Reflections on the 220th Anniversary of the Cane Ridge Revival . . . and Its Effect on Us Today
These are excerpts from Jerry Harris’s devotional thoughts presented on the 220th anniversary of the Cane Ridge Revival. Kentucky Christian University hosted a celebration commemorating the revival—one of the most important events in the history of the Restoration Movement—on the grounds of the Cane Ridge Meeting House, near Paris, Ky., on Aug. 7, 2021.
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By Jerry Harris
I’m not a scholar, theologian, or historian—I’m just a preacher—but the seeds that were planted here at Cane Ridge and in these surrounding woods have made an indelible impact on my life, my faith, and my eternity. The fact that you’re here, I’m guessing, is evidence that you have been impacted in the same way.
The key figure at the Cane Ridge Revival, Barton W. Stone, died in 1844 in Hannibal, Mo., a city only a few miles from where I live and preach in Quincy, Ill. Hannibal, of course, is famous as the boyhood home of Mark Twain. As a youngster, Twain was known as Samuel Clemens, and he was very good friends with Stone’s grandsons, who also lived in Hannibal.
After Stone died in Hannibal, he was buried on his farm about 70 miles away in Jacksonville, Mo., where he had moved after leaving Kentucky. When his wife, Celia, sold the farm, he was exhumed and moved to that community’s cemetery. In March 1847, Stone’s body was exhumed again and he was reburied here at Cane Ridge. And so, in a sense, he came full circle. (Celia Stone, by the way, remains buried in Hannibal; I only learned of that about 10 years ago.)
In reflecting on Stone’s journey back to Cane Ridge—and, really, mine as well—I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s reflection on his spiritual journey in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul talked about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and about the gospel he preached, and how he persecuted Christians before Jesus confronted him on that Damascus road. Verse 10 is especially powerful: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.”
It makes me think about the effect God’s grace had on us through this place and this man. It caused me to think about the effect that a 1791 sermon on “God Is Love” by William Hodge had on Stone, then a young law student; the sermon prompted Stone to make a personal decision to follow Christ. It caused me to consider the influence of Hope Hull, a Methodist preacher and principal who employed Stone to teach language in 1795 but, instead, helped steer him toward full-time ministry. At Stone’s ordination in 1796, Hodge held up a Bible and told Stone his greatest obligation was to it.
The seeds planted in Stone’s heart took root and blossomed in this place 220 years ago today. If these blue ash timbers could talk, what would they tell you? The event that took place here . . . where did it lead them . . . and us?
It led to the idea that God doesn’t pick the winners and losers but instead gives us the free will to choose to accept him. That was a brand-new thought in 1801. Consider how it has shaped the church and us!
It led to the need to respond, for this idea of free will inevitably led to an invitation at the end of a sermon. This may have been the first place that happened. Split rails and benches helped cordon off areas where people could respond and be ministered to. It was crowd control in that revival moment, but it became a staple of today’s church experience.
It led to a proper understanding of biblical baptism for the remission of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit as part of that initial free-will response. I can’t imagine giving an invitation without the opportunity to have sins washed away, to be clothed in Christ, to receive the sign of a covenant made without hands, to be united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, and be raised to walk in newness of life.
It led to a new unity based on the New Testament alone as our only rule of faith and practice. This flew in the face of conventional denominationalism of the time with its creeds. I can hear their voices saying, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but the Divine”. . . “Where the Bible speaks, we speak, and where it is silent, we are silent” . . . “In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; and in all things, love” . . . “We will use the New Testament as our only rule of faith and practice.”
It led to a new independence of church autonomy, each body with its own elders, searching the Scriptures daily like the Bereans of the first century to determine whether these things are so.
It even led to a developing understanding that slavery was wrong and that we are all the same in the eyes of our heavenly Father. In time, this movement launched the ministry of Marshall Keeble, a man who baptized over 40,000 and started more than 300 churches. Keeble’s influence helped produce Fred Gray, one of Keeble’s “preacher boys,” who changed the face of a nation as lead lawyer for Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Selma to Montgomery march, Alabama school desegregation, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, all the while preaching in Restoration Movement churches. Fred Gray said he felt God’s call to destroy every kind of segregation he could find.
The question is, where is it leading you? God did something great in these backwoods of Kentucky, in a plain church like this, with a simple preacher like Barton Stone, and with some very common people . . . and he’s still doing it today. It is by that same grace of God that you are what you are! The question is, what kind of effect is it having on you and the people around you?
Jerry Harris serves as Christian Standard Media publisher and senior pastor of The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest.
(Image of Jerry Harris speaking at the Cane Ridge Meeting House courtesy of Kentucky Christian University’s Facebook.)