Red River Revival
In the late 1700s, a movement took place that would shape the future of The Salvation Army, our country, and Christianity… it all began in Adairville, Kentucky.
It’s quiet now on the grounds of the Red River Meeting House in Adairville, Ky., where, at the turn of the 19th century, a spiritual spark was lit that became the Second Great Awakening. Today, as the wind whistles through the tall trees on this hallowed ground, it’s a reminder that the Holy Spirit did something amazing here.
“When I walk on the grounds, I just feel the Holy Spirit here,” says Richard Moore, president of the Red River Meeting House Association (RRMHA). “God did something magnificent 200 years ago, and I think some of that’s still here. God’s just waiting for us to get right and He’s going to do something again.”
Envoy Steven Bussey, co–director of the Eastern Territory’s Innovation Department and Heritage Museum, said the log cabin–styled meeting house with its simple bench–form wooden pews may be small and unspectacular, but Salvationists should visit it because the principal figures of the Second Great Awakening influenced the early Salvationists and spurred the growth of Methodism in America.
“I think returning to places like the Red River Meeting House helps us see the rock from which we are hewn,” Bussey says. “Everything we are built upon as The Salvation Army, our identity and purpose, can be traced back there. The Red River Meeting House is one of the most important places that nobody knows about.
“It’s the Red River Meeting House which lights the fuse that causes the explosion of Methodism. What happens is that American revivalism, fused with Wesleyan perfectionism, becomes the prototype for most of our revivalists.”
A devil of a place
Today, the grounds of the Red River Meeting House include a 1994 replica of the original structure and a 400–plot graveyard with some markers dating to the late 1700s. A stone monument marks the spot of the original church, built between 1789–1792.
“It’s the most forgotten and the most important place in our entire history as The Salvation Army,” Bussey said. “When I trace everything back in the United States, I trace it back to that house. It’s the most underrated, forgotten part of Church history, but the most pivotal for early religion in America.”
Red River’s revival story begins in 1797 when Presbyterian minister James McGready arrived in Logan County, Ky., known at the time as “Rogue’s Harbor” or “Satan’s Stronghold.” McGready led three churches, including Red River, Gasper River, and Muddy River.
Following the example of Jonathan Edwards from the First Great Awakening, McGready urged his small but dedicated flocks to fast on the third Saturday of each month and to pray on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings for the conversion of sinners.
Revival broke out in 1799 with dozens being filled with the Spirit. In June 1800, several hundred people traveled from a 100–mile radius for a four–day communion service—including more people being filled—that resulted in America’s first camp meeting.
Bussey said William Booth and the early Salvationists studied the camp meeting.
“The Old Orchard Beach camp meetings held in Maine every year are a byproduct of what happened at the Red River Meeting House,” Bussey said.
The revival in Logan County continued in Gasper River in July (drawing 3,000 people) and in Muddy River in August. Visitors would call on friends and find them on their knees in prayer. There were also reports of farmers dropping face down in their fields and crying out to God.
“God’s power and His conviction just fell on everyone in an awesome way,” said Dreama Ruley, another member of the RRMHA. “We need that so badly again.”
The aftermath of the revival resulted in changed lives in Kentucky, which had only been a state for eight years. An area known for alcohol, gambling, fighting, horse thievery, counterfeiting, river pirates, and murderers became a different place.
“When the power of God started falling in the Church, it fell out there too,” Dreama Ruley said. “People that came fully armed to cause trouble were powerless before God. Some of them would fall down where they were and cry out for His mercy and their lives were changed.
“After the Great Revival, this place was known for being kind to strangers and it was the beginning of southern hospitality.”
Dreama’s husband, Tom Ruley, another member of the RRMHA, called Logan County “a very, very rough place before the revival.”
“If you were traveling through here before the revival, you wouldn’t travel alone because you might disappear,” he said. “After the revival, the hearts of the people changed, and it was just a totally different situation around here.”
The revival spreads
One example was Peter Cartwright, who enjoyed many of the vices of the day but got saved at Red River and became a Methodist circuit rider, taking the gospel to people by horseback. Another circuit rider who saw the Holy Spirit moving at this time was the Methodist bishop Francis Asbury, the namesake of Kentucky’s Asbury College, where many Salvationists attend today.
“Not only is the Red River Meeting House the birthplace of the Second Great Awakening,” Bussey says, “but Francis Asbury sees all the people who are coming and camping out and says, ‘We could replicate this all throughout America.’ When we talk about the baptism of fire and the things John Wesley talked about, Asbury sees these embodied in this experience on the American frontier.”
Presbyterian preacher Barton Stone, who led the signature revival of the Second Great Awakening at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in August 1801, also saw the happenings in Logan County when he visited in June 1801.
“We know that Stone came down and carried the revival fire back to Cane Ridge, which drew 25,000,” said Frank Jarboe, another member of the RRMHA.
The Cane Ridge Meeting House is about 200 miles north of Adairville in Bourbon County near Paris, Ky., an area settled by Scots-Irish Presbyterians, who were encouraged to settle there by explorer Daniel Boone.
Visitors can see the original 1791 meeting house, which is completely enclosed inside a new superstructure finished in 1957. The original meeting house is touted as the largest one-room log building in North America.
Church growth explodes
Stone is buried in the graveyard outside. Visitors can also experience a two–room museum with mementos related to the revival.
“Cane Ridge wasn’t the first or last revival of that period, but it was the largest of that entire era, so it gets a lot more press than some of the other revivals,” says James Trader, the curator of the property.
“During the revival, there were Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers, but we don’t have any real idea how many there were of any singular denomination, and a lot of the people here weren’t part of any of them.”
Between 3,000 and 4,000 people found new faith in Jesus Christ at the revival.
Cane Ridge, named one of Kentucky’s Top 10 “Must See” landmarks, draws 7,000 people a year and was the birthplace of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Churches of Christ, and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.
Trader said religion was not a big part of people’s lives after the American Revolution, but the Second Great Awakening changed that.
“The lack of religion in Kentucky prior to the revival was profound,” he said. “After that roughly 20–year period of the Second Great Awakening, Kentucky became basically the center of the Bible Belt. Church attendance in the country, not just in Kentucky, went from around 15 percent to over 55 percent. It had a profound effect around the country.”
Jarboe said that between 1800 and 1880, more than 8 million people became members of evangelical churches as a result of the revival.
“That’s more than became Christians in the first several centuries of Christianity,” Jarboe said. “We see an explosive growth in faith. That is why the South is known as the Bible Belt.”
A new America
The societal changes were also profound. Black and white settlers worshipped together during the revival and that altered perceptions about race. Children climbed onto wagons and into trees to preach with passion and authority.
“That changed the way people viewed a child’s heart for God,” Dreama Ruley said.
The Second Great Awakening also paved the way for women’s suffrage, the explosion of missionary work, and the temperance movement. The revival also changed the way society viewed the poor and mentally challenged.
“The Wesleyan perfectionism of the First Great Awakening and the idealistic American revivalism of the Second Great Awakening led to dramatic social reform,” Bussey said. “William and Catherine Booth fused those two things together and that became Salvationism.”
The people who look after the Red River Meeting House are aware that the revival started in their backyard and they clearly see the preservation work they do as a ministry.
“That was a fire at Cane Ridge and the beginning of a fire is most always a spark,” Tom Ruley said. “I think what happened here in Red River was the spark and it grew from there.”
Darlynn Moore, another member of the RRMHA, said area ministers come to the grounds to pray and meditate. One pastor who was considering leaving the work stayed in the ministry after praying there.
“We’re taking care of a place where people hear the Holy Spirit,” she said.
Out of Kentucky
Jarboe compared Red River to the Old Testament standing stones.
“This is an Ebenezer,” Jarboe said, referencing 1 Samuel 7:12. “The ground’s not holy, but God did a work here. Somebody was standing in the spot I’m standing and was truly affected by the gospel over the life of this church. We hope God will do another work here.”
Dreama Ruley believes that’s why people should come to Kentucky for a visit.
“We want people to come here not only so we can remind them of America’s history, but also our spiritual history and what God did here,” she said with tears in her eyes. “We want to remind them they need to be in prayer that it happens again. People need to be motivated to pray. That’s why we’re here.”
Bussey said if one “follows the theological breadcrumbs,” the Second Great Awakening didn’t end in Kentucky. The revival spread to upstate New York and spawned the ministries of revivalists like Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer around the time of The Salvation Army’s founding in 1865. Booth, writing in the Officer magazine, urged his officers to read Finney and the other great revivalists.
“These are the people who influenced William and Catherine Booth and everyone was reading in those days,” Bussey said.
Another early influence on Booth was the Methodist evangelist James Caughey.
“William Booth modeled his life after Caughey and met him when he came to America,” Bussey said. “He becomes Booth’s prototype and Booth looks to him as a mentor. It all begins to create this American–Wesleyan revivalism.
“Nearly every person from that movement influenced William and Catherine Booth. That’s the type of Wesleyanism that they looked to and they studied. Pretty much every book they studied was of American holiness revivalists who had been impacted by the Second Great Awakening. They become the blueprints for what we call Salvationism.
“I believe the entire strategy, philosophy, and epistemology of Salvationism is predicated upon the theories crafted in the Second Great Awakening.”
Bussey also believes every Salvationist should visit Kentucky to glimpse the early Salvationist influences.
“These trips are about going back to see what God has done in the past and to remember that if God did it then, He can surely do it today,” Bussey said. “A plaque is just a plaque until a story accompanies it. When the story comes, we understand the value of it. When the value comes, there is significance. When the significance is there, then we’re moved. When we’re moved, we resolve ourselves.
“I don’t think there is an organization better postured for a true global spiritual awakening that is as significant, if not more significant than the first and second great awakenings, than The Salvation Army. We just need to begin to believe it.
“I believe we’ve lost our idealism that the world can be saved and that there can be revival or a great awakening. We need to stir those embers again. We need to stoke the fire if there’s going to be another awakening—and I believe there is. I believe our Eastern Territory is a critical starting point to what God is going to be doing, not just in The Salvation Army world, but the whole world.”
by Robert Mitchell
The Red River Meeting House is located at 3008 Schochoh Road in Adairville, Ky., and can be reached at (270) 539–6528 or www.rrmh.org.
The Cane Ridge Meeting House is located at 1655 Cane Ridge Road near Paris, Ky., and can be reached at (859) 987–5350 or www.caneridge.org.