Towards the close of the eighteenth century, there was an unusual death in the professors of religion, throughout the western country, both among the preachers and the people. In the commencement of the present century, the more pious became seriously alarmed at the prevalence of vice and the declension of vital piety. They agreed to meet often in prayer to God to revive religion, which appeared ready to die. These meetings were frequent, and began to attract general attention. The humble Christians prayed fervently, and sang the praises of God with warm devotion. Their prayers reached the ears of the Lord; he answered by fire; for he poured out his spirit in a way almost miraculous. This powerful work was first experienced in Tennessee, and in the lower parts of this state, among the Presbyterians, in the summer or fall of 1800.
At this time I had gone to Virginia and North Carolina. From Carolina I was returning to Kentucky in company with Dr. Hall, who was going on a mission to Natchez and the low countries. Never shall I forget the events that transpired on our journey. We were met by a company returning from Tennessee, who had letters to Dr. Hall. We stopped in the woods. The Doctor began to read silently; but soon cried out aloud, and burst into a flood of tears. At first we were at a loss for the cause; but soon learned from the bearer of the letters, and from the letters themselves, that which equally affected us all. It was an account of a wonderful meeting at Shiloh in Tennessee - that many had been struck down as dead, and continued for hours apparently breathless, and afterwards rose, praising God for his saving mercy - that the saints were all alive - and sinners all around weeping and crying for mercy - and that multitudes were converted and rejoicing in God.
The work spread and progressed like fire in a dry stubble. The sparks, lighting in various parts of the field, would quickly raise as many blazes all around. So the Christians from various and distant parts met together; and returning home in the spirit and power of religion, they became preachers, successful preachers, in their neighborhoods, by simply stating what they had seen, heard, and felt; and so spake that many believed and turned to the Lord. I knew an old Presbyterian in a barren neighborhood. He heard of this strange work, and went 60 or 70 miles to one of these meetings. The work was very great and strange. He felt the flame of it in his own heart, and returned home in the power of the spirit. He had a very wicked son. He went to see him, he burst into a flood of tears, and cried out, O my son Reuben. The son was instantly convicted of his sins, and immediately repaired to the woods, and cried for mercy; nor did he cease till he obtained it. He straightway began to exhort and warn his companions in wickedness to repent and believe the gospel; and many turned to the Lord. From that period to his death, about 20 years, he laboured without ceasing, in the vineyard of the Lord, and was eminently useful.
In the spring of 1801, the Lord visited his people in the north of Kentucky. In Fleming, and in Concord, one of my congregations, the same strange and mighty works were seen and experienced. On the fourth Lord's day in May, we had an appointment for a communion at Concord. Various causes collected an unusual multitude of people together at this time, - between five and six thousands, of various sects, and many preachers. The house could not contain them, and we repaired to the woods. Worship commenced on Friday, and continued without intermission day and night, for four or five days. From this meeting, the flame spread all around, and increased till the ever-memorable meeting at Caneridge, in August following. Here an innumerable multitude collected, estimated at 25,000 souls. The meeting commenced on Friday, and continued six or seven days. It was truly a solemn scene to see the multitudes coming together, and the number of wagons and carriages bringing provisions and tents to stay on the ground; for it was found that no neighborhood could entertain and support the multitudes that came together. The members of the church and the neighbours brought their provisions to the encampment, for themselves and strangers. Long tables were spread with provisions, and all invited to eat. This was the beginning and introduction of camp meetings. During this time, night and day worship continued. Hundreds were lying as men slain in battle; many engaged in prayer for the distressed in every part of the camp; many in the woods around crying for mercy; many rejoicing aloud in songs of praise. In other parts many of the preachers of various names, were proclaiming the gospel of salvation. The number of converts could never be ascertained: it is thought to have been between 500 and 1000.
The doctrine preached by all was simple, and nearly the same. Free and full salvation to every creature was proclaimed. All urged faith in the gospel, and obedience to it, as the way of life. All appeared deeply impressed with the ruined state of sinners, and were anxious for their salvation. The spirit of partyism, and party distinctions, were apparently forgotten. The doctrines of former controversy were not named; no mention was made of eternal unconditional election, reprobation, or fatality. The spirit of love, peace, and union, were revived. You might have seen the various sects engaged in the same spirit, praying, praising, and communing together, and the preachers in the lead. Happy days! joyful seasons of refreshment from the presence of the Lord! This work from this period spread throughout the western country.
It should not be concealed that among us Presbyterians, there were some, both of the preachers and private members, who stood in opposition to the work, and the doctrine by which it was promoted. They did not like that the doctrines of their confession should be neglected in the daily ministration. They therefore became jealous lest those doctrines should be entirely rejected by the churches; they began to preach them, and oppose the doctrine of the revival. The other sects began to take the alarm and to oppose the doctrine of Calvin. The war commenced; and now there appeared to be more solicitude to establish certain dogmas, and to enlist members into a particular party, than to preach the gospel, and win souls to Christ. The pious wept at the sight, and were groaning at the devastations of Zion, the breach of union, and the unhappy check put to the work of God! Never before did partyism to my mind appear so hateful, so destructive to the progress of truth and vital piety, and to the salvation of souls. Many saw it in the same light, and felt determined to stand fast in the gospel of Christ, and labour to promote his work.
But here we were not permitted to rest. We must come into the party views and party spirit of the denomination by which we were called, and cease from preaching that doctrine which was considered contrary to the doctrines contained in our confession of faith, contemptuously called arminian. These doctrines were, that the provisions and calls of the gospel were for all, and to all the family of Adam; that Christ died for all, and was the constituted Saviour of all; that the poor sinner must believe in him, and that he was capable to believe from the evidences given in the gospel. In this strain of preaching, a number of the Presbyterian preachers had been for some time past engaged. But these by no means suited the sticklers for orthodoxy. Richard McNemar, a member of Washington Presbytery, was zealously engaged in preaching these views. At the session of this Presbytery in Cincinnati, Oct. 6, 1802, a lay elder, a member of the Presbytery, arose and entered a verbal complaint against McNemar, as a propagator of false doctrine, and desired the Presbytery to look into the matter. Though McNemar protested against this measure as disorderly, yet he was overruled, and the Presbytery, as a court of inquisition, proceeded to examine him, on the doctrine of particular election, human depravity, the atonement, the application of it to sinners, the necessity of a divine agency in the application, and the nature of faith. The result of the examination was, this his views were essentially different from Calvinism - and that his principles were strictly Arminian, "which, (say they) are dangerous to the souls of men, and hostile to the interests of all true religion." A copy of their judgment was ordered to be sent to all the churches under their care. What appeared extraordinary is, that this same presbytery in the same session, in which they passed a vote of condemnation on his principles, as dangerous to the souls of men, and hostile to the interests of all true religion, appointed McNemar to preach among the vacancies, as usual, as their minutes shew.
At the next session of this Presbytery in April 1803, a petition was presented, praying Presbytery to examine McNemar on the fundamental doctrines of religion; and that the Rev. John Thompson undergo the like examination. The Presbytery rejected the petition as improper; and presented McNemar a call from Turtle Creek, which he accepted. The minority of Presbytery protested against these acts of the majority.
In Sept. 1803, the Synod met in Lexington. Here the books of all the Presbyteries were to be examined, and their improper conduct arraigned at the bar of this court. Through the committee of overtures, the business of the Washington Presbytery in their sessions in Cincinnati and Springfield with respect to McNemar and Thompson, was laid before the Synod. The Synod soon determined, that the Washington Presbytery acted orderly in examining McNemar, and of publishing their vote of condemnation of his principles, as dangerous, and contrary to the constitution of the Presbyterian church, and that they were disorderly in giving him appointments to preach. They also determined that the Presbytery acted disorderly in rejecting the petition to examine McNemar and Thompson at Springfield, and in presenting McNemar the call from Turtle Creek. It was now evidently seen that the way was prepared to censure any minister of the gospel without charge, witness, or prosecution, through the short medium of Presbyterial inquisition. We, who were of the same sentiments, now plainly saw that the proceedings of the Synod not only involved the fate of McNemar and Thompson, but equally our own. We saw the arm of ecclesiastical authority raised to crush us, and we must either sink, or step aside to avoid the blow.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
From: THE CHRISTIAN MESSENGER, 1(24 February 1827), 74-9