|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 10 (1995)|
I now want to make a bold and self-serving claim--that citizens
of Kentucky and Tennessee have twice, and only twice, exerted
a major and distinctive impact upon American culture as a whole.
The first impact involved religious leadership, and the great
revivals that began in the Cumberland basin in approximately 1797
and after 1800 spread to central Kentucky and to East Tennessee.
These revivals peaked in 1801-2, but in some form continued throughout
the nineteenth century. Back to those in a minute.
The second major cultural bequest involved the work of a group
of poets, essayists, and economic and social critics who gathered
at Vanderbilt University from the end of World War I to around
1936. The small poetry review, The Fugitive, gave a name
to fourteen young men, and one woman, who boldly entered into
the creative and critical ferment of the twenties. Of these poets,
four remained close friends, and took the leadership in launching
what we now know as Southern Agrarianism in 1930 with the publication
by twelve authors of I'll Take My Stand. The four men involved
in both publications included two born in Kentucky-- Allen Tate
and Robert Penn Warren-- and two born in middle Tennessee--John
Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. It is not my purpose here to
essay their contributions to literature, to critical theory, or
to social criticism. I only note that their seminars and discussions
and fraternal escapades occurred in the same border areas of Kentucky
and Tennessee as did the revivals that first erupted in 1797.
My claim for these two groups is self-serving, for I have chosen
to write books about both the revivalists and the poets. Also,
these two books are the only ones I have written in which the
principal characters had such a close tie to Kentucky and Tennessee.
Finally, more than is usual, these two groups have a direct relationship
to my personal biography. I will clarify later my ties to the
revivalists, and only note here that as a graduate student at
Vanderbilt in 1951 I met Davidson and took two courses with another
Agrarian, H.C. Nixon.
My title comes from an article I published in the Tennessee
Historical Quarterly. The boys were the five Presbyterian
and one Methodist ministers who pastored congregations in Sumner
County, Tennessee, and Logan County, Kentucky, by 1800, and whose
congregations hosted the joint communion services in which a great
revival had its beginning. All had been members of David Caldwell's
congregations in Guilford County, North Carolina, and I am reasonably
certain that all had attended Caldwell's famous log-cabin academy.
Also one of Caldwell's boys, but in 1801 the pastor at the Cane
Ridge meeting House in Bourbon County in central Kentucky, was
Barton W. Stone. The brother-in-law of David Caldwell, Thomas
Craighead, had earlier come west as the first Presbyterian minister
to settle in the Nashville area.
David Caldwell was born in 1725 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
His parents had migrated to Pennsylvania from Ulster, as had thousands
of other Scotch-Irish by even 1725, although these migrants made
up the first wave of a veritable flood of Scotch-Irish who moved
to American by 1776. Perhaps a century earlier, David's progenitors
had moved from Scotland to the more inviting plantations of Ulster,
probably from County Galloway in the Scottish lowlands, or the
area of Scotland closest to northern Ireland. The genealogies
of what became at least a dozen prominent but only distantly related
Caldwell clans in America are full of clearly apocryphal details.
The legend is that the original family came to medieval Scotland
from France, and gained the name Caldwell from a cold (cauld)
well on an early farm. After 1560, the Caldwells, like almost
all lowland Scots, accepted the church reforms led by John Knox,
and with this a Presbyterian polity. Soon members of the Scottish
Kirk would be generally known as Presbyterians. In so far as they
were active in churches, the Scotch-Irish immigrants were virtually
Most Ulster immigrants first settled in Pennsylvania as did this
branch of the Caldwell family. Some brothers of David remained
in Lancaster County until their deaths in the nineteenth century.
But new waves of immigrants, and a natural increase in the early
families, forced many Scotch-Irish to move further inland, both
west and south. Many moved down the Valley of Virginia, there
planting dozens of Presbyterian congregations. Others moved down
the Piedmont, most often to south-central Virginia or into central
North Carolina. It seems clear that kinship and congregational
ties held firm, and thus the new settlements often were in effect
planned colonies, with kinfolk or friends and at times even their
minister moving as a group. Some of the close familial ties stretched
back to the neighborhoods in Ulster, and I suspect all the way
back to Scotland, or five or six generations before the birth
of David Caldwell.
David Caldwell belatedly experienced a religious conversion in
the family congregation in Lancaster County, in 1750, age twenty-five.
He soon decided to become a minister, even though he also dabbled
in medicine and taught schools. To be ordained as a Presbyterian,
one had to have a classical education. So David was able to enroll
in the new Presbyterian College of New Jersey at Princeton, probably
in 1758. He studied under the College president, Samuel Davies,
the father of Southern Presbyterianism and an intellectual only
slightly less brilliant than his friend and predecessor in this
cursed college presidency, Jonathan Edwards. David graduated in
1761, the year of Davies' death. He almost immediately gained
a license to preach, and began the often extended apprenticeship
that led to ordination. He was ordained in 1765, at the advanced
age of forty.
By then, several families from his home congregation had settled
along Buffalo Creek, near present Greensboro, North Carolina.
David may well have planned, long before his ordination, to become
pastor of their new congregations. Upon ordination, he came to
North Carolina, proved himself in service to mission congregations,
and in 1766 became the permanent pastor of two congregations on
the Buffalo. He would serve them almost sixty years, for he lived
to be 100. In a pattern that typified almost all Presbyterian
ministers of the era, he sought ways of supplementing his limited
pastoral salary. He practiced medicine, acquired a large farm,
and built his own boarding-type academy. David married the daughter
of his former pastor in Pennsylvania, Alexander Craighead, and
sister of Thomas Craighead, later the founding pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church in Nashville. The Craigheads had by then moved
to Mecklenburg County, to the present site of Charlotte. One of
David's brothers, Alexander, named after their family minister,
also moved to the Buffalo, and established a farm next to David's.
I mention all of this to demonstrate the close family and kinship
ties that helped determine paths of migration.
David Caldwell's academy became locally famous. Eventually, he
would educated over fifty Presbyterian ministers. He taught all
his students Latin and Greek, and continued his better students
into what then amounted to college-level courses, although his
academy never granted degrees. But the education the young men
received enabled them to pass rigorous exams before presbyteries,
and, with some additional supervised study, meet the high ordination
requirements of the now largely Scotch-Irish denomination.
Among the early academy students was one James McGready, whose
parents had moved to the Guilford County colony along with David
and Alexander Caldwell. Just after the Revolution, McGready moved
to near Pittsburgh, and completed college work in a new Presbyterian
institution, now Washington and Jefferson College. He was ordained
in the Redstone Presbytery of western Pennsylvania, but decided
to return to North Carolina in 1787. This was the year a major
revival broke out among students at a small Presbyterian college
in southern Virginia, Hampden-Sydney. In the next three years,
this revival spread among the Presbyterian congregations in both
central Virginia and North Carolina, and also to congregations
in the great valley of Virginia. Again, as in Scotland and Ulster,
the bulk of the affective preaching, and the only large gatherings
of people, were in conjunction with the traditional Scottish summer
communions. This revival led to the conversion of young men and
the commitment of many of them to the ministry. McGready entered
enthusiastically into the revival, and proved himself a very gifted
preacher, although too moralistic and puritanical for some in
his congregation. He frequently preached in chapel to the young
boys at the Caldwell Academy, and soon became a tutor to four
or five young men just beginning the long journey to a license
and then Presbyterian ordination.
By 1790, the new Presbyterian communities in North Carolina had
fully matured, and a generation sought better economic opportunities.
The pattern of communal mitosis, which had led daughter colonies
from Scotland to Ulster, across an ocean to Pennsylvania, and
then down to North Carolina, repeated itself once again. Several
families, particularly young families, decided to move over the
Appalachians to the new Cumberland settlements north of Nashville;
others moved either from North Carolina or from the Shenandoah
Valley into East Tennessee. Just as after 1760, these migrants
established embryonic congregations and begged their former presbyteries
to send them ministers. The first colonies to attract numerous
former members of Caldwell's congregations clustered in the border
counties of Logan and Sumner. The families came because of the
excellent land. Very quickly they established farms and communities.
The families who settled were reasonably affluent. Even by 1796
this area was populous, no longer a wild frontier.
It was Caldwell's boys, quite appropriately, who first responded to appeals for ministers. James McGready was the older and best established of the second generation of ministers, in fact already famous in North Carolina for the power of his preaching. He decided to move west in 1796, with some indication that he wanted to escape his three scattered congregations in Logan County. McGready, like all the young ministers, was anxious to better himself economically. Entrepreneurial opportunities always mixed with spiritual ones. The other five men that followed him west were just completing their ministerial apprenticeship, most licensed to preach but as yet not ordained. This included two brothers, William and John McGee. John had joined the Methodists, and around 1798 began serving a Methodist circuit in Sumner County. William remained a Presbyterian, and moved to the new Shiloh congregation in Sumner County in 1796. In the same year, John Rankin, another former member of David Caldwell's congregations, moved to another Sumner County congregation. In 1798, William Hodge, a Caldwell student and apprentice under McGready, would take over this pulpit, allowing Rankin to move to a former McGready congregation at Gasper River, in northern Logan County. In 1800, William McAdow, an often sickly young minister, took over McGready's Red River Tennessee congregation in southern Logan County, so close to the Tennessee border that it had members from both states.
The six wild men of the Cumberland were now all in place.
Barton Stone also came west in 1796, with a new license to preach.
He was not Scotch-Irish, and had grown up in an Anglican parish
in southern Virginia. But his mother used a legacy to help him
get a classical education, and selected Caldwell's academy. While
boarding there, he was converted in the 1787 revivals and, with
some later doubts, committed himself to the Presbyterian ministry.
He preached in east Tennessee in the summer of 1796, then came
to visit McGready, where he learned of an open pulpit at Cane
Ridge in the bluegrass. He preached there briefly, but only belatedly
decided to become its permanent minister in 1798, and he would
be ordained. His attachment to that congregation would have enormous
significance in American history because of the great communion
of 1801, the largest and most influential in American history,
and Stone's later role in founding a branch of the Restoration
or Christian movement. I can only refer you to my Cane Ridge book
for that story.
McGready was a very successful minister in Logan County. He immediately
began holding the large summer communions in each of his three
scattered congregations. The communion season meant opening services
on Friday evening and all-day preaching on Saturday, often from
an outdoor shell or what the Scots had always called a tent. On
Sunday the visiting ministers all participated in multiple communion
services, with communicants taking a seat at tables for each meal.
On Monday morning, a thanksgiving service normally ended the communion
season, except in periods of great fervor, when the people often
chose to remain on the grounds for up to two extra days. Until
1800, host congregations always provided room and board for all
the visiting congregations. For parents long separated from earlier
North Carolina friends, this was reunion time; for young people,
a courting time; for sinners, a converting time.
Beginning in the summer of 1797, these communions, which moved
from one congregation to another during the summer months, gradually
drew larger and larger crowds. They were marked by increased fervor
and by intense physical manifestations, climaxing in 1800 by large
numbers of people who fell to the ground in something like a coma.
This had happened before, back in Scotland and Ulster, even in
the colonies in the 1740s, but few remembered such exercises,
as they called them. In the summer of 1800, at least 10 such communions
took place in the border area congregations, including one in
Nashville. But for several reasons, it would be the ones in Logan
County that became famous.
McGready wrote "A Short Narrative of the Revival of Religion
in Logan County" in 1801 and sent parts or all of this manuscript
to eastern ministers and to two new evangelical journals. It seems
that, within the next three years, everyone involved in evangelical
Christianity had read McGready's narrative. Its impact is almost
unmeasurable, but clearly more influential than any other description
of revivals except Jonathan Edwards' Faithful Narrative
of the Northampton revival of 1734. The just emerging journals
gave it a circulation impossible for even Edwards sixty years
before. Ministers all over the country read it to congregations,
with almost magical effect. Even Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury,
when too ill to prepare a sermon, simply read one version of McGready's
narrative, and reported that nothing had ever so moved one of
McGready was the first to circulate such a description. This later
contributed the undeserved claim that he began something called
a Second Great Awakening. Yet, had he not written and circulated
the narrative, had he not had a sense of the importance of such
publicity, the religious history of the United States might have
been quite different. I think he was honest in his description
of events in Logan County, although one can see the effect of
literary conventions. In a sense he placed himself much more in
the center of events in the Cumberland than he deserved. The narrative
led people to refer to the multiple communions as McGready's revival,
thus obscuring the role of his colleagues. It also gave an undeserved
Logan County stamp to the events, when I believe more of the great
communions took place in Sumner than in Logan County. McGready's
account also concealed the fact that, by 1800, he had already
surrendered two of his three Logan County pulpits to Rankin and
McAdow. Not only McGready, but all neighboring ministers, preached
at each inter-congregational communion.
What first happened at two 1800 communions, at McAdow's Red River
and Rankin's Gasper River congregations, became famous. At Red
River, John McGee, the uninhibited Methodist circuit preacher,
used late evening exhortations to rouse the congregation into
what seemed like unprecedented physical exercises. In the intense
emotional atmosphere, several collapsed into a coma. News of this
falling at Red River spread like wildfire through the Cumberland,
and insured an even larger crowd at the next communion at Gasper
River. Spectators were now joining communicants at such events,
and were helping shift the focus away from the Sunday communion
to what was closer to a protracted revival. The outdoor preaching,
from the tent, was often all that non-members or casual observers
In July, people came from up to one hundred miles to attend the
much anticipated Gasper River communion. When the host minister,
John Rankin, arrived on Friday afternoon, to prepare for the opening
services, he was astonished to find from twenty to thirty wagons,
with provisions, encamped on the rising ground above the river
and meeting house. These families had, in effect, already established
an impromptu camp ground. Camping in or beside wagons was not
new; in moving west, families had become expert at this. Something
close to camping had occurred in the yards or barns of host families
at earlier communions. We have earlier reports of people camping
at Baptist association meetings. Yet, this spontaneous camp at
Gasper River turned out to be a dramatic new departure in both
American religious and recreational history. The on-site families
did not want to miss the religious excitement, which often peaked
in the night hours. Possibly they wanted to spare local families
from a hospitality overload.
News of the camping spread as fast as reports of the physical
exercises, which rivaled those at Red River. John Rankin soon
took a trip, back through East Tennessee, to the home congregations
in Guilford County. He told his story over and over again, both
about the exercises and the camping. The story was sufficient,
almost everywhere, to create great religious excitement, and as
early as 1801 huge communions, or union meetings organized with
other denominations, occurred throughout the Carolinas. Camping
was a normal part of these meetings. Even as early as 1801 some
host congregations began to lay in provisions or mark off grounds
for prospective campers. At the great Cane Ridge communion in
August of 1801 an estimated 140 wagons, or over 800 people, camped
on the grounds.
Thus, in the sense of a major American institution, religious
camping began at Gasper River. In the summer of 1989 I twice wandered
around the present cow pasture where the first wagons had gathered
in 1800. I first came before reading Rankin's hand written account
in his brief autobiography now preserved by the Kentucky Museum
in Bowling Green, and then came back second time to fit my image
to his description. The old Gasper River cemetery alone allows
one to identify the exact spot. No historical markers document
the significance of what happened there. The present farm owner
probably has no awareness of it. In my imagination, the scene
came back to life for me, and I was deeply moved. Thus, I placed
one of my photographs of that deserted field into my book on Cane
Ridge-- the only homage I could offer.
It is hard to exaggerate the significance of camping. Many Presbyterian
ministers reacted negatively to the extreme physical exercises,
and thus refused to institutionalize what had been spontaneous
in 1800 and 1801. Not so the Methodists and later Cumberland Presbyterians.
Even by 1802 local entrepreneurs, or ministers in Methodist circuits,
began developing permanent camping sites (well-attended camps
brought hundreds of people into a local area, people willing to
pay for various provisions or services). Within a decade well-laid-out
sites for wagons and tents gave way to rude cabins built by individual
families. By 1810, almost all Methodist circuits had camp grounds,
and blended their quarterly conferences into planned summer retreats
or camp meetings. The practice even spread to Britain, where camping
was the reason for a split among English Methodists.
As I argued in my book on Cane Ridge, such planned camping offered
evangelical Christians a new type of experience. The camps allowed
them to extend the scope, and to blur the boundaries, of distinctively
religious activities. It also broadened the range of social contacts,
much as group camps today. Instead of the more familial setting
of home hospitality, campers confronted something close to an
urban neighborhood. They clustered, made up a crowd. And some
clearly loved the experience. This deliberate clustering, often
in restricted space, became the norm for American camping, in
contrast to a lonely wilderness experience. Soon, for rural Americans,
living on widely dispersed homesteads, going to camp was literally
a way of creating temporary cities, with all the diverse people,
the bustle, the excitement, and even the personal anonymity of
street life. It involved people in a social environment far removed
from their lonely cabins, and allowed them to escape old roles
and assume new ones. Add a heady dose of religious ecstasy, and
people could literally lose themselves in self-justifying experiences
that enabled them to forget, or temporarily transcend, all the
strains and problems of everyday life. This meant escape, renewal,
recreation, all sanctioned by ostensible religious goals.
Gasper River, even though unplanned, unorganized, and spontaneous,
first initiated people into this type of camping experience. Innovative
institutions very quickly provided order and continuity for such
experience. This led to the camp meeting and to a variety of functionally
similar modern substitutes, such as summer youth camps and adult
retreat centers. Remove the religious motifs, secularize the goals,
and we have present-day campgrounds and resorts, not a few of
which actually derive from earlier camp meetings.
The dramatic communions, the hundreds of new converts, provided
a sequel to what had happened a generation earlier in Guilford
County. Two-score young men, converted in the revival, wanted
to go into the ministry. The expansion of congregations led the
Kentucky Synod to create a new Cumberland Presbytery in 1802.
Within two years it had licensed seventeen young ministers and
already ordained two of them. To do so, it followed earlier patterns
in its parent presbytery, and relaxed some traditional requirements
of Greek and Latin, and out of deference to some doctrinal qualms,
it allowed candidates to finesse the Westminster doctrine of double
Thomas Craighead of Nashville, jealous of the greater wealth and political influence of the ablest of the young ministers, Finis Ewing, protested to the Kentucky Synod. This led to an inquiry, to the refusal of the young ministers to submit to a doctrinal examination, to jurisdictional arguments over the power of local presbyteries, and eventually to the dissolution of the Cumberland Presbytery, suspension of all the young ministers on what were primarily doctrinal grounds, and synodical charges against McGready and his four original colleagues. Appeals to the General Assembly kept the controversy alive until 1810, when the Synod won. McGready and Hodge reluctantly adhered to the old church. A disgusted John Rankin joined the Shakers, and helped create the South Union colony almost in the shadow of the Gasper River church. Ewing, now a powerful figure in these border areas (he helped found a family dynasty along the Red near present Adairville), a close friend and later patronage appointee of Andrew Jackson, led the dissidents who refused to submit. In 1810 he and Samuel King, another of the young ministers,
traveled to Dickson County, Tennessee, to the cabin of McAdow,
who was then too ill to preach, and there the three formed an
independent presbytery. William McGee soon joined.
In time this lone Cumberland Presbytery expanded into a major
new denomination. In polity the Cumberlands remained Presbyterian,
in doctrine they developed a fascinating hybrid of Calvinism and
Wesleyanism, and in style they were as evangelical as the Methodists,
and joined them in developing camp grounds. This main institutional
product of the Cumberland revivals remained a mid-sized denomination
until a majority of its members merged with the northern Presbyterian
Church in 1906. Its major college, before merger, was Cumberland
University in Lebanon. The remnant of Cumberland Presbyterians
who rejected merger now have only one college, Bethel, in McKenzie,
I end by listing some of my personal ties to the work of Caldwell's
boys. I grew up in a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation in East
Tennessee. I was born on a farm formerly owned by Thomas Caldwell,
a nephew of David. David's brother, Alexander, died as a result
of illness contracted as a soldier during the Revolution. In 1795
his widow, and two sons, bought land in the valley where I grew
up. The two sons had attended David Caldwell's academy as youngsters,
and had been classmates of some of the ministers who came west.
In 1796 I am reasonably sure that McGready, McGee, and Barton
Stone, on their way to the Cumberland settlements, spent some
time with Samuel Caldwell in his new cabin, remnants of which
remained when I was a boy, not more than a quarter of a mile from
our home, where my mother still lives. I am equally sure that
John Rankin stopped there in the fall of 1800 as he carried the
exciting news of the Gasper River revival and the new camping
back to North Carolina. Samuel Caldwell eventually built a school
and a camp meeting site on his land, or what was long known as
Caldwell's camp. The green-roofed preaching tent gave an enduring
name to our little village--Green Shed. In 1834 a new Cumberland
Presbyterian congregation built their first log church on this
land, land later donated to the congregation by Samuel's son.
The brother of Samuel, Thomas, was one of the first two ruling
elders in the congregation. Margaret Caldwell, the sister-in-law
of David Caldwell, lived on in Samuel's home until sometime after
the census of 1830, preserving until at least then bitter memories
of the frantic days when Cornwallis's armies ravaged the Alamance
area of North Carolina and even burned David Caldwell's library.
Samuel, who died in 1841, has the oldest readable tombstone in
our church cemetery. Twice, in the last twelve years, the descendants
of Samuel and Thomas Caldwell have held reunions at this church,
with my mother filling baskets of food for the dinner on the ground.
Finally, as a boy, in my family church, I heard over and over
again highly embellished stories about the heroes of our denomination,
the now venerable trinity of Ewing, King, and McAdow.
Portions of this paper first appeared in "Caldwell's Boys," Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 50 (Summer 1991): 71-79.
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Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075