The Birth of the Bible Belt

The Birth of the Bible Belt
An excerpt from “Televangelicalism” 
Robert Wurtz II
        As with the spread of the Gospel in the first century, so also the Second Great Awakening owes its spread, in part, to religious persecution. James McGready (1763-1817) was a powerful preacher in North Carolina calling sinners to repentance. He had experienced revival on a local level in three different places. The trouble was that the revival began to upset their monetary endeavors, and soon a people more interested in money than mercy had had their fill of him. The secular residents sought to persuade him nicely to leave, but when that failed they ransacked his church and left a letter written in blood[1]suggesting that he leave town. It was at this time that he decided to answer the call of God to go west with the settlers to what is now Kentucky. This move would mark the beginnings of what has come to be known as The Bible Belt.
         The revival minded McGready is credited with organizing what used to be called camp meetings. They were very similar to what George Whitefield and John Wesley had done in the previous century. McGready would send out a call to folks to get in their wagons or on their horses and travel to a large open area to hear the Gospel preached. Men would split logs and make them into pews for an outdoor church effect. Sometimes a brush arbor roof made of timbers and branches would be erected, one of which was reported to have provided cover for some 5000 people. The minister would ascend on to a tall platform and commence preaching at the top of his voice. John McGee describes his personal experience of attending a communion meeting at Cain Ridge: “We loved, and prayed, and preached together; and God was pleased to own and bless us and our labors. In the year 1799 we agreed to make a tour through the Barrens, toward Ohio, and concluded to attend a sacramental solemnity in the Rev. Mr. McGready’s congregation, on Red River, in our way. When we came there I was introduced by my brother, and received an invitation to address the congregation from the pulpit; and I know not that ever God favored me with more light and liberty than he did each day while I endeavored to convince the people they were sinners, and urged the necessity of repentance, and of a change from nature to grace, and held up to their view the greatness, freeness, and fullness of salvation, which was in Christ Jesus, for lost, guilty, condemned sinners. My brother and the Rev. Mr. Hodge preached with much animation and liberty. The people felt the force of truth, and tears ran down their cheeks; but all was silent until Monday, the last day of the feast. Mr. Hodge gave a useful discourse; an inter mission was given, and I was appointed to preach. While Mr. Hodge was preaching a woman in the east end of the house got an uncommon blessing, broke through order, and shouted for some time, and then sat down in silence. At the close of the sermon Messrs. Hodge, McGready, and Rankin west out of the house; my brother and myself sat still; the people seemed to have no disposition to leave their seats. My brother felt such a power come on him that he quit his seat and sat down on the floor of the pulpit (I suppose, not knowing what he did). A power which caused me to tremble was upon me. There was a solemn weeping all over the house. Having a wish to preach, I strove against my feelings; at length I rose up and told the people that I was appointed to preach, but there was a greater than I preaching, and exhorted them to let the Lord God Omnipotent reign in their hearts, and to submit to him, and their souls should live. Many broke silence; the woman in the east end of the house shouted tremendously. I left the pulpit to go to her, and as I went along through the people it was suggested to me, ” You know these people are much for order, they will not bear this confusion ; go back and be quiet.” I turned to go back, and was near falling. The power of God was strong upon me; I turned again, and losing sight of the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy, and the floor was soon covered with the slain. Their cries for mercy pierced the heavens, and mercy came down. Some found forgiveness, and many went away from that meeting feeling unutterable agonies of soul for redemption in the blood of Jesus. This was the beginning of that glorious revival of religion in this country which was so great a blessing to thousands; and from this meeting camp-meetings took their rise. One man, for want of horses for all his family to ride and attend the meeting, fixed up his wagon, in which he took them and his provisions, and lived on the ground throughout the meeting. He had left his worldly cares behind him, and had nothing to do but attend on divine service. The next meeting was a camp-meeting. A number of wagons loaded with people came together and camped on the ground, and the Lord was present and approved of their zeal by sealing a pardon to about forty souls. The next camp- meeting was on the Ridge, where there was an increase of people, and carriages of different descriptions, and a great many preachers of the Presbyterian and Methodist orders, and some of the Baptist — but the latter were generally opposed to the work. Preaching commenced, and the people prayed, and the power of God attended. The nights were truly awful. The camp-ground was well illuminated; the people were differently exercised — some exhorting, some shouting, some praying, and some crying for mercy, while others lay as dead men on the ground. At this meeting it was computed that one hundred souls were converted. But perhaps the greatest meeting we ever witnessed in this country took place shortly after, on Desha’s Creek, near Cumberland River. Many thousands of people at tended. The mighty power and mercy of God were manifested. The people fell before the word like corn before a storm of wind, and many rose from the dust with divine glory shining in their countenances, and gave glory to God in such strains as made the hearts of stubborn sinners to tremble; and after the first gust of praise, they would break forth in volleys of exhortation.”[2]

The Cane Ridge Outpouring

         The Cane Ridge outpouring (1801) was characterized by fellow men and women of God coming together for the cause of Christ. The Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists united together in the work, meeting together, praying together, and preaching together. As the people would gather together from all over the countryside, scores of ministers from multiple denominations would be spread along the field preaching day and night on stumps to crowds in the thousands. This went on for several weeks. Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) gives an account of the meetings and his conversion at sixteen years old, “I have seen more than a hundred sinners fall like dead men under one powerful sermon[3], and I have seen and heard more than five hundred Christians all shouting aloud the nigh praises of God at once ; and I will venture to assert that many happy thousands were awakened and converted to God at these camp-meetings. Some sinners mocked, some of the old dry professors opposed, some of the old starched preachers preached against these exercises, but still the work went on and spread almost in every direction, gathering additional force, till our country seemed all coming home to God. To this meeting I repaired, a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening of said meeting, I went, with weeping multitudes, and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.[4]

The Enormity of Sins
Perhaps a more candid testimony was given by J.B. Finley who writes, “I had lived thoughtless and wicked, resolving and re-resolving upon mending my ways, but continuing the same, or, rather, growing worse and worse, till I arrived at the twentieth year of my age. About this time a great revival of religion broke out in the state of Kentucky. It was attended with such peculiar circumstances as to produce great alarm all over the country. It was reported that hundreds who attended the meetings were suddenly struck down, and would lie for hours and, sometimes, for days, unconscious; and that when they recovered and came out of that state, they would commence praising God for His pardoning mercy.” Finley had determined that although many others had fallen under the weight of their sins, he would not fall. He determined that he would not be emotionally driven or scared into religion. In this resolution he prided himself and headed to the meeting. Soon his mind was sobered and his resolute attitude began to waver. He described the setting: “We arrived upon the ground, and here a scene presented itself to my mind not only novel and unaccountable, but awful beyond description. A vast crowd, supposed by some to have amounted to twenty -five thousand, was collected together. The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others in wagons, and one — the Rev. William Burke — was standing on a tree which had, in falling, lodged against another. Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy in the most piteous accents, while others were shouting most vociferously. While witnessing these scenes, a peculiarly strange sensation, such as I had never felt before, came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lip quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground. A strange supernatural power seemed to pervade the entire mass of mind there collected. I became so weak and powerless that I found it necessary to sit down. Soon after, I left and went into the woods, and there I strove to rally and man up my courage. I tried to philosophize in regard to these wonderful exhibitions, resolving them into mere sympathetic excitement — a kind of religious enthusiasm, inspired by songs and eloquent diatribes. My pride was wounded, for I had supposed that my mental and physical strength and vigor could most successfully resist these influences. After some time I returned to the scene of excitement, the waves of which, if possible, had risen still higher. The same awfulness of feeling came over me. I stepped up on to a log, where I could have a better view of the surging sea of humanity. The scene that then presented itself to my mind was indescribable. At one time I saw at least five hundred people swept down in a moment, as if a battery of a thousand guns had been opened upon them, and then immediately followed shrieks and shouts that rent the very heavens. My hair rose up on my head, my whole frame trembled, the blood ran cold in my veins, and I fled for the woods a second time, and wished I had staid at home. While I remained here my feelings became intense and insupportable. A sense of suffocation and blindness seemed to come over me, and I thought I was going to die.” Finley fled the scene again trying to escape the power of conviction that was after him. He felt that the pressure of his sins being brought to bear upon his heart and mind was so great, that he would die if he did not find relief. At last he went out into a field near his home and cried out to God so loudly, that the neighbors came out to see what was going on. Upon seeing him a Dutchman picked him up and carried him into the house and laid him on the bed. Finley recounts the story: “The old Dutch saint directed me to look right away to the Savior. He then kneeled at the bedside, and prayed for my salvation most fervently, in Dutch and broken English. He then rose and sung in the same manner, and continued singing and praying alternately till nine o’clock, when suddenly my load was gone, my guilt removed, and presently the direct witness from Heaven shone full upon my soul. Then there flowed such copious streams of love into the hitherto waste and desolate places of my soul, that 1 thought I should die with excess of joy. I cried, I laughed, I shouted, and so strangely did I appear to all but my Dutch brother, that they thought me deranged. After a time I returned to my companion, and we started on our journey. O what a day it was to my soul!”[5]

[1] Kenneth Keulman., Critical Moments in Religious History.  1994. P. 129
[2] Richard D. Dickenson., A History of Methodism.1885. P.490
[3] Peter Cartwright.,  The Autobiography of Peter Cartwright: The Backwoods Preacher, Volume III., 1857. P.45
[4] William Francis Pringle Noble., 1776-1876, a Century of Gospel-work: A History of the Growth of Evangelical Religion in the United States. 1876. P.278 
[5] Ibid., Noble, P.282

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