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The Great Revival of 1801, 1802, 1803, and the Introduction of Shakerism


Transcription contributed by Arne H Trelvik 10 August 2003

The History of Warren County Ohio
Part III. The History of Warren County by Josiah Morrow
Chapter V. Early Schools and Churches
(Chicago, IL: W. H. Beers Co, 1882; reprint, Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, 1992)
Related Links:
Union Village and the Shakers of Warren County, Ohio


The great revival at the commencement of this century was the most remarkable event in the religious history of Warren County. It destroyed every Presbyterian Church then in the county, and nearly every one in Southwestern

Ohio. That denomination never fully recovered from its disastrous effects. Had it not been for that work, there is reason to believe that Presbyterianism would have been as strong in the Miami Valley today as it is in Western Pennsylvania. The effects of this revival are seen today. It originated or introduced west of the Alleghanies, three religious sects, still existing. It diverted from its usual channel the title of lands, turning from the prosperous uses of personal ownership to the unproductive charge of communism 4,000 acres of the best soil in the county.

This remarkable religious excitement began in Kentucky, and is known in church history as the Great Kentucky Revival of 1800. It soon spread into Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and the Territory north of the Ohio. It originated in the Cumberland country under the preaching of Rev. James McGready, a Presbyterian clergyman, who is described as a homely man, with sandy hair and rugged features, so terrific in holding forth the terrors of hell that he was called a son of thunder. He pictured out “the furnace of hell with its red-hot coals of God’s wrath as large as mountains;” he endeavored to open to the sinner’s view “the burning lake of hell, to see its fiery billows rolling, and to hear the yells and groans of the dammed ghosts roaring under the burning wrath of an angry God.” Under his preaching, several persons fell down with a loud cry and lay powerless, groaning, praying and crying to God for mercy. The excitement spread. Great camp-meetings were held – the first in the United States. Large numbers fell down and swooned, with every appearance of life suspended. Families came to these meetings a distance of fifty or a hundred miles. The camp-meetings continued three or four days and nights. Those from a distance slept in their wagons, in tents or temporary structures. At Cane Ridge, Bourbon Co., Ky., in August, 1801, it was estimated that 20,000 persons were present, many of whom were from the north side of the Ohio.

It was estimated at this meeting that 3,000 persons fell to the ground under the unnatural excitement. There were at these meeting other strange physical manifestations, which increased the excitement and deeply moved the multitude. There were nervous affections, which produced horrible convulsions of the body and contortions of the countenance. The more shocking bodily exercises caused a division among the clergy as to the work. But opposition was compelled to often to succumb at the cry, “It is God’s work!” At Concord, in May, 1801, seven Presbyterian ministers were present, four of whom opposed the work until the fourth day, when they, too, succumbed, and all professed to be convinced that it was the work of God.

At what time the great revival broke out in the Turtle Creek and Clear Creek settlements in Warren County is unknown. It commenced in the northern part of Kentucky, under the preaching of McNemar and others, early in 1801. The first large camp-meeting north of the Ohio was held at Eagle Creek, in Adams County, commencing June 5, 1801, and continuing four days and three nights. Doubtless the effects of the great awakening were felt in the region between the Miamis before the close of the year 1801. It should be borne in mind that the great revival, both in Kentucky and Ohio, prevailed chiefly among the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches. The Baptists were little affected by it.

In the spring of 1802, there came to the Turtle Creek Presbyterian Church a new Pastor, the Rev. Richard McNemar. This man was a leading spirit in the great revival. He came from Kentucky, where he had seen and assisted in some of its most remarkable scenes. To him it was evidently a miraculous work. He was tall and gaunt, but commanding in appearance, with piercing, restless eyes, ever in motion, and an expressive countenance. He was a classical scholar, and read Latin, Greek and Hebrew with ease. His manner of

preaching inclined to the fervent and exciting, with much animation and vociferation, which gave him great power over the uncultivated audiences he addressed. He began his work at Turtle Creek with enthusiasm. He preached at different places in the vicinity of his church. His congregations were so large that, in the summer, the meetings were held in a grove near his church; and at night meetings in winter, log heaps were built and set on fire to protect from cold those who could not gain admission.

The strange physical phenomena which, from the first, attended the revival in Kentucky, followed McNemar’s preaching in Warren County. The singular bodily exercises and convulsions which accompanied this revival on both sides of the Ohio, wherever there was undue excitement, have often been described by eye witnesses of unimpeachable veracity, and their accounts agree so substantially that all suspicion of exaggeration is dispelled. There are still living a few old persons who, in early life, saw some of this remarkable work. Mr. McNemar published a brief history of the revival. Peter Cartwright, the pioneer Methodist preacher, in his autobiography, gives an account of what he himself saw of the work in Kentucky; and A. H. Dunlevy has published a brief sketch of the revival work at Turtle Creek. With such authorities before us, we feel confidence in the substantial accuracy of the description of the physical manifestations we shall now give.

It was not uncommon in large meetings for large numbers to fall in a short time, and to lie unconscious, with hardly any signs of breathing or beating of the pulse. Some would lie for a short time only; others, for hours. Under McNemar’s preaching at Turtle Creek, almost all the adult persons in a large congregation sometimes fell in this manner. After lying in an unconscious state, they would revive, some to sing or shout with joy, some to cry in agony, and others to exhort with strange power and feeling. “But what seemed strangest to me,” says A. H. Dunlevy, “was that sometimes men and women, who never even thought seriously of religion, were stricken down as if dead for hours, and yet, on recovering, could give no account of themselves during the trance, and had not as they said, any serious thoughts, or felt in any way more affected than usual. This, however, was not very frequently the case.”

The jerks was the popular name for convulsions, which caused a rapid and spasmodic motion of the head, and sometimes affected the limbs and the whole body. The head would fly backward and forward, or from side to side, with such rapidity that the features could not be recognized. The looker-on would fear dislocation of the neck, but no such injury is known to have ensued. “I have seen,” says Rev. Peter Cartwright, “more than five hundred persons jerking at one time in my large congregations. To see those proud, well-dressed gentlemen and ladies take the jerks would often excite my risibilities. The first jerk or so, you would see their fine bonnets, caps and combs fly; and so sudden would be the jerking, that their long, loose hair would crack almost as loud as a wagoner’s whip.” The disease was sometimes communicated to those who had no serious impressions, and mocked at the revival. There were recurring fits of the strange disorder seven or eight years after the revival, and, indeed, sporadic cases at a much later period. The most graphic description of the jerks is that given by Richard McNemar. He says:

“Nothing in nature could better represent this strange and unaccountable operation than for one to goad another, alternately on every side, with a piece of red-hot iron. The exercise commonly began in the head, which would fly backward and forward, and from side to side, with a quick jolt, which the person would naturally labor to suppress, but in vain; and the more any one labored to stay himself and be sober, the more he staggered, and the more his twitches increased. He must necessarily go as he was inclined, whether with a violent

dash on the ground and bounce from place to place like a foot-ball, or hop round, with head, limbs and trunk twitching and jolting in every direction, as if they must inevitably fly asunder. And how such could escape without injury was no small wonder among spectators. By this strange operation, the human frame was commonly so transformed and disfigured as to lose every trace of its natural appearance. Sometimes the head would be twitched right and left, to a half-round, with such velocity that not a feature could be discovered, but the face appeared as much behind as before; and in the quick progressive jerk, it would seem as if the person were transmuted into some other species of creature. Head-dresses were of little account among the female jerkers. Even handkerchiefs bound tight round the head would be flirted off almost with the first twitch, and the hair put into the utmost confusion; this was a very great inconvenience, to redress which the generality were shorn, though directly contrary to their confession of faith. Such as were sieved with jerks were wrested at once, not only from under their own government, but that of every one else, so that it was dangerous to attempt confining them or touching them in any manner, to whatever danger they were exposed, yet few were hurt, except it were such as rebelled against the operation, through willful and deliberate enmity, and refused to comply with the injunctions which it came to enforce.”

There were other exercises which were not so common and are sufficiently described by their names, viz., rolling, running, dancing and the holy laugh. There were instances at Turtle Creek of spinning around on the foot after the manner of the whirling dervishes of the East. The most disgusting of all the exercises was called the “barks,” in which the subject not only imitated the bark of the dog, but sometimes ran upon all fours, growling, snarling and foaming at the mouth. That there were cases of this kind of brutish action cannot be doubted, but to the credit of human nature it is to be recorded that they were rare. It is noteworthy here that among the Convulsionistes of France seventy years before, there were persons similarly affected, some being called barkers and others mewers.

The subjects of these strange disorders were sincere men and women who could give no rational account of their movements and would only say they could not help it. In persons of peculiar nervous organization, overexcitement may result in actions which seem to be wholly involuntary, when there is really a hidden volition of their own, and they are influenced by sympathy with, and imitation of, what they have seen or heard of others doing under like circumstances. Psychological diseases always have been more or less epidemic and contagious. Emotions which do not seriously affect us when alone may become overpowering when many are affected. Thus, sympathy, “that wonderful instinct that links man to man in a social whole,” in the wild excesses of popular feeling, becomes a dangerous power that seizes upon all it can reach and sweeps them round and round until they are drawn into the devouring vortex. Hysterical symptoms in times of great religious excitement should be promptly repressed or they may become epidemic. There is evidence that where the excesses we have described were most encouraged by the clergy and others in authority, they were most common; where they were encouraged, they were kept in check. It is narrated that a Baptist clergyman who did not believe that convulsions were the work of the Holy Spirit, seeing symptoms of the jerks appearing under his own preaching, exclaimed in a loud voice, “I command all unclean spirits to depart hence,” and thus completely stayed the disorder.

Soon there were visions, prophecies and revelations among the revivalists. Their sons and daughters prophesied, their young men saw visions and their old men dreamed dreams. The new light which dawned upon them, or the

internal manifestations of Divine wisdom, was such a favorite phrase with them that for several years the revival party were called New Lights. At a meeting of the Synod of Kentucky, September 6, 1803, at Lexington, it was proposed to enter upon a trial of Richard McNemar and John Thompson for unsoundness of doctrine, but they resisted the action, and, with three other ministers, declared their independence and formed a separate Presbytery. John Thompson preached at Springdale, in Hamilton County. On the 20th of April, 1804, according to McNemar’s account, the Turtle Creek Presbyterian Church, by a unanimous vote, with uplifted hands, was constituted a schismatic church. McNemar, at this time, was proud of the name of schismatic. At this time, the Turtle Creek Church laid aside the use of lead tokens on sacramental occasions and thenceforward they called each other brother and sister. On the 28th of June, 1804, the ministers of the revival party, three north and three south of the Ohio, members of the Independent Presbytery, becoming convinced that all Presbyteries were unauthorized human devices, dissolved that body by writing its will and subscribing their names as witnesses. The witnesses to last will and testament of the Springfield Presbytery, as it was called, say that from its first existence, the body was knit together in love, lived in peace and concord and died a voluntary and happy death. Before the close of the year 1804, the New Lights, or revivalists, reported seven societies in Southwest Ohio, viz., Turtle Creek, Eagle Creek, Springdale, Orangedale, Clear Creek, Beaver Creek and Salem. They repudiated all creeds and confessions of faith except the Bible. They soon gave up the doctrine of the Trinity, and became immersionists. They declined to be called New Lights and adopted the name of Christians, and are to-day a distinct and respectable body. The New Light revival swept all the Presbyterian Churches in Southwestern Ohio, except those at Duck Creek and Round Bottom. The church at Cincinnati was largely tainted with the new doctrines and methods. The influence of Richard McNemar, for a time seemed irresistible.

The public meetings of the revivalists were often scenes of tumult and confusion. There would be singing, praying and exhorting at the same time. They invented what was termed the “praying match,” which is stated to have had for its object the determination of “the brightest, boldest and loudest gift of prayer.” According to McNemar, it was a custom when one would begin to preach or exhort and was deemed uninteresting, that he would presently be confronted with a prayer by some one else, and which ever manifested the greatest warmth and awakened the liveliest sensations, gained the victory and secured the general shout on his side. The Turtle Creek pastor approvingly represents his flock as “praying, shouting, jerking, barking, or rolling, dreaming, prophesying and looking as through a glass at the infinite glories of Zion.” The whole congregation also sometimes prayed together with such power and volume of sound that if the pastor does not exaggerate, “the doubtful footsteps of those in search of the meeting might be directed sometimes to the distance of miles around.” Some time in the year 1804, they began to encourage one another to praise God in the dance. The custom of giving the right hand of fellowship to the new members having been introduced “and finding that it tended to increase the inner working of the Spirit,” say Richard McNemar, ”it was gradually introduced as a common act of worship in concert with singing hymns and spiritual songs. The whole society, young and old, male and female, would commonly unite in this mode of worship, and, taking each other by the hand, would shake not only their hands, but their whole bodies, like one churning, with such violence that the place would seem to quiver under them. This they called rejoicing, and in this worship they considered it the privilege of every on to unite who believed in the new doctrine of atonement.”

Twenty years before, there had died in the wilds of New York an illiterate woman, who had been the wife of a blacksmith until her religion taught her to abandon the marriage relation. During her whole life, she endured great tribulations, saw visions, had frequent communications with the world of spirits, and was believed to be mad. A native of England, she had been imprisoned in Manchester for raising a tumult by street preaching. She believed that the Savior appeared to her in her prison-cell, and, in some mysterious manner, became united to her, and through her Heaven set up a church which is never to be destroyed. She gathered around her a little knot of followers, who called her Mother Ann, and styled themselves “Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance,” but they were usually known as Shakers, an appellation at which they took no offense. Coming to America in 1884, a band of eight persons, they made a settlement near Albany, and continued few in numbers until a great revival in 1779 occurred at New Lebanon, N. Y., which was attended with physical manifestations, not altogether unlike those just described. A number of the subjects of this revival visited Mother Ann and found the key to their religious experience. Thus did the Shakers receive their first considerable accession to their numbers.

The Shakers of New Lebanon heard of the remarkable religious work in the forests of Kentucky and Ohio. They were naturally interested in any religious experience, accompanied with bodily exercises similar to their own religious gymnastics. They began, too, to recall the fact that when Ann Lee was alive – she died in 1784 – she one day uttered a prophecy, afterward published in the Shaker books and attested, as they say, by numbers of persons. As she walked the floor, singing a melodious song by divine inspiration, her mind apparently abstracted from all the objects which surrounded her, she suddenly stopped, and, turning to the people in the room, she said: “I feel a special gift of God; I feel the power of God running all over me.” Then, extending her hand toward the southwest, she added: “The next opening of the Gospel will be in the Southwest; it will be at a great distance, and there will be a great work of God.” And, turning to Eliphalet Slosson, she said: ”You may live to see it; I shall not.” And the Shakers began to ask themselves the question, Is not the great revival in Kentucky and on Turtle Creek the beginning of the great work foretold by Mother Ann? They resolved to send missionaries to proclaim to the subjects of the revival the mystical creed in which they had found peace.

On the 22d of March, 1805, there arrived at Turtle Creek three strangers with broad-brimmed hats and a fashion of dress like that of the followers of George Fox, in England, a generation before. They were John Meacham, Benjamin S. Youngs and Issachar Bates, the first of the sect of Ann Lee ever seen west of the Alleghany Mountains. They had set out from New Lebanon, N. Y., on January 1, and had made a journey of 1,000 miles on foot. They had already visited Kentucky, but had not fully proclaimed their principles or objects. Nowhere did they find the conditions so favorable for carrying out the purposes of their mission as at Turtle Creek.

The Shaker missionaries at Turtle Creek went first to the house of Malcham Worley, where they remained over night. The next day they visited Richard McNemar, who says that this was the first means by which he knew that such a people as Shakers existed upon earth. He was soon to become a member and a leader in the sect. The next day was Sunday, and, by permission of McNemar, two of the strangers attended the Turtle Creek Church and occupied the pulpit. For the first time in that log meeting-house was proclaimed the doctrine of a Dual God, male and female – a Father and a Mother of humanity. the seed sown by the missionaries fell upon good ground. The frenzy

and extravagance of the revival had well prepared the way for the new faith - a singular combination of Christianity, Spiritualism, communism and Aceticism. The first convert was Malcham Worley, a man of liberal education, independent fortune and unblemished character, but his excitable temperament had led him into such wild exercises during the revival that many doubted his sanity. The pastor soon followed and in a month a dozen families had embraced Shakerism. Husbands and wives abandoned the family relation and gave all their property to the church. Some of the best men, honest, conscientious and benevolent, some of them intelligent, joined the community under the conviction that they were seeking salvation by renouncing the world and all its temptations. Their sincerity no one can question. Many who became members owned considerable tracts of land, which they consecrated to the use of the church, and the Shaker society at Union Village is today in possession of 4,000 acres of excellent land surrounding the spot where stood the Turtle Creek log church.

The missionaries were successful elsewhere. They established several communities both in Ohio and Kentucky. Four of the ministers who had been foremost in the revival work became their converts, and died in the Shaker faith, having passed in four years from the creed of Calvin and Knox to that of Ann Lee. The Shaker society at Union Village was regularly organized May 25, 1805. In the month following, there were a number of converts at Eagle Creek, in Adams County, including Rev. John Dunlavy; in August, the work broke out in Kentucky, and, in the spring of 1806, at Beaver Creek, in Montgomery County, Ohio. The society at Union Village is the oldest and has always been the largest of the Shaker communities west of the Alleghanies.

Nearly all the members of the Turtle Creek Church, who resided in the immediate vicinity of Bedle’s Station, became Shakers. Their meetings were held for some time at the house of McNemar – the space between the two apartments of his double cabin being used for their dancing exercises. Afterward a floor was built near by, much like an early threshing floor, on which their meetings were held until their first church was erected. The society at Union Village thus formed has existed for three-quarters of a century. It stands with its sister communities among the few examples of Communistic societies existing for more than one generation. All the adult persons who saw remarkable scenes attending its origin have passed away, but some of their children, now old and infirm, are still alive and members of the community. A few white-haired Shakers remain who were baptized in their infancy into the membership of the Presbyterian Church by McNemar at the Turtle Creek log meeting-house.

Richard McNemar, who, by his gifts as a speaker and his scholarship, exercises so great an influence as a preacher on both sides of the Ohio River, continued in the faith of the Shakers, and a leader among them, until his death, in 1839.

Of late years, the society has not increased in numbers. They look with hope on the progress of modern Spiritualism. They say there is nothing new in its manifestations, for long before the era of table-turnings and spirit-rappings they had, as they continue to have, a living intercommunication with the world of Spirits.

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