McGready, James

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McGready, James

Born 1760 (Pennsylvania)
Died February 1817 (Henderson County, Kentucky)

Presbyterian preacher

James McGready is known as the father of revivalism in the American West, which in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. McGready's use of camp meetings brought religion to the masses on the western frontier of the United States. As a result, America experienced a "Second Great Awakening," a period of widespread revival in religious activity. (A first "Great Awakening" had occurred in the early eighteenth century.) Through McGready and others, Protestantism (Christian beliefs held by congregations that are independent of the Catholic pope and other central authority) continued to serve as an important force in the nation's history.

"No person seemed to wish to go home. . . . Little children, young men and women, and old gray headed people, persons of every description, white and black, were to be found in every part of the multitude."

McGready was a powerful preacher who drew thousands to hear his message of faith at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His services provided a spiritual and emotional experience for all who attended, and his preaching often provoked a physical response among his audience. McGready based his camp meetings on the model provided by the early Scottish Presbyterians, who combined a continuous outdoor service with camping out. The term "camp meeting" was first used in 1802, and it soon became a familiar part of the American vocabulary.

The revivalist

James McGready Jr. was born around 1760 in the farm country of western Pennsylvania. James McGready Sr. and his wife, Jean, were poor farmers who had recently immigrated to America from Ireland and Scotland. In 1778, the McGreadys moved their growing family to Guilford County, North Carolina. They settled near the Presbyterian congregations of David Caldwell, a highly respected minister with churches in the towns of Buffalo and Alamance, North Carolina, just outside Greensboro. Caldwell combined teaching with his pastoral ministry and ran an academy that taught the classics in his home. The McGready children received their elementary education from Caldwell, the only teacher at the academy. James worked long hours in the fields with his brothers on the family farm, but he was serious about his religious duties and his education. A visiting uncle noticed his religious inclinations and persuaded the McGreadys to allow James to return to Pennsylvania for theological training.

In 1784, James McGready returned to his home state and settled in a town called Canonsburg, near Pittsburgh. He boarded with John McMillan, a Presbyterian minister who was a graduate of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). McMillan is believed to be the first Presbyterian minister to have a regular congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains. McGready helped with farm chores in exchange for his room, board, and private tutoring while living in the McMillan home. In 1785, a Presbyterian minister named Joseph Smith opened an academy nearby in order to prepare young men for the ministry. Smith was also a graduate of the College of New Jersey. McGready immediately enrolled in his school. He was not at Smith's academy very long before McMillan opened his own theological academy in Canonsburg.

McGready transferred to the new academy so he could study once again under his original mentor. Lectures were arranged in the form of questions and answers. Students were expected to take notes and memorize the information. This system of learning taught McGready to present his thoughts in a clear and logical form. McMillan continued his work as a Presbyterian minister, and his sermons often drew large crowds from a great distance; sometimes his revival meetings lasted all night. McMillan taught his students his own "New Side," or revivalist, beliefs, which encouraged a passionate conversion (rebirth) experience rather than a mere declaration of faith. McGready sought the emotional conversion that McMillan described. One Sunday morning in 1786, McGready experienced his own personal spiritual rebirth at a "sacramental meeting" by the Monongahela River. Church gatherings among evangelical (crusading) denominations were called sacramental meetings because the communion (bread and wine representing Christ's body shared among the meeting participants) received at the gatherings had become their greatest sacrament. McGready completed his formal education, and on August 13, 1788, he was licensed to preach in Pennsylvania. However, that fall McGready left Pennsylvania to return to his parents' home in Guilford County, North Carolina.

A son of thunder

In the early eighteenth century, a religious revival in England led by John Wesley (1703–1791) brought about a spiritual awakening in America, too. This is known as the Great Awakening. However, the years after the American Revolution (1775–83) marked a lifeless time for many churches in America. There was a desperate need for ministers. An urgent plea went out among pastors of all Christian denominations to their congregations asking them to pray for the new nation. Soon, a network of prayer meetings rose up among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Gathering on the first Monday of each month, congregations began to pray for a religious revival in America. They did not have long to wait. By the end of the century, a "Second Great Awakening" would sweep the nation.

On his way home to North Carolina in late 1788, McGready stopped in Farmville, Virginia, to observe the interdenominational revival that was taking place there. He stayed at Hampden-Sydney College, where the Presbyterian part of the Virginia revivalist movement had begun in 1787. By the time McGready left Virginia, he was well trained in the techniques and powers of revivalism.

Barton W. Stone

Barton Warren Stone was at David Caldwell's Guilford Academy in North Carolina when James McGready came to speak in 1790. McGready's powerful preaching led Stone to pursue ordination as a Presbyterian minister. In 1796, Stone was licensed to preach by the Orange Presbytery in North Carolina. Two years later, Stone became pastor of the united congregations of Cane Ridge and Concord in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Hearing of McGready's camp meetings, Stone traveled south in the spring of 1801 to witness the revival for himself. Impressed by the meetings at Red River, Stone organized similar services in his area at Cane Ridge, northeast of Lexington. Invitations went out for an August sacramental meeting. It was to become the standard by which all future revivals would be measured in America.

People began arriving early at the Cane Ridge site, and the roads were soon jammed with horses and wagons. The congregation had hosted such meetings in earlier years, but it soon became apparent that this would not be an ordinary summer sacramental meeting. By Saturday, over twelve thousand people had gathered. (At that time, the largest town in Kentucky had a population of less than two thousand citizens.) Some people had traveled hundreds of miles from neighboring Ohio and Tennessee.

The traditional central camp tent was set up at Cane Ridge, and neighboring farm families supplied such hospitality as they could. However, most people came prepared to camp. Farmers opened their fields and gathered extra feed for the visitors' horses. The crowd could be heard from a great distance; the noise was likened to the roar of Niagara Falls. As the host minister, Stone opened the meeting, but preachers from all denominations formed teams to continue the preaching both day and night. A festive communion service was the high point of the final day, ending a full week of activities. Then everyone returned home.

Revival meetings were controversial, with the apparent seizures people were experiencing at the revivals. Stone was one of five revivalist preachers who withdrew from the Presbyterian Church in protest after being suspended in 1803. The following year, Stone founded the Christian church that came to be called the Church of Christ. In 1832, he negotiated an informal union with Alexander Campbell's Disciples of Christ church. Campbell's Christian church, which had been founded in 1808, was centered more in the East. The resulting Stone-Campbell movement, like other religious groups on the frontier, provided church-affiliated colleges that trained both pastors and other professionals who were needed for church ministry.

When McGready reached North Carolina, he was distressed by the poor religious condition of the state. The war had left congregations scattered, and people had become more concerned with materialism, an interest in acquiring property and wealth, and less concerned about spiritual matters. Furthermore, McGready was appalled to find people guzzling whiskey at funerals where he presided. McGready's reputation as a preacher grew quickly in Orange County; by 1790, he was known as a "son of thunder" for his fiery messages. McGready's preaching was particularly successful among his own congregations of Haw River and Stoney Creek. Also in 1790, McGready married Nancy Thompson. They had six daughters, two of whom died in infancy.

McGready was 6 feet tall, plainly dressed, and rather solemn in appearance. He inspired people with his prayers and sermons and at the same time unsettled them with his message. McGready's preaching style was to begin calmly and progress in tempo and volume until he reached an impassioned end. He became a frequent guest speaker at David Caldwell's Guilford Academy, where he had once been a student. McGready's zeal inspired many young students to become Presbyterian revivalist preachers. One of those students was Barton W. Stone (1772–1844; see box).

McGready's work produced a strong renewal of interest in religion across north-central North Carolina. In the process of reviving religion in the state, McGready created some enemies. His pointed attacks on immorality and materialism greatly offended several of the wealthy families at his Stoney Creek congregation. After several sharp exchanges, McGready received a letter written in blood, threatening his life if he did not leave. He arranged a hasty reassignment with the head of the church and moved to Kentucky in August 1796. McGready preached for several months in Knoxville, Tennessee, on his way to Logan County, Kentucky, the heart of the untamed Cumberland region.

Kentucky ablaze

In January 1797, McGready began working with three small churches in Logan County, just across the state line from Tennessee. McGready's congregations were located in the southwest part of the state and named after local rivers, the Muddy, the Red, and the Gasper. Several of his friends and former congregation members from North Carolina had already settled in Logan County, which made the move more comfortable. Four other pioneer ministers had also settled in the Kentucky-Tennessee border area. McGready and the others were called the five "wild men" of the Cumberland. They were among the Presbyterian ministers who were willing to venture westward and follow the frontier rather than wait for a more developed civilization. The majority of people in Logan County were refugees from other states in the union. Those who fled from justice or punishment included murderers, thieves, and counterfeiters. Their presence earned the county the nickname "Rogues Harbour."

Of the five "wild men," McGready proved to be the agent of change and revival in the American West. He promoted prayer meetings on the first Monday of every month, fulfilling the wishes of Christian leaders in the East. In addition, McGready urged his followers to pray for him at sunset on Saturday evening and at sunrise on Sunday morning. He also recommended a day of prayer and fasting each month. A large man with a powerful voice, McGready delivered his carefully prepared sermons with great energy, challenging his audience to live a holy life. Signs of a revival appeared as early as 1797, but the leaders of the "Old Side," or antirevivalist Presbyterians, worked to stamp out any emerging enthusiasm. They believed it was not in keeping with appropriate reserved religious behavior and distracted from the work of ministers trained in traditional theological schools. McGready's churches experienced moderate growth through 1798, but the state of Kentucky was rapidly changing and presented a challenge to McGready. The population of Kentucky was estimated at over 70,000 citizens in 1790 and exploded to over 220,000 by 1800.

McGready had honed his skills as a revivalist back in North Carolina and began preparing his congregations for a revival. He modeled his sacramental meetings on the lengthy Communion services (consuming bread and wine as symbols of a union with Christ) of the Presbyterians in Scotland and set up a camp meeting for the summer of 1800. McGready's preaching had attracted a great deal of attention, so hundreds of people traveled up to 100 miles to hear him that summer. The visitors camped in fields surrounding the Red River church on Friday and began the weekend of social activities and spiritual experiences. Ministers from all denominations established makeshift pulpits wherever they could. They preached to the crowds from wagons, tables, or tree stumps throughout the woods.

The weekend meeting was marked with a religious intensity that expressed itself in emotional and physical outbursts. The physical phenomenon of "falling" was first observed at Red River. Large numbers of people fell down all at once, as if struck dead while McGready and other ministers at the camp preached. They would emerge out of their trance-like state with shouts of joy and thanksgiving. Observers wrote about what they had seen and tried to explain, or explain away, what had occurred.

McGready's camp meetings were a model of democracy. In keeping with the Christian scriptures, all members had the opportunity to share their testimony regardless of race, gender, or age. McGready's gathering in the summer of 1800 became the pattern for all camp meetings in America. For the next few years, revival meetings were a regular part of the frontier culture. These revivals provided the fire that ignited the "Second Great Awakening" Protestant leaders had so earnestly prayed for after the Revolution.

Presbyterian unity

The Second Great Awakening brought spiritual renewal to the churches and significant increases in their membership. The movement provided a unity among the Christian denominations it affected and did much to develop the regions west of the Appalachians. The Transylvania Presbytery consisted of all the congregations in Kentucky, southern Ohio, and the Cumberland area across the mountains in Tennessee. The Cumberland district experienced such success that the synod (national or regional church leadership) separated it from the overgrown Transylvania Presbytery and formed the Cumberland Presbytery in 1802.

Despite the success of the "New Side," or revivalist Presbyterians, resentment continued among the "Old Side," or antirevivalist Presbyterians. McGready's methods and beliefs angered the more conservative group of the Cumberland Presbytery. One particularly divisive issue was his use of unordained preachers. McGready was also accused of preaching and encouraging doctrines contrary to the Presbyterian Confession of Faith. In 1805, the synod suspended McGready and several other ministers in the Cumberland Presbytery. In protest, some of the ministers formed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The synod reacted by abolishing the Cumberland Presbytery in 1806 and moving administration of the congregations including the Cumberland Presbyterian Church back to the Transylvania Presbytery.

McGready was distressed by the split and decided not to participate in the new Cumberland church, for fear the issue would hinder the revival movement still continuing in the region. He remained loyal to his Presbyterian heritage and successfully sought reinstatement to the Transylvania Presbytery. In 1806, McGready began work at a congregation on the Ohio River in Henderson County, Kentucky, and moved there the following year. He spent his final years establishing churches in southern Indiana. James McGready enjoyed a quiet and peaceful ministry in his last years. He died in 1817 at his home in Henderson County.

For More Information


Boles, John B. The Great Revival 1787–1805. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972. Reprint, 1996.

Cleveland, Catharine C. The Great Revival in the West, 1797–1805. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916. Reprint, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

Conkin, Paul K. Cane Ridge: America's Pentecost. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Foster, Douglas A., Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams, eds. The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Web Sites

"James McGready: Presbyterian Minister 1763–1817." Historical Foundation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church of America. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

"Nineteenth Century Revivals." Christian Word Ministries. (accessed on August 17, 2005).

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McGready, James

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