by Michael D. (Mike) Greene
Barton Stone, as did millions of others who migrated to the west in search of fame, fortune, land and destiny, found himself in the sometimes harsh surroundings of the American frontier. Only recently had the Indians been driven out of Kentucky by such pioneers as Daniel Boone. In 1796, the luxuries of genteel living were yet to arrive in Bourbon County, Kentucky.
Stone’s early ministry with the Concord and Cane Ridge Presbyterian churches was as a licentiate of the Presbytery. In 1798, the matter of ordination was raised. In order to be ordained, Stone would have to acknowledge the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity and Calvinism in the Confession caused Stone no little concern. These concerns were expressed to two members of the Presbytery. He was asked how far he was willing to accept the Confession. Stone replied he was willing to accept it as far as he saw it consistent with the word of God. He was told that would be sufficient.
At the ordination he was asked if he received the Confession as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Bible. He answered in a voice loud enough to be heard by all, “I do, as far as I see it consistent with the word of God.” No objection was expressed to his response and he was ordained a preacher for the Presbyterian Church by the Transylvania Presbytery in the fall of 1798. That his reply was not recorded would later cause Stone no little consternation.
In 1787, the Constitution of the United States had been ratified. The new republic was finding its legs and pressing the frontier ever westward. Kentucky had become the 15th state in 1792.
In the realm of religion, the established, state supported churches which had dominated the colonial days were losing ground. One after another, state churches were disestablished and many of the clergymen who were sympathetic to the British cause fled to the safety of England and the Old World. For a time interest in religion waned, but the Second Great Awakening changed the religious landscape as it swept through the country in the late 1790’s and early 1800’s.
That great awakening was characterized by camp meeting revivals throughout Kentucky and Tennessee that in Stone’s own words “baffled description.”/1 In 1801, Stone attended the Logan County Revival near the banks of the Red River at a small Presbyterian church in southwest Kentucky./2 Preachers from various denominations participated, including James McGready. Thousands of people were present and hundreds “got religion” and were baptized in the muddy waters of the Red River. It was a remarkable display of co-operation among the followers of Jesus.
Stone returned to Bourbon County with renewed enthusiasm. As a result, the Cane Ridge Revival broke out the third Lord’s Day in August, 1801. Thousands of people were present. Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian preachers literally took to the stumps and preached to the multitudes. According to Stone’s words, military men estimated the crowds to number between twenty and thirty thousand.
“Four or five preachers were frequently speaking at the same time, in different parts of the encampment, without confusion…all appeared cordially united in it-of one mind and one soul, and the salvation of sinners seemed to be the great object of all. We all engaged in singing the same songs of praise – all united in prayer – all preached the same things – free salvation urged upon all by faith and repentance. A particular description of this meeting would fill a large volume, and then the half would not be told. The numbers converted will be known only in eternity. Many things transpired there, which were much like miracles, that if they were not, they had the same effects as miracles on infidels and unbelievers; for many of them by these were convinced that Jesus was the Christ, and bowed in submission to him. This meeting continued six or seven days and nights, and would have continued longer, but provisions for such a multitude failed in the neighborhood.”/3
These miracles were what Stone called the “bodily agitations or exercises.” He identified them as the falling exercise, the jerks, the dancing exercise, the barking exercise, the running exercise and the singing exercise. When affected with the jerks, a person would stand in one place and jerk backward and forward so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. The barking exercise was the jerks accompanied by a grunt or bark as they jerked back and forward. Some would swoon and fall and remain in a trance-like state, as if dead. They would soon revive and rise up praising God for his love. Others would “dance” in a heavenly state without levity while praising God in prayer and song. Still others would run into the woods as if running for his life until he fell from exhaustion./4
While admitting that some of what he saw in these revivals was fanaticism, it changed lives, therefore Stone would not condemn it. “The effects of this meeting through the country were like wildfire in dry stubble driven by a strong wind.”/5 No doubt the unified efforts of the differing denominations in preaching the gospel had a powerful impact on the life and thinking of the still youthful preacher.
But what of The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery? To that we will next direct our attention.
1/ Elder John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, (Cincinnati: J. A. & U.P. James, 1847, as reprinted in the Cane Ridge Reader, edited by Hoke Dickinson, 1972), 34.
2/ A rebuilt Red River Meeting House still stands today three miles (5 km) east of U.S. Highway 431 along Route 663. See: www.redrivermeetinghouse.org/
3/ Elder John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, (Cincinnati: J. A. & U.P. James, 1847, as reprinted in the Cane Ridge Reader, edited by Hoke Dickinson, 1972), 38.
4/ Ibid, 39-41.
5/ Ibid, 37.