immediately after that body was organized. From thence, like the former revivals, it spread in all directions till it reached every part of the State. Within less than three years the churches made a clear gain of more than 17,600 members. This far more that covered their losses of the preceding decade. But this was not their greatest gain. The revival wrought a revolution among the Baptists of the State. It did not change their doctrine or government polity; but it made a marked and permanent change in the mode of worship and polity of expediency. Besides some local effects that were beneficial, the revival brought into vogue some new general customs of much importance. Of the former, the establishment of the Baptist cause in Louisville was not the least important. Hitherto the metropolis of the State had been neglected by the Baptists, while other denominations had taken possession. But now the addition of more than 600 members to their one little church during this revival gave them a respectable standing in the city. Another important effect of the revival was the opening of the hearts of the brethren to endow Georgetown College; so that it was opened with a full faculty for the first time, in 1840.

Another effect of this revival was the enlarging of the missionary spirit in the churches. They did not first embrace missionary sentiments at this period: for here, as everywhere else, the Baptists had been missionaries. But during the last twenty-five years an anti-missionary element had been developing in the churches, and had become so aggressive as to greatly embarrass them in their efforts to spread the Gospel. The missionaries, now about seven times as numerous as their adversaries, were willing to compromise for the sake of peace, and, in many of the churches, did effect a compromise on the proposition that, "Giving or not giving shall be no ban to fellowship." But even this was rejected in many of the churches. The anti-missionaries not only refused to contribute to the support of missions themselves, but they were unwilling that their missionary brethren should contribute. But when God's children were filled with the Spirit of Christ, as in this great revival, the former state of affairs could no longer exist. The work of cutting off the anti-missionaries was begun in 1840, and was completed in about three years. Since then there has been too much negligence in the support of missions, as in every other good work, but there has been no open opposition in our churches.

During the revival an unprecedented activity prevailed among the private members of the churches. Hitherto the ministers had styled themselves the servants of God in such a manner as to make the impression that they alone were entitled to that distinction; and this honor, with all its burdens and responsibilities, had been too generally accorded to them. The private members had failed to recognize any obligation on them to aid in spreading the Gospel among their neighbors. But now that they were wonderfully quickened and illuminated by the power of divine grace, they lifted up their eyes and saw the fields white unto harvest and the laborers few. As if moved by a common impulse, they went everywhere preaching the Word. All over the broad land little bands of brethren and sisters gathered in the cabins of their neighbors, where no preachers could be had, and engaged in the joyous worship of God. Men who had never before spoken, or even prayed, in public, became eloquent in exhortation and fervent in prayer. The people had but few song books. But most of them knew a few old songs by heart, and to these they attached many spiritual choruses. These prayer and devotional meetings were so bright and happy that they were invited to the houses of the unconverted, as well as to the homes of Christians. The writer remembers to have attended a number of them, in his boyhood, not one of which was at the house of a church member. Besides the influence exerted on the unconverted, many Christians were greatly strengthened, and many latent gifts were developed through these little rural prayer-meetings. By these and other potent means of this revival, the whole denomination was lifted up to a higher plain of activity, from which it has never receded.

Protracted meetings first came in vogue during this great religious awakening. Hitherto, even during revival seasons, the churches met only in their regular days of worship -- usually one Saturday and Sunday in each month -- with an occasional night meeting, generally at some private residence. The most courageous preacher would hardly dare go beyond a three day's meeting. But during the revival the preachers began to extend the time to a week, and finally two weeks. There was, at first, much opposition to this new practice. The anti-missionary element, which was still in the churches, was especially bitter in its opposition to this innovation on old customs. Many, if not all, of this element deemed any extra effort to bring sinners to repentance an encroachment on the divine prerogative. But anti-missionaries were soon severed from the churches, others became reconciled to the change, and protracted meetings, or, as they were often called, effort meetings, became an established custom. This put an end to the old-time revivals. Hitherto, these general religious awakenings occurred about once in ten years, and continued from eighteen to thirty-six months. During the intervals the churches were inert, and few additions were made to them except by letter. Between the close of the revival of 1827 and the beginning of that of 1837, the Baptists of Kentucky sustained a clear loss of about 13,000 members, nearly 10,000 of whom, however, had been carried off by the Campbellite schism. But during the first three years of the revival of 1837, they made a clear gain of nearly 18,000, and it is probable that they gained at least 12,000 during the next three years. This fruitful revival, unlike those which had occurred before, did not cease at all; but has continued with various ebbs and flows to the present time. And the denomination in Kentucky has increased from 32,000 in 1837, to more than 200,000 in 1899. What hath God wrought for the Baptists of Kentucky?

Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri felt — though not to the same degree — the effects of this awakening. Dr. Lynd, pastor in Cincinnati, witnessed an extensive revival in the Ninth Street Church of which he was pastor. Revivals occurred nearly all over the State; and Baptist churches greatly recovered from the effects of Campbell and Scott's attacks upon them.

The same can be said of Indiana. One Parker had disseminated a rancorous antinomianism through a large portion of that State; and the Baptist cause was extremely low. The revival of '37-8 changed the whole aspect of things and Parker's "two-seedism" received a blow from which it never recovered.

In Illinois Jesse Sweet and Jacob Bower led a series of revivals in which thousands were converted, and in Missouri A. P. Williams and R. S. Thomas became instruments of extensive revivals. The same may be said of Tennessee and especially of Georgia where the labors of Sherwood and Malory were signally blessed.

And just then, Jacob Knap began his work in New York — the first of professional revivalists amongst Baptists.


1 The editor wrote a number of articles in the Repository in 1858-9, on the revivals of the West, especially of the great revival in 1800, in Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, with their results. Dr. Spencer used this data — derived as it was from original sources — in two articles in the Western Recorder. These are freely used in this article.

[From a microfilm copy of Ford's Christian Repository, 1899, pp 729-736; from Southern Baptist Seminary Library. — jrd]

Baptists: Various Subjects
Baptist History Homepage 1