Autobiography of James B. Finley – James B. Finley



Finley was the son of an itinerating Methodist pioneer and was no stranger to the harshness of life in the backwoods.

He was converted at the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting in 1801. The famous camp meetings began in 1800 and were greatly used of God to bring multitudes to the Lord Jesus Christ. The meetings often witnessed scenes of astounding manifestations. Shaking, jerking, shouting and catatonic (death-like) states were common. Laughter, barking like dogs and convulsions often preceded great conviction and conversion.

The great general camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge and this chapter, from Finley’s autobiography, describes what went on there.

We have included chapter 21 of the book on the site and CD. The remainder has not yet been digitized.

Chapter 2I. Great Revival in the West

IN the spring of 1800 one of the most astonishing and powerful revivals occurred that has ever been known in the western country. This was also the most extensive revival that perhaps ever was witnessed in this country. It was marked by some peculiarities, which had not been known to characterize any revival in former times. The nearest approximation to it, of which I can form any conception, was the revival on the day of Pentecost, when, thousands were awakened and converted to God under the most exciting circumstances.

The commencement of the revival is traceable to the joint labors of two brothers in Cumberland County, Kentucky, one of whom was a Presbyterian and the other a Methodist preacher. They commenced laboring together, every Sabbath preaching, exhorting, and praying alternately. This union was regarded as quite singular, and excited the curiosity of vast multitudes, who came to the places of meeting to hear two men preach who held views in theology supposed to be entirely antagonistic. Nothing was discoverable in their preaching of a doctrinal character, except the doctrine of man’s total depravity and ruin by sin, and his recovery therefrom by faith in Christ. All were exhorted to flee the wrath to come, and be saved from their sins. The word, which they preached, was attended with the power of God to the hearts of listening thousands. The multitudes that flocked from all parts of the country to hear them became so vast that no church would hold them, and they were obliged to resort to the fields and woods. Every vehicle was put in requisition; carriages, wagons, carts and sleds. Many came on horseback, and larger crowds still came on foot.

As the excitement increased, and the work of conviction and conversion continued, several brought tents, which they pitched on the ground, and remained day and night for many days. The reader will here find the origin of camp meetings.

In the spring of 1801 Bishop M’Kendree was appointed presiding elder of the Kentucky district; and being thus brought in contact with this wonderful work, he was prepared to form a correct judgement of its character. That there were extravagances that constituted no part of religion, he was prepared to admit, but that it was all a wild, fanatical delusion, he was very far from conceding. Nay, he believed that it was the work of God’s Spirit on the hearts of the people, and that thousands were genuinely converted to God.

These meetings began to follow one another in quick succession, and the numbers, which attended, were almost incredible. While the meetings lasted, crowds were to be seen in all directions, passing and re-passing the roads and paths, while the woods seemed to be alive with people. Whole settlements appeared to be vacated, and only here and there could be found a house having an inhabitant. All ages, sexes, and conditions, pressed their way to the camp meeting. At these meetings the Presbyterians and Methodists united. They were held at different places. On the 22nd of May 1801, one was held at Cabin creek; the next was held at Concord, in one of my father’s old congregations; the next was at Point Pleasant, and the succeeding one at Indian creek, in Harrison County. At these meetings thousands fell under the power of God, and cried for mercy. The scenes, which successively occurred at these meetings, were awfully sublime, and a general terror seemed to have pervaded the minds of all people within the reach of their influences.

The great general camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge meetinghouse. This house was built for my father, and here was my old home, I have elsewhere described this meeting, or, rather, attempted to do so. Language is utterly impuissant to convey any thing like an adequate idea of the sublimity and grandeur of the scene. Twenty thousand persons tossed to and fro, like the tumultuous waves of the sea in a storm, or swept down like the trees of the forest under the blast of the wild tornado, was a sight which mine own eyes witnessed, but which neither my pen nor tongue can describe.

During the religious exercises within the encampment, all manner of wickedness was going on without. So deep and awful is man’s depravity, that he will sport while the very fires of perdition are kindling around him. Men, furious with the effects of the maddening bowl, would outrage all decency by their conduct; and some, mounted on horses, would ride at full speed among the people. I saw one, who seemed to be a leader and champion of the party, on a large, white horse, ride furiously into the praying circle, uttering the most horrid imprecations. Suddenly, as if smitten by lightning, he fell from his horse. At this a shout went up from the religious multitude, as if Lucifer himself had fallen. I trembled, for I feared God had killed the bold and daring blasphemer. He exhibited no signs whatever of life; his limbs were rigid, his wrists pulse-less, and his breath gone. Several of his comrades came to see him, but they did not gaze long till the power of God came upon them, and they fell like men slain in battle. I was much alarmed, but I had a great desire to see the issue. I watched him closely, while for thirty hours he lay, to all human appearance, dead. During this time the people kept up singing and praying. At last he exhibited signs of life, but they were fearful spasms, which seemed as if he were in a convulsive fit, attended by frightful groans, as if he were passing through the intensest agony. It was not long, however, till his convulsions ceased, and springing to his feet, his groans were converted into loud and joyous shouts of praise. The dark, fiend-like scowl, which overspread his features, gave way to a happy smile, which lighted up his countenance.

A certain Dr. P., accompanied by a lady from Lexington, was induced, out of mere curiosity, to attend the meeting. As they had heard much about the involuntary jerkings and falling which attended the exercises, they entered into an agreement between themselves that should either of them be thus strangely attacked or fall, the other was to stand by to the last. It was not long till the lady was brought down in all her pride, a poor sinner in the dust, before her God. The Doctor, agitated, came up and felt for her pulse, but, alas! Her pulse was gone. At this he turned pale, and, staggering a few paces, he fell beneath the power of the same invisible hand. After remaining for some time in this state, they both obtained pardon and peace and went rejoicing home. They both lived and died happy Christians. Thousands were affected in the same way.

These camp meetings continued for some time, the Presbyterians and Methodists uniting together as one in the army of the Lord. Some ministers had serious doubts concerning the character of the work; but its genuineness was demonstrated by the fruits. Men of the most depraved hearts and vicious habits were made new creatures, and a whole life of virtue subsequently confirmed the conversion. To all but Methodists the work was entirely strange. Some of the peculiarities had been witnessed before by the preachers, and they were enabled to carry it on.

These meetings exhibited nothing to the spectator unacquainted with them but a scene of confusion, such as scarcely could be put into human language. They were generally opened with a sermon or exhortation, at the close of which there would be a universal cry for mercy, some bursting forth in loud ejaculations of prayer of thanksgiving for the truth; some breaking forth in strong and powerful exhortations, others flying to their careless friends with tears of compassion, entreating them to fly to Christ for mercy; some, struck with terror and conviction, hastening, through the crowd to escape, or pulling away from their relations, others trembling, weeping, crying for mercy; some falling and swooning away, till every appearance of life was gone and the extremities of the body assumed the coldness of death. These were surrounded with a company of the pious, singing melodious songs adapted to the time, and praying for their conversion. But there were others collected in circles round this variegated scene, contending for and against the work.

Many circumstances transpired that are worthy of note in reference to this work. Children were often made the instruments through which the Lord wrought. At one of these powerful displays of Divine power, a boy about ten years old broke from the stand in time of preaching under very strong impressions, and having mounted a log at some distance, and raising his voice in a most affecting manner, cried out, ‘‘On the last day of the feast Jesus stood and cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” He attracted the main body of the congregation, and, with streaming eyes, he warned the sinners of their danger, denouncing their doom, if they persevered in sin, and strongly expressed his love for the salvation of their souls, and the desire that they would turn to God and live. By this time the press was so great that he was taken up by two m en and held above the crowd. He spoke for near an hour with that convincing eloquence that could be inspired only from heaven, and when exhausted, and language failed to describe the feelings of his soul, he raised his handkerchief, and dropping it, cried, ‘‘Thus, O sinner, will you drop into hell unless you forsake your sins and turn to God.” At this moment the power of God fell upon the assembly, and sinners fell, as men slain in mighty battle, and the cries for mercy seemed as though they would rend the heavens, and the work spread in a manner which human language cannot describe.

We will now try to give something in reference to the manner and the exercise of mind of those who were the subjects of this work. Immediately before they became totally powerless, they were sometimes seized with a general tremor, and often uttered several piercing shrieks in the moment of falling. Men and women never fell when under this jerking exercise till they became exhausted. Some were unable to stand, and yet had the use of their hands and could converse with companions. Others were unable to speak. The pulse became weak, and they drew a difficult breath about once a minute. In many instances they became cold. Breathing, pulsation, and all signs of life forsook them for hours; yet I never heard of one who died in this condition, and I have conversed with persons who have laid in this situation for many hours, and they have uniformly testified that they had no bodily pain, and that they had the entire use of their reason and powers of mind. From this it appears that their falling was neither common fainting nor a nervous affection. Indeed, this strange work appears to have taken every possible turn to baffle the conjectures and philosophising of those who were unwilling to acknowledge it was the work of God. Persons have fallen on their way home from meeting, some after they had arrived at home, others pursuing their common business on their farms, and others when they were attending to family or secret devotions. Numbers of thoughtless, careless sinners have fallen as suddenly as if struck by lightning. Professed infidels, and other vicious characters, have been arrested, and some times at the very moment when they were uttering their blasphemies against God and the work, and have, like Saul, declared that to be God’s work which they so vehemently persecuted.

I trust I have said enough on this subject to enable my readers to judge how far the charge of enthusiasm and delusion is applicable to this work, unequalled for power and for the entire change of the hearts and lives of so many thousands of men and women. Lord Lyttleton, in his letter on the conversion of St. Paul, observes, and I think justly, that enthusiasm is a vain, self-righteous spirit, swelled with self-sufficiency and disposed to glory in its religious attainments. If this be a good definition, there was as little enthusiasm in this work as any other. Never were there more genuine marks of that humility which disclaims the merits of its own works, and looks to the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way of acceptance with God. Christ was all and in all in their exercises and religion, and their Gospel, and all believers in their highest attainments seemed most sensible of their entire dependence upon Divine grace; and it was truly affecting to hear with what anxiety awakened sinners inquired for Christ as the only Physician who could give them help. Those who call this enthusiasm ought to tell us what they understand by the spirit of Christianity. Upon the whole, this revival in the west was the most extraordinary that ever visited the Church of Christ, and was peculiarly adapted to the circumstances of the country. Infidelity was triumphant, and religion at the point of expiring. Something of an extraordinary nature was necessary to arrest the attention of a wicked and sceptical people, who were ready to conclude that Christianity was a fable and futurity a dream. This great work of God did do it. It confounded infidelity and vice into silence, and brought numbers beyond calculation under the influence of experimental religion and practical piety.

It is generally known that in the early settlement of Kentucky, the regular Baptists were by far the most numerous body of Christians. It is also known that they adhered most rigidly to the doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation, together with the final and unconditional perseverance of the saints. The same may be said of the Presbyterians, who firmly maintained and preached these doctrines till the commencement of this revival. Indeed, the doctrine of unconditional election and reprobation was so generally taught by these denominations, that there was rarely found any one sufficiently fearless and independent to call them in question. They had taken deep root, and it might be said the doctrines of Calvin had filled the whole country. During the prevalence of these doctrines, supported as they were on all sides by polemical divines, whose religion seemed to consist almost entirely of a most dogged and pertinacious adherence to the creeds and confessions of faith, which had been handed down from orthodox Puritan fathers, it was not a matter of surprise that professors of religion, losing sight of the weightier matters of the Gospel, while they attended to its ‘‘anise, and mint, and cumin,” would fall insensibly into antinomianism. The inconsistency of the doctrines of Calvin became the subject of the sarcastic sneers of infidels, and the inability of these Churches to reconcile their doctrines with the justice of God and the present order of things, made fearful inroads on the cause of Christianity, and strengthened the hands of the wicked. The friends of the truth were few. They were without influence, and much persecuted; but, notwithstanding, they lifted up their voice.

It was at this juncture, and under these circumstances that it pleased the Lord to look down upon the western country. Man’s extremity was God’s opportunity, and the wonderful manifestation of Divine power swept away antinomianism, and infidelity, and every refuge of lies. There were some in the Presbyterian Church who did not preach a partial Gospel, but who lifted up their voice like a trumpet, and invited all to come to Jesus for salvation, assuring them that he died for all. Of this number was that man of God, Carey Allen. As a missionary he was “a flame of fire,” and thousands were awakened under his fervent, soul-stirring appeals.

Not long after the revival commenced, several of the Presbyterian ministers renounced Calvinism, and being persecuted by their brethren, they left the Church, and organized a new Presbytery, which was called the Springfield Presbytery. As is often the case with those who separate from the Church because they judge it needs reformation in doctrine or discipline, so these brethren, unfortunately, did not stop in media res, but rushed to another extreme. They ran into gross errors and heresies, as was seen in their apology for renouncing the jurisdiction of the Synod, the tract on the atonement by Mr. Stone, in 1804, and their sermons. Methodists and Presbyterians both saw that an enemy had come in, and was sowing tares broadcast over the field, and they retired to their own stands, and defended their own doctrines.

The party, which had separated, were styled Newlights, but they have subsequently taken the name of Christian. In June 1804, these preachers dissolved their Presbytery, and drew up a very curious paper, which they signed, entitled “The last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery.” Of the six ministers who signed this paper two went back to the Presbyterian Church, three joined the Shakers, and one the Campbellites. They published to the world, in the paper above alluded to, their belief or, in other words, their non-belief, for they renounced all creeds, confessions of faith, and standards of doctrine, and started out on a crusade against all the Churches.

Several of these ministers were my school-mates in other days, and I felt a lively interest in them; so much so, as the reader will find, in the relation of my religious life, given in the preceding pages, I went to their camp meeting on Eagle creek to join them. By a personal and confidential interview with one of the preachers, a former old class-mate at my father’s academy, I learned that they did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, nor in total depravity, nor in the atonement, as held by orthodox Churches. Honest David Purviance, in his life, comes out boldly, and proclaims the doctrines of the Newlight Church.

This heresy spread and prevailed. The early settlers of Kentucky were most sceptical on the subject of religion. The more influential classes of citizens were infidel in sentiment, and they laboured to bring all to their views. To accomplish their wishes more fully, they employed an Englishman to take charge of their seminary of learning at Lexington. He had an extensive library, and, from his position, exerted a great influence in society. Subsequently, the principal of the seminary was elected Secretary of State. The Governor, Mr. Garrard, was a celebrated Baptist preacher, and a gentleman of much respectability and influence. It was not long till the Secretary succeeded in converting the Governor to his faith and, having accomplished a result so desirable to the infidel party, the next thing was to get the Governor to publish a tract on the doctrine of the Trinity. This made considerable noise. In 1802 the Rev. Augustin Easton and Governor Garrard commenced a meeting on Cooper’s run, in Bourbon County. Here they proclaimed publicly the Arian and Socinian doctrines. The wavering separatists were excited and encouraged wonderfully by this movement, as is evident from their own confession and subsequent course. These unfortunate people - Newlights - from the time they first began to preach their doctrines, were beset in their meetings with those wild exercises that have been alluded to. See Benedict’s History of Baptist Church, vol. ii, p. 252.

These strange exercises that have excited so much wonder in the western country came in toward the last of the revival, and were, in the estimation of some of the more pious, the chaff of the work. Now it was that the humiliating and often disgusting exercises of dancing, laughing, jerking, barking like dogs, or howling like wolves, and rolling on the ground, manifested themselves. To add to their misfortune, being ripe for such a catastrophe, a company of Shakers from New York found their way among them, and proselyted their most talented and useful preacher and not a few of their members. These fanatics for a season went on with a tremendous influence, threatening to sweep all before them. But they, like all other wild and visionary people, had their day.

If the reader should desire to find what the Newlights, or Christians, teach, he will best obtain it from their own works. I refer the reader to Barton Stone’s exposition, in pamphlet form.

The wild vagaries adopted by the Newlight preachers of Kentucky prepared them to gulp down all the ridiculous tenets of Shakerism, and this produced a general scepticism in that state, that, I fear, will not be done away for generations. It may seem strange that all grades of Arians and Socinians have adopted immersion as the only mode of baptism, and regard it as constituting a title to heaven.

The new isms that followed this great revival were many, and it seemed as if Satan had taken advantage of the excitement to drive the bewildered into darkness and the sanguine into error and folly. The Shakers drew off hundreds with them. Elder Holmes rose up with his pilgrims, and started out in quest of the Holy Land. He had many followers, and, after wandering about for some time, died on an island in the Mississippi river, and his band dissolved. Elder Farnum, also another fanatic, pretended to have received the spirit of immediate inspiration, and raised a party called the “screaming children.” After flourishing for a season, this association dwindled away. Next came A. Sargent and his twelve disciples - all women. It was spread over the country that he was inspired and conversed with angels daily, from whom he received revelations. Then Elias Hicks, the Quaker, espoused Arianism, and split the Quaker Church, spreading confusion and schism everywhere among the Friends.

Last, but not least in the train of evils, came Kidwell with the last edition of Universalism. He taught that there was no hell, no devil, no future judgment; that it was impossible for any one to commit any crime in this life that would possibly shut him out of heaven; that all souls at death enter at once into the heavenly state, and are happy with God forever, no matter how ungodly they have lived in this world.

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The latter part of the chapter is very honest regarding some of the unfortunate schisms and doctrinal errors that some unwise and undiscerning brothers introduced. A sober warning to us today not to use manifestations of the Holy Sprit for human empire-building or as God’s imprimatur upon unbiblical teachings. Finley was a son of revival and became the father of many others.

The Revival Library will, in due course, reproduce the remainder of his autobiography.




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