Cane Ridge, Kentucky, August 8th, 1801. From the journalistic report of Cyril Bennet.
It was with guarded thoughts that I approached the Cane Ridge encampment yesterday. The hot August day was nearing its end, and the honest farmers of the Kentucky village would, on any usual day, soon be in their beds. Not today. Some twenty-five thousand people were yet out on the green, tents pitched and families settling in (1). The gathering of such an astounding number of people was quite unprecedented in Cane Ridge, or truthfully anywhere further west than Chicago, and simply the presence of these men (and, to my surprise, women and children) (3) was enough to send thrills of excitement up my spine. The noise was outrageous, the smoke of a thousand cook fires thick enough to choke a horse. I was greeted after some wandering by a young pastor of, as I soon learned, the Protestant faith. This man of the cloth went by the name of Father Hall, and seemed quite as excited as any of his rather enormous flock.
“It’s been a long time since so many people have devoted themselves entirely to prayer,” he told me, his grin making him look even younger than his already minimal years. “I’ve been the minister of Harrodsburg for a year now, and my own parish is quite small, and constantly working the land; the struggle of the winter months is so hard that it’s often difficult to stir up enthusiasm for God and the church. But thanks to James Mcgready, I can lead them to meetings like this and have a chance to really see the glory of our lord. I expect that in the coming years, Kentucky will have many more camp meetings.” Mcgready, the Presbyterian minister responsible for an inadvertent camp meeting last year, was name-dropped quite often that evening, but he himself was not present, as this particular meeting was organized by the Protestant preachers of Kentucky (1).
As I walked through the camp, accompanied by Father Hall, I was witness to the rough, earthy nature of the people of Kentucky. As my readers know, our brothers and sisters to the west live off the land, as farmers and loggers, and are, by reputation, not given to civility or city manners. I can on some counts back up this idea; I saw children running about like packs of stray dogs, women with rough workers hands talking loudly and even swearing, and men lounging about beside their campfires as if in the privacy of their own parlors. (1) I doubted, at first, the motives behind many of these peoples’ presence; it seemed that a number of young women and men were simply there to meet members of the opposite sex. However, there was such goodwill and joy at work in that camp that these twenty-five thousand people seemed to be living at close quarters very peacefully. I was pleasantly surprised even before the evening hymns began, but when they did, my astonishment doubled. The entire congregation flocked to the clearing once the sun set, and raised their voices as one in praise of God. Four traveling preachers, standing on a small stage erected at the front of the crowd, were nearly drowned out as they began the service by cries and praises from the crowd.
The service began in this wild excitement, with call and response between the preachers and the congregation, and prayers, and hymns of the raucous sort. I remember feeling that this riotous praise was quite untoward, offensive even, but on the frontier the organized church is distant; who was I to tell these people how to pray? After two hours of this, an exhortator by the name of Spalding stood, and called upon the congregation to repent from their sins and rebuke the devil in a carrying voice that brought the congregation to their knees in quaking fear. The flickering of firelight and God’s own stars were all that lit the service, and I found myself quite caught up in the glory that I saw there, for there also came miracles late at night, when a trembling child of ten, possessed of fits, was led up to the stage by her father. One Father Gerrettson, perhaps the most impressive in appearance of the men on the stage, laid a hand on the child’s brow and called upon the Lord to save her, asking that the congregation lift their own prayers to the heavens. I found myself chanting with the crowd, crying into the dark firmament above us. After perhaps twenty minutes of fervent prayer, the girl began to quake, her limbs jerking in a most unnatural way. “The devil is leaving her! Glory to God!” Gerrettson cried, and the crowd roared, echoing him. “Glory! Glory!” The child fell to the ground, convulsed, but when Gerrettson lifted her up in his arms she opened her eyes and began to weep in joy, calling out to her father that she was cured, that God had saved her (2). Her father wept with twice as much ferocity as she, and thus the first healing ended. By this time it was late at night, and some people were nearly asleep on their feet; about the edges of the crowd some had slumped to the ground, slumbering where they fell. Yet in the center of the mob spiritual awakenings occurred (5). I dived into the mass of people, determined to go where the holy spirit was thickest. At the center, women shouted in tongues, sinners called to the stage to be saved, and through it all the preachers led their enormous, rowdy flock (4).
I left at two in the morning, as the organized service was winding down into a smaller, midnight prayer meeting, and retired to my own tent with my assistant, Barton. We were at once so exhausted and excited that we sat up our bedrolls and talked for perhaps another hour about the things that we had seen. We rose at seven o’clock to find another prayer meeting, or perhaps the same one, underway; it was more peaceful this time, as many of the congregation were still in their tents, asleep (1). I sought out the man whose daughter had been cured of her fits the previous night, and eventually found him on the western side of the camp, eating his breakfast at a small cookfire tended by the daughter with the fits and another, older girl. Both were his children, but these fine girls tragically lacked a mother. The father, Bill Eddon, was not shy about his state of affairs. “My wife died giving birth to my youngest, Earl, God rest her soul.” Earl and the second youngest child had been left at the family’s homestead in Harrodsburg, in the care of Eddon’s sister. “It’s hard to educate your children in God’s ways out here,” said Eddon, “And even harder to find ’em husbands.” (2) The older girl blushed and Eddon smiled fondly. “This has been a good opportunity to meet people, and introduce the girls to a powerful church. I left the little ones at home because I thought the camping would be too hard on them, though, and I’m glad I did; it’d be easy for them to get lost in the crowds here.” (3) I asked him about the healing last night. “Incredible, wasn’t it? I always believed it would happen, of course, but my sister was a doubter. It’ll be good to show her how little Isabelle’s been saved by the Lord; put a little faith in her life. She used to go to the town church, but it’s not a very organized place, for all that our minister works hard; there’s not very much money going into it and we’re so far out from our roots in the east.” The roots of the Protestant church? “That’s right. I came out here from New York with my family when I was fifteen years old, and it didn’t take long for religion to fade a bit from my life. You have to think more about earthly things when you’re living off the earth, what can I say?” (1) I thanked him for his time and headed off to write out my notes. Faith is stirring out in the west, not beneath the altar, but beneath the roof of God’s sky.I will write again when I can; for now, please accept this report as my piece for this week.
I remain sincerely yours,
(2) William Thatcher, The Melting Power of God
(3) Fanny Lewis, Glory! Glory! This is the Happiest Day I Ever Saw
(1) Gorn, Elliott J., Randy Roberts, and Terry D. Bilhartz. “Shouting For Glory: Camp Meeting Christianity Described, Decried, and Defended.” Constructing the American past: a source book of a people’s history. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995. 157-169. Print.