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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XXII. - George A. Baxter and the Awakening at the Commencement of the Nineteeth Century


At the commencement of the nineteenth century, the Synod of Virginia consisted of the Presbyterian ministers and churches in the States of Virginia and Kentucky, then a part of Virginia, and Pennsylvania west of the Allegheny Mountains; and was the theatre of one of those great religious movements which convulse society, and leave their impress for generations. It commenced in Kentucky, and spread northward, eastward, and southward, following the track of the pioneers of the forest first, and then seeking beyond the mountains the homes they had left. Its character, like the beautiful country in which it commenced, and the people that were the subjects, was unlike in many of its externals to any awakening, of which the church, in her numerous histories, has any record. In Kentucky the excitement was greatest; and the good and the evil interwoven, most prominent and enduring. It has formed the theme of history already, and will claim for ever a chapter in the history of that State. In North Carolina, the consequences, full of blessings to the Church and State, were abundant, and will form a part of her record for ever. West Pennsylvania has many monuments to tell of the excellencies of that great religious movement which made all things, like this beautiful country, new.

In 1802, the Synod of Virginia was divided, and from her bounds were constituted three Synods, that of Virginia confined to the State, Kentucky, and Pittsburg embracing West Pennsylvania. In each of these Synods the work of God had progressed, moulded in its externals by the varying condition of the population. Sin is the same in its nature and attributes everywhere, and in all time; the love of God is as pure and unchanging as its source; and the grace of Christ as purifying and transforming as at the day of Pentecost. But the manner the great truths of the gospel shall stir the passions, alike in all time in the great principle, will in circumstantials show a striking variety, like the color and forms of the race.

The Synod of Virginia after this great curtailment of her boundaries and churches, numbered on her list of laborers twenty-seven ordained ministers and five licentiates. In the bounds of the two Hanovers, were James Waddell, William Irvin, and Archibald M’Roberts, without a pastoral charge; James Mitchel and James Turner, in Bedford; John D. Blair occupying Hanover and Henrico; Drury Lacy, Cumberland; Matthew Lyle, Buffalo and Briery; James Robinson, Rockfish and Cove; William Calhoon, Albemarle; and Archibald Alexander at the head of Hampden Sidney College. In the Presbytery of Lexington, then containing Montgomery and Greenbrier were, Benjamin Erwin, without charge; William Wilson,

Augusta church; John McCue, Tinkling Spring; Samuel Houston, Falling Spring and High Bridge; Benjamin Grigsby, Lewisburg and Concord; Samuel Brown, New Providence; Robert Wilson, Windy Cove, Little Spring, and Rocky Spring; Robert Logan, without charge; and George A. Baxter, New Monmouth and Lexington, and head of Liberty Hall, or Washington Academy, with John Glendy, a probationer from Ireland, supplying Staunton, Bethel, and Brown’s meeting-house. In the Presbytery of Winchester, were Amos Thompson, without charge; Moses Hoge, Shepherdstown; Nash Legrand, Cedar Creek and Opecquon ; William Hill, Winchester; William Williamson, South River and Flint Run; John Lyle, Romney, Springfield, and Frankfort; Joseph Glass, Gerardstown and Back Creek. The licentiates were, Daniel Blain, William McPheeters, John Todd, John Mines, and John Chavis, a colored man. These thirty-two Presbyterian ministers scattered over the large State of Virginia, felt their hearts moved at the reports brought in from Kentucky. Most of them had friends, and many of them relatives, in the midst of the excitement. Mr. Baxter made a tour through Kentucky in the year 1801, observing carefully the circumstances of the religious meetings, and, like a true philosopher, gathering facts for his future consideration, without any previously formed theory. On his return, he wrote to his friend Archibald Alexander, of Hampden Sidney College, the result of his observations.

To the Rev. Archibald Alexander.

Washington Academy, Jan. 1st, 1802.

Rev. and dear Sir — I now sit down agreeably to promise, to give you some account of the revival of religion in the State of Kentucky; you have, no doubt, heard already of the Green River and Cumberland revivals. I will just observe, that last summer is the fourth since the revival commenced in those places; and that it has been more remarkable than any of the preceding, not only for lively and fervent devotion among Christians, but also for awakenings and conversions among the careless; and it is worthy of notice that very few instances of apostasy have hitherto appeared. As I was not myself in the Cumberland country, all I can say about it is from the testimony of others; but I was uniformly told by those who had been there, that their religious assemblies were more solemn, and the appearance of the work much greater than what had been in Kentucky; any enthusiastic symptoms which might at first have attended the revival, had greatly subsided, whilst the serious concern and engagedness of the people were visibly increased.

In the older settlements of Kentucky the revival made its first appearance among the Presbyterians last spring. The whole of that country about a year before was remarkable for vice and dissipation ; and I have been credibly informed that a decided majority of the people were professed infidels. During the last winter appearances were favorable among the Baptists, and great numbers were added to their churches. Early in the spring the ministrations of the Presbyterian clergy began to be better attended than they had been for many years before. Their worshipping assemblies became more solemn, and the people, after they were dismissed, showed a strange reluctance at leaving the place ; they generally continued some time in the meeting-house, in singing or in religious conversation. Perhaps about the last of May or the first of June the awakenings became general in some congregations, and spread through the country in every direction with amazing rapidity. I left that country about the first of November, at which time this revival, in connexion with the one on Cumberland, had covered the whole State, excepting a small settlement which borders on the waters of Green river, in which no Presbyterian ministers are settled, and I believe very few of any denomination. The power with which this revival has spread, and its influence in moralizing the people, are difficult for you to conceive of, and more difficult for me to describe. I had heard many accounts and seen many letters respecting it before I went to that country; but my expectations, though greatly raised, were much below the reality of the work. The congregations, when engaged in worship, presented scenes of solemnity superior to what I had ever seen before; and in private houses it was no uncommon thing to hear parents relate to strangers the wonderful things which God had done in their neighborhoods, whilst a large circle of young people would be in tears.

On my way to Kentucky, I was told by settlers on the road, that the character of Kentucky travellers was entirely changed, and that they were now as distinguished for sobriety as they had formerly been for dissoluteness; and indeed, I found Kentucky the most moral place I had ever been in; a profane expression was hardly heard; a religious awe seemed to pervade the country; and some deistical characters had confessed that from whatever cause the revival might originate, it certainly made the people better. Its influence was not less visible in promoting a friendly temper; nothing could appear more amiable than that undissembled benevolence which governs the subjects of this wrork. I have often wished that the mere politician or deist could observe with impartiality their peaceful and amicable spirit. He would certainly see that nothing could equal the religion of Jesus for promoting even the temporal happiness of society. Some neighborhoods visited by the revival had been formerly notorious for private animosities, and many petty law-suits had commenced on that ground. When the parties in these quarrels were impressed with religion, the first thing was to send for their antagonists; and it was often very affecting to see their meeting. Both had seen their faults, and both contended that they ought to make concessions, till at last they were obliged to request each to forbear all mention of the past, and to act as friends and brothers for the future. Now, sir, let modern philosophists talk of reforming the world by banishing Christianity and introducing their licentious systems. The blessed gospel of our God and Saviour is showing what it can do.

Some circumstances have concurred to distinguish the Kentucky revival from most others of which we have had any account. I mean the largeness of the assemblies on sacramental occasions, the length of time they continued on the ground in devotional exercises, and the great numbers who have fallen down under religious impressions. On each of these particulars I shall make some remarks. 1st. With respect to the largeness of the assemblies. It is generally supposed that at many places there were not fewer than eight, ten, or twelve thousand people. At a place called Cane Ridge Meeting House, many are of opinion there were at least twenty thousand. There were 140 wagons which came loaded with people, besides other wheel carriages. Some persons had come 200 miles. The largeness of these assemblies was an inconvenience — they were too numerous to be addressed by one speaker; it therefore became necessary for several ministers to officiate at the same time at different stands. This afforded an opportunity to those who were but slightly impressed with religion to wander to and fro between the different places of worship, which created an appearance of confusion, and gave ground to such as were unfriendly to the work to charge it with disorder.

Another cause also conduced to the same effect; about this time, the people began to fall down in great numbers, under serious impressions. This was a new thing among Presbyterians; it excited universal astonishment, and created a curiosity which could not be restrained, when people fell even during the most solemn parts of divine service. Those who stood near, were so extremely anxious to see how they were affected, that they often crowded about them, so as to disturb the worship. But these causes of disorder were soon removed; different sacraments were appointed on the same Sabbath, which divided the people, and the falling down became so familiar as to excite no disturbance. In October, I attended three sacraments; at each, there were supposed to be four or five thousand people, and everything was conducted with strict propriety. When persons fell, those who were near took care of them, and everything continued quiet until the worship was concluded.

2d. The length of time that people continue at the places of worship, is another important circumstance of the Kentucky revival. At Cane Ridge they met on Friday, and continued till Wednesday evening, night and day, without intermission, either in public or private exercises of devotion, and with such earnestness, that heavy showers of rain were not sufficient to disperse them. On other sacramental occasions, they generally continued on the ground until Monday or Tuesday evening; and had not the preachers been exhausted and obliged to retire, or had they chosen to prolong the worship, they might have kept the people any length of time they pleased; and all this was or might have been done in a country where, less than twelve months before, the clergy found it difficult to detain the people during the usual exercises of the Sabbath.

The practice of camping on the ground was introduced partly by necessity, and partly by inclination; the assemblies were generally too large to be received by any common neighborhood; everything indeed was done which hospitality and brotherly kindness could do, to accommodate the people ; public and private houses were opened, and free invitations given to all persons who wished to retire. Farmers gave up their meadows, before they were mown, to supply the horses; yet, notwithstanding all this liberality, it would have been impossible, in many cases, to have accommodated the whole assemblies with private lodgings; but, besides, the people were unwilling to suffer any interruption in their devotions, and they formed an attachment to the place where they were continually seeing so many careless sinners receiving their first impressions, and so many deists constrained to call on the formerly despised name of Jesus; they conceived a sentiment like what Jacob felt in Bethel, “Surely the Lord is in this place.” “This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

3d. The number of persons who have fallen down under serious impressions in this revival, is another matter worthy of attention; and on this I shall be more particular, as it seems to be the principal cause why this work should be more suspected of enthusiasm than some other revivals. At Cane Ridge sacrament, it is generally supposed not less than one thousand persons fell prostrate to the ground, among whom were many infidels. At one sacrament which i attended, the number that fell was thought to be more than three hundred. Persons who fall, are generally such as had manifested symptoms of the deepest impressions for some time previous to that event. It is common to see them shed tears plentifully for about an hour. Immediately before they become totally powerless, they are seized with a tremor, and sometimes, though not often, they utter one or two piercing shrieks, in the moment of falling; persons in this situation are affected in different degrees; sometimes, when unable to stand 01* sit, they have the use of their hands, and can converse with perfect composure. In other cases they are unable to speak, the pulse becomes weak, and they draw a difficult breath, about once in a minute: in some instances, their extremities become cold, and pulsation, breathing, and all the signs of life forsake them for nearly an hour. Persons who have been in this situation have uniformly avowed that they felt no bodily pain, that they had the entire use of their reason and reflection, and when recovered, they could relate everything that had been said or done near them, or which could possibly fall within their observation.

From this it appears that their falling is neither common fainting, nor a nervous action. Indeed this strange phenomenon appears to have taken every possible turn to baffle the conjectures of those who are not willing to consider it" a supernatural work. Persons have sometimes fallen on their way from public worship; and sometimes after they had arrived at home; and in some cases when they were pursuing their common business on their farms, or when retired for secret devotion. It was above observed that persons generally are seriously affected for some time previous to their falling; in many cases, however, it is otherwise. Numbers of thoughtless sinners have fallen as suddenly as if struck with lightning. Many professed infidels, arid other vicious characters have been arrested in this way, and sometimes at the very time they were uttering blasphemies against the work.

At the beginning of the revival in Shelby County, the appearances, as related to me by eye-witnesses, were very surprising indeed. The revival had before this spread with irresistible power through the adjacent counties; and many of the pious had attended distant sacraments with great benefit. These were much engaged, and felt unusual freedom in their addresses at the throne of grace, for the out-pouring of the divine Spirit at the approaching sacrament in Shelby. The sacrament came on in September. The people as usual met on Friday: but all were languid, and the exercises went on heavily. On Saturday and Sunday morning it was no better. At length the communion service commenced, everything was still lifeless : whilst the minister of the place was speaking at one. of the tables, without any unusual animation, suddenly there were several shrieks from "different parts of the assembly; instantly persons fell in every direction; the feelings of the pious were suddenly revived, and the work progressed with extraording power, till the conclusion of. the solemnity. This phenomenon of falling is common to all ages, sexes, and characters; and when they fall they are differently exercised. Some pious people have fallen under a sense of ingratitude and hardness of heart, and others under affecting manifestations of the love and good of God. Many thoughtless persons under legal convictions, have obtained comfort before they arose.

But perhaps the most numerous class consists of those who fall under distressing views of their guilt, who arise with the same fearful apprehensions, and continue in that state for some days, perhaps weeks, before they' receive comfort. I have conversed with many who fell under the influence of comfortable feelings, and the account they gave of their exercises while they lay entranced was very surprising. I know not how t6 give you a better idea of them than by . sayiug, that in many cases they appeared to surpass the dying exercises of Dr. Finley; their minds appeared wholly swallowed up in contemplating the perfections of Deity, as illustrated in the plan of salvation, and whilst they lay apparently senseless, and almost lifeless, their minds were more vigorous, and their memories more retentive and accurate than they had ever been before.

I have heard men of respectability assert that their manifestations of gospel truth were so clear, as to require some caution when they began to speak, lest they should *use language which might induce their hearers to suppose, that they had seen those things with their bodily eyes; but at the same time they had seen no image, nor sensible representation, nor indeed any thing besides the old truths contained in the Bible. Among those whose minds were filled with the most delightful communications of divine love, I but seldom observed anything extatic. Their expressions were just and rational, they conversed with calmness and composure, and on their first recovering the use of speech, they appeared like persons recovering from a violent disease which had left them on the borders of the grave. I have sometimes been present when persons who fell under the influence of convictions, obtained relief before they arose; in these cases it was impossible not to observe how strongly the change in their minds was depicted in their countenances. Instead of a face of horror and despair, they assumed one open, luminous, serene and expressive of all the comfortable feelings of religion. As to those who fall down under legal convictions and continue in that state, they are not different from those who receive convictions in other revivals, excepting that their distress is more severe. Indeed extraordinary power is the leading characteristic of this revival; both saints and sinners have more striking discoveries of the realities of another world, than I have ever known on any other occasion.

I trust I have said enough on this subject to enable you to judge, how far the charge of enthusiasm is applicable to it. Lord Lyttleton in his letter on the conversion of St. Paul observes, (I think justly), that enthusiasm is a vain self-righteous spirit, swelled with self-sufficiency and disposed to glory in its religious attainments. If this be a good definition there has been perhaps as little enthusiasm in the Kentucky revival as in any other. Never have I seen more genuine marks of that humility which disclaims the merit of its own duties, and looks to the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way of acceptance with God. I was indeed highly pleased to find that Christ was all in all in their religion, as well as in the religion of the gospel. Christians in their highest attainments seemed most sensible of their entire dependence on divine grace, and it was truly affecting to hear with what agonizing anxiety awakened sinners enquired for Christ, as the only physician who could give them any help. Those who call these things enthusiasm ought to tell us what they understand by the spirit of Christianity. In fact, sir, this revival operates as our Saviour promised the Holy Spirit should when sent into the world: it convinces of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment; a strong confirmation to my mind, both that the promise is divine, and that this is a remarkable fulfilment of it.

It would be of little avail to object to all this, that probably the professions of many were counterfeited. Such an objection would rather establish what it meant to destroy, for where there is no reality there can be no counterfeit, and besides when the general tenor of a work is such as to dispose the more insincere professors to counterfeit what is right, the work itself must be genuine. But as an eye-witness in the case, I may be permitted to declare that the professions of those under religious convictions were generally marked with such a degree of engagedness and feeling, as wilful hypocrisy could hardly assume. The language of the heart when deeply impressed, is very distinguishable from the language of affectation. Upon the whole, sir, I think the revival in Kentucky among the most extraordinary that have ever visited the Church of Christ, and, all things considered, peculiarly adapted to the circumstances of that country. Infidelity was triumphant, and religion at the point of expiring. Something of an extraordinary nature seemed necessary to arrest the attention of a giddy people, who were ready to conclude that Christianity was a fable, and futurity a dream. This revival has done it, it has confounded infidelity, awed vice into silence, and brought numbers beyond calculation, under serious impressions. Whilst the blessed Saviour was calling home his people, and building up his Church in this remarkable way, opposition could not be silent. At this I hinted above; but it is proper to observe, that the clamorous opposition which assailed the work at its commencement has been in a great measure borne down before it.

A large proportion of those who have fallen, were at first op-posers, and their example has taught others to be cautious, if it has not taught them to be wise. I have written on this subject, to a greater length than I first intended, but if this account should give you any satisfaction, and be of any benefit to the common cause, I shall be fully gratified.

Yours with the highest esteem,

G. A. Baxter.

In this letter he displays one of his characteristics through life, an ability to gather facts with coolness and precision in preparation for illustration, demonstration, or experiment in the broad field of natural and moral philosophy, in the science of physics or of mind, religion natural or revealed. From these data he formed his opinion. Of the bodily exercises he wrote more favorably than he probably would have done some years later in life. He never thought them subversive of religion, in their early stages, and more moderate forms, or irreconcilable with its purity. They might be a weakness, but not a sin. In their later stages, when they became violent and varied, he carefully separated them from religion, both in its early and more matured exercises. The work, as he saw it, he believed to be of God, and rejoiced in it, and desired to behold its power in Virginia. The old men, leaders in the revival of ’88, were gone or sinking in years. The young men, and converts, were the standard bearers now, and watched the approach of the pillar of cloud and of fire, that, hovering over Kentucky, moved slowly eastward. With an almost universal dread of the bodily exercises, they longed for the presence of the Almighty, with which these were mysteriously connected.

The excitement, with some of its peculiarities, was felt in Virginia, first, in the Presbyterian settlements along the head waters of the Ivenawha, in Greenbrier County. Here were no stated ministers. Missionaries occasionally visited them. The work began at a prayer-meeting of private Christians. Ministers from Kentucky recognized here the power of spiritual truths over the minds of men, as they had seen it in the West. Some of the Virginia preachers visited the settlements, and beheld, with astonishment, the influence of grace combined with an unknown power. Desires, hopes, and fears were high. Would the shower descend upon the Virginia church?

In the latter part of the year 1801, the churches under the care of Messrs. Mitchel and Turner, were greatly revived. A meeting held at the close of the year was noted for the number of people impressed with a deep sense of the value as well as truth of the gospel. Many made profession of their faith. The bodily agitations of numbers were uncontrolled; they fell upon the ground as smitten by a resistless power. In the succeeding spring the influence of divine truth was felt with increased force. The Presbytery of Hanover met at Bethel. Crowds attended upon the ministrations of the gospel. About one hundred had now professed conversion. There were some bodily exercises; but no noise or outbreaking of disorderly emotions. The congregations in Albemarle, in Prince Edward and Charlotte, were greatly awakened ; and the happy influence was felt over a large region of country, east of the Blue Ridge.

Mr. Baxter visited Bedford, and some of his young people mingled with the congregation of Bethel in their religious services. The pastor and his young people returned like Graham from Prince Edward, imbued with the spirit of the revival. The congregations of Lexington and New Monmouth became deeply interested. There were many hopeful conversions. The work of grace spread through the congregations in the Valley. Bodily exercises accompanied, and, in some of the congregations, were violent. Mr. Baxter for a time hesitated. Were they a necessary connection? If so, let them be as violent as could be imagined, only let the work of grace go on. Were they an accidental thing, or the work of the enemy sowing tares? If so, they were to be opposed at all hazards lest they defile the work of God. Samuel Brown, of New Providence, said boldly they were a profane mixture, a device of Satan to mar the work of God. In a little time Mr. Baxter, and the ministers generally, came to the conclusion that" they were not a necessary part of the work of grace, and were to be discountenanced. Only one minister felt unwilling to speak and act against them. By private conversation, and calmly pausing in public services whenever the exercises commenced, till quietness was restored, the minister in a little time entirely put down the unhappy “profane mixture,” except in some peculiar cases and solitary instances.

The awakening continued in different parts of the Synod for some years. There were many hopeful converts where there was no stated ministry, or regular church organization. Many of these looking in vain to the Presbyterian Church for the living ministry, turned their attention to other denominations prepared to supply their wants, and are now lost to the Presbyterian Church. The demand for educated ministers came pressing on the Synod. She looked to her Colleges, and to the sons of the Church, and to her God, for the supply.


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