• Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Under such exhortations, the people began to be affected in a very strange manner. At first they were taken with an inward throbbing of heart, then with weeping and trembling; from that to crying out in apparent agony of soul; falling down and swooning away.”

Summary Overview

Richard McNemar was a Presbyterian preacher in frontier Kentucky. In August 1801, he was one of the organizers who promoted the Cane Ridge revival near Paris, Kentucky. The Cane Ridge camp meeting was perhaps the most famous of the revival meetings during the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in America from the late 1790s to the 1830s. In this excerpt from McNemar’s The Kentucky Revival (1808), he describes some events that preceded the Cane Ridge camp meeting. One of the things that made the Cane Ridge revival so remarkable was the appearance of what came to be called the “bodily exercises.” These were various physical actions that participants at the revival viewed as signs that the person afflicted was under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In this excerpt, McNemar describes examples of similar phenomena that occurred at various revivals and church meetings in the months leading up to the Cane Ridge meeting.

Defining Moment

McNemar’s The Kentucky Revival is an important primary-source account about the Cane Ridge revival in August 1801, as well as events preceding it and what followed in the aftermath of the revival. One of the most significant events in the Second Great Awakening in early nineteenth-century America, the Cane Ridge revival prompted much controversy due to the emotionalism of much of the preaching and the ecstatic responses from those impacted by the revival. Among several Protestant denominations, revivalism prompted disagreements between those clergy who supported and encouraged the revivals and those who were suspicious of their methods and results. Cane Ridge was also controversial because some of the leading promoters of the revival soon left the Presbyterian denomination.

McNemar, along with Barton W. Stone and three other Presbyterian ministers, soon withdrew from the supervision of their regional Presbyterian synod and started an independent body they called the Springfield Presbytery. McNemar and his fellow ministers in this group advocated a more ecumenical spirit, rejecting human-devised creeds and statements of faith and relying on the Bible alone for the guidance of the church. Eventually, the leaders of the Springfield Presbytery decided that any organizational structure beyond the local congregation was unscriptural, and in June 1804, McNemar authored The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which the leaders of the presbytery announced its demise and called upon all Christians to assemble in self-governing congregations and to consider themselves simply Christians. Stone became a major leader of these self-governing Christian congregations, which eventually came together with other groups and developed into the Churches of Christ or the Disciples of Christ, a major new American religious movement that emerged in the early 1800s. In the spring of 1805, missionaries of the Shaker movement, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, came to Kentucky, and McNemar and another of the former Presbyterian ministers who had been among the leaders at Cane Ridge joined the movement. For the rest of his life, McNemar served as a Shaker leader in the trans-Appalachian West, composing and publishing many Shaker hymns. In The Kentucky Revival, McNemar provides a firsthand account of the revivals, including the unusual bodily exercises; the background of his departure from the Presbyterian denomination; and his conversion to the Shaker movement.

Author Biography

Richard McNemar was born in Tuscarora, Pennsylvania, on November 20, 1770. As a young man, he taught school in frontier settlements in Pennsylvania, even though he had no formal higher education. When he felt a call to become a minister, he moved to Kentucky to study under Presbyterian ministers there. In December 1789, he moved to Cane Ridge in Bourbon County, Kentucky, to study at a crude frontier seminary conducted by Robert Finley. In the fall of 1797, he began preaching for the Presbyterian congregation at Cabin Creek, Kentucky.

In August 1801, McNemar was one of the leaders of the camp meeting held at Cane Ridge, which was perhaps the largest and most famous camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening. Between August 6 and 12, an estimated ten to twenty thousand people attended revival services. Among the remarkable phenomena at Cane Ridge were the bodily exercises: physical activities such as singing, laughing, running, and falling down as if struck dead. These activities seemed to be beyond the control of those afflicted, and the revivalists considered them manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

McNemar had always had some disagreements with the Calvinistic theology embraced by the Presbyterian churches in that era. These views and his involvement in the Cane Ridge revival led to several months of controversy between McNemar and regional Presbyterian leaders. Eventually, McNemar and four other Presbyterian ministers withdrew from the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Synod of Kentucky in September 1803. They formed an independent body that they named the Springfield Presbytery. After less than a year, the leaders decided to abandon this organization, believing that the New Testament did not authorize such organizational structures. McNemar was the author of a document they published in June 1804 to announce the presbytery’s demise, The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.

Although The Last Will and Testament is considered a foundational document of the movement that later became the Disciples of Christ, McNemar did not remain part of this group for long. In the spring of 1805, he joined the Shaker movement. The Shakers were an offshoot of English Quakerism; by McNemar’s time, they had begun teaching that one of their founders, Mother Ann Lee, was not only a prophet but the female manifestation of Christ and that her life marked the Second Coming of Christ. McNemar moved to Ohio and became an important leader in the western branch of the Shaker movement, publishing many Shaker hymns and editing the first Shaker journal, the Western Review. He died in Ohio on September 15, 1839.

Document Analysis

The Kentucky Revival is a firsthand account of the Cane Ridge revival in Bourbon County, Kentucky, held in August 1801. McNemar’s account also covers events that occurred after the Cane Ridge meeting, through the time when he left the Presbyterian denomination along with four other ministers and became part of the Christian movement—so called because they determined that Christians should use no other name—and on to the time when he became associated with the Shaker movement. In the excerpt reprinted here, McNemar is describing some things that happened in the months preceding the Cane Ridge camp meeting, where unusual physical manifestations similar to what were called the bodily exercises at Cane Ridge were being seen in various places in Kentucky.

The religious revival in Kentucky from the late 1790s into the early 1800s has been referred to as the Kentucky Revival, the Great Western Revival, and simply the Great Revival. It is often regarded as one of the first manifestations of what became known as the Second Great Awakening in America. Although there were scenes of great emotion and passion in many other parts of the country during the Second Great Awakening, no other area witnessed the kind of physical exercises that were manifested in Kentucky and the bordering regions of some of the neighboring states.

Kentucky in the late 1790s was ripe for religious revival. The population of the state had grown rapidly, from over 73,000 in 1790 to nearly 221,000 in 1800. Most of this population was rural; the largest city in the state, Lexington, had a population of less than 2,000 in 1800. Many people living on the frontier had moved beyond the reach of any churches and had no local congregation to attend. Additionally, in the years after the American Revolution, in part because of the influence of deism and the rationalism of the French Revolution, there was a significant growth of skepticism within the United States. In 1790, only about 5 percent of the American population officially belonged to any church. Christians in Kentucky exhibited great anxiety about the growth of irreligion in their area, and for several years preceding the outbreak of the revival, Christians in various communities met together regularly for prayer and fasted as they sought God’s guidance on the religious situation in their settlements.

In sketching some of the background of the great revival that occurred at Cane Ridge, McNemar first refers to occurrences that happened at the very end of the 1790s in Logan and Christian Counties in Kentucky, specifically in settlements along the Gasper and Red Rivers. In the spring of 1801, similar things began to happen in Mason County, in the northern part of Kentucky. McNemar himself witnessed the events in Mason County, and he relates that he can testify about these things “with greater confidence.” Much of what McNemar records dealt with physical manifestations such as people being overcome with weeping, crying out in their sorrow or fear, and falling down and “swooning”—passing out and seeming to lose consciousness for a period of time. He also records many examples of people speaking, preaching, or exhorting others in which the person speaking seemed to be imbued with special spiritual power or influence.

Ever since the revivals in Kentucky and elsewhere on the frontier where events like this were reported, scholars have tried to explain what was happening during these unusual occurrences. Some have set forward sociological explanations, suggesting that people on the frontier lived with a great deal of anxiety and loneliness, and when they came together in these revival meetings, they found an emotional release that resulted in the bodily exercises and the type of preaching and exhorting that McNemar describes here. It is interesting to note that McNemar makes no effort to explain what was going on. Like most of the leaders and the participants in these revivals, he believed these things were “extraordinary appearances of the power of God.” Occasional physical or highly emotional responses to Christian preaching are not uncommon throughout the history of Christianity, but what was unusual in the Kentucky revival was the number of people manifesting these reactions, the intensity of their responses, and the impact these events had on others in the churches and revival meetings.

McNemar notes that these unusual events began with people “who had been under deep convictions of sin,” meaning that they had come to understand the Christian teaching about the sinfulness of humankind and the need for repentance and salvation through Christ. Many of these people had fasted, prayed, and “searched the scriptures” about their spiritual needs. Many had gone through times of severe stress, had finally come to a belief or understanding that they had experienced salvation, and had obtained a sense of hope or assurance about this. After this experience, they felt compelled to reach out to others and bring them to the same experience of repentance and salvation. They often cried out, McNemar records, “with tears and trembling.” Besides emotional responses like crying and expressions of fear or sorrow, the phenomenon that McNemar describes most often is “falling,” in which the person would fall to the ground as if struck dead. He or she would remain unconscious for some time, with, as McNemar notes “every appearance of animal life suspended.” Often after people arose from this state of swooning, they would speak in what seemed to be inspired and powerful ways, urging others to repent and be converted.

McNemar quotes from a letter from someone from the Cane Ridge community identified only by the initials P. H. The letter is dated January 30, 1801, so it is describing events several months before the great camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge. This report notes that children were among the ones most often afflicted with these strange manifestations. From other evidence, it appears that this was generally true throughout the Kentucky revival. The children described in this letter would fall into a swoon, and then when they regained consciousness, they would either express “joy and triumph,” believing they had experienced salvation, or continue “crying for mercy.” When they achieved a sense of assurance about their own salvation, they would cry out to others, exhorting them to repent. The person writing the letter expresses his belief that when these children spoke, “it appear[ed] that the Lord sen[t] his spirit to accompany it with power to the hearts of sinners.” This was generally the response of many of the Christians who observed these and other examples of the bodily exercises that occurred at the revivals throughout Kentucky during this awakening; they were convinced they were seeing some sign of the power of God in these extraordinary events. McNemar records his own impression that it was notable that God was using children in this work, which was designed “to bring down the pride and loftiness of man”.

McNemar next records events that happened “at a sacrament, near Flemingsburgh,” in April 1800. A sacrament was a meeting held for the observance of the sacrament of Communion or the Lord’s Supper. In Presbyterian congregations, in a tradition that stretches back to the denomination’s roots in Scotland, these sacramental meetings were often affairs that lasted several days. A few days would be devoted to preaching and self-examination as the people prepared themselves to take Communion. In accordance with the apostle Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 11, it was believed to be vitally important that people approach partaking of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner, so this period of preparation was thought to be essential. On the day before the Communion service was to be held, the ministers would conduct examinations of the people, and only those deemed to be truly approaching the event with the proper seriousness and understanding would be admitted to take Communion on the following day, usually a Sunday. Sometimes the meeting would continue on for another day after the Sunday when the Communion service was held. Some scholars have argued that these sacramental meetings, or holy fairs, as they were sometimes called in Scotland, were the prototypes of what became the camp meetings on the American frontier during the Second Great Awakening.

In his account of what happened at the sacrament meeting in Flemingsburgh (now Flemingsburg), McNemar again emphasizes the role of young children, in this case two young girls, who he says were about nine or ten years old. They both cried out in distress, but then one of them seemed to come to an assurance of salvation and began to speak directly to the other one, until she also came to feel she had been converted. On the following Sabbath, or Sunday, at the Cabin Creek congregation, about twenty people were “struck”—probably meaning struck down, in the sense of the swooning that had been reported on previous occasions. McNemar says that people must have felt a “dire necessity” if they let others see them in these situations, because many people, even among professing Christians, considered these happenings as a kind of “wild enthusiasm, or the fruits of a disordered brain,” meaning some sort of mental affliction. McNemar does not mention it here, but at this time he was the minister of a Presbyterian congregation at Cabin Creek, so such physical manifestations may have occurred in his own congregation.

There was some opposition to these bizarre events, as McNemar notes. He notes how some people reached out to those afflicted by the various exercises and offered them comfort, prayed with them, or sang hymns with them “without any regard to the former rules of order,” probably referring to what would have been the normal way that services were conducted within the church. Some were “offended” at this breach of proper decorum or order and “withdrew from the assembly, determined to oppose it, as a work of the wicked one”—meaning that these opponents of the revival believed that the strange exhibitions were the work not of God’s Holy Spirit but of Satan. As often happens, opposition only increased the zeal of others to promote the revival, and a meeting was appointed for a few days later, where people prayed and sang and exhorted one another for the entire night. During this meeting, one man was struck down and lay unconscious for about an hour; this seemed to convince many people that the strange happenings were from God.

McNemar describes how the revival grew and spread. People seeing these strange phenomena would tell others, and those people would come to see for themselves, out of curiosity if not from any sense of spiritual need on their own part. As the meetings went on at all hours of the day and night, people began to camp out nearby. McNemar says people flocked to the meetings “in hundreds and thousands,” which may sound like an exaggeration. But there were many revivals in Kentucky during this time where the attendance was estimated in the thousands; at the Cane Ridge meeting later in 1801, the number attending was estimated at between ten and twenty thousand people.

As one might imagine, the different phenomena McNemar describes—the crying out, the shouting, the spontaneous preaching and exhortation, and people being struck down—meant there was little order to these meetings. He admits that the spectator might see “nothing . . . but a scene of confusion that could scarce be put into human language.” A kind of exuberant spontaneity seemed to be a hallmark of many of the revival meetings on the frontier.

McNemar goes on to describe a meeting that started at Cabin Creek on May 22, 1801, and continued for four days and three nights. “The scene was awful beyond description” he says, meaning awful in the literal sense of a scene that would inspire awe. Few who attended seemed to be immune from the effects of the meeting. Some tried to run away but were struck down as they ran. On the third night, so many people were struck down that they were carried into a central place and laid out in order, so that others would not trample on them accidentally. Again McNemar notes how there were people there from many neighboring communities, and these people became a means of spreading the revival fever.

Around the end of May or the beginning of June 1801, a meeting was held at Concord in Bourbon County, Kentucky. McNemar reports that about four thousand people attended this meeting. Seven Presbyterian ministers there, of whom four spoke out in opposition to the meeting, but eventually all seven became convinced the revival was the work of God. They confessed that for years, they had prayed to God for an awakening of religion in their communities, and then when it happened, they did not recognize it but “wickedly opposed the answer of their own prayers.” McNemar says that at this meeting, “no sex nor color, class nor description, were exempted” from the impact of the revival message, and people ranging from eight months to sixty years old were “evident subjects of this marvellous operation.” This is the only place in this excerpt where he mentions people of different races being involved in the revival. In frontier Kentucky, there may well have been American Indians or people of mixed white and Indian ancestry involved in some of the revivals, but it is more likely he is referring to African Americans. Many sources note that significant numbers of black people took part in the revivals throughout Kentucky, sometimes mixing openly with whites people at the meetings, other times congregating in a separate group on the same grounds where the meetings were being held.

The excerpt ends with McNemar summing up the impact of this and other meetings. Throughout the region, among every class of people, individuals were being impacted by the revival, sometimes “falling down and crying out” even in their homes or while going about their daily business. Using the metaphor of leaven, just as Jesus did to describe the subtle working of the kingdom of God, McNemar says that “the whole country round about seemed to be leavened with the spirit of the work.” While this might sound like an exaggeration on the part of one of the ministers involved in leading the revival, numerous primary sources do attest to the widespread impact the revivals had on the entire region.

Richard McNemar eventually converted to the Shaker religion and became a significant leader in that group in the American Midwest. In his introduction to The Kentucky Revival, he notes, “It is generally known that [since the time of the Cane Ridge revival] we profess to have advanced forward into a much greater work.” He sees the Shaker movement as an even greater manifestation of the work of God than what happened earlier in Kentucky. Yet he also says that rather than looking at what happened during the Kentucky revival as a small thing, compared to what he had discovered in the Shaker movement, “we believe it was nothing less than an introduction to that work of final redemption, which God had promised in the latter days.”

Essential Themes

Richard McNemar wrote The Kentucky Revival to provide a firsthand account of the Cane Ridge revival, one of the most significant camp meetings of what came to be called the Second Great Awakening. A key theme one sees in this excerpt is the anxiety many people felt over their spiritual condition. Religion, when measured by church membership and attendance, was at a low ebb in the United States when the Second Great Awakening began. In spite of this, many people had some familiarity with the teachings of Christianity and worried about their own relationship to God according to what they knew of those teachings. McNemar reports people fasting and praying about the religious situation in the region before the outbreak of the revival. Another key theme here is McNemar’s intention to give a careful narrative of what he saw at revivals and church meetings in the months leading up to Cane Ridge, especially concerning the various types of physical exercises that were occurring. McNemar seems to write with a certain awe about the things he has seen; in one case, he describes a scene as “awful beyond description,” again in the literal sense of the word. Superlatives seem to fail him as he describes “extraordinary appearances of the power of God” and people “constrained to cry out” and “affected in a very strange manner.” However, although McNemar writes with a sense of awe or wonder about what he has witnessed, what was happening was no mystery to him. Like most of the participants of the revivals in Kentucky and surrounding regions who saw these strange phenomena, he was convinced they were the work of God—manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit. He was aware that not all shared this conviction, and he does speak of instances of opposition. But in one case, he notes that those who opposed were finally brought to agree that the revivals were the work of God. He also describes how the revival evolved and spread. Sometimes camp meetings were not planned out but simply evolved; what had been intended to be a single day’s or evening’s service was carried on for several days, so people began to camp nearby to be present for everything that was happening. People who saw the strange events would naturally spread word of this to others, and so attendance grew to remarkable levels at some of these meetings; McNemar records four thousand attendees at the last meeting described in this excerpt. All this is part of McNemar’s background to the Cane Ridge camp meeting in August of 1801, which may have been the largest camp meeting ever held in the United States.

  • Boles, John B. The Great Revival, 1787–1805. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1972. Print.
  • Conkin, Paul K. Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. Print.
  • Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989. Print.
  • Neal, Julia. The Kentucky Shakers. Lexington: University of Kentucky P, 1982. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Conkin, Paul K. American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1997. Print.
  • Dunnavant, Anthony L., ed. Cane Ridge in Context: Perspectives on Barton W. Stone and the Revival. Nashville: Disciples of Christ Hist. Soc., 1992. Print.
  • Johnson, Charles A. The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion’s Harvest Time. 1955. Fort Worth: Southern Methodist UP, 1985. Print.
  • Medlicott, Carol, and Christian Goodwillie. Richard McNemar, Music, and the Western Shaker Communities. Kent: Kent State UP, 2012. Print.
  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. Print.

Categories: History