The Rev. William McGee (1768–1817) is credited in many works as one of the men who kick-started a huge religious revival that began on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier and spread across the country at the beginning of the 19th century. (It is known today as the Second Great Awakening.) A series of small revivals that included William and his brother John culminated in the Cane Ridge Revival in 1801--a weekend camp meeting that brought thousands of people to a rural church in Kentucky for what a Vanderbilt University historian has called "arguably . . . the most important religious gathering in all of American history." William McGee is also noted for being one of the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a denomination that split from the Presbyterians a few years later.
Before I go on, I should tell you how William fits into our family. He was Blanche Vermillion Branch's great-great-great-grandfather, a great-grandfather of her grandmother Martha Burrow. I realize there's a lot of generations between us and William, but over time I'll fill in the gaps. But for now, here's his story:
William McGee was born in 1768 in Guilford County, North Carolina. He was the fifth and youngest child of John and Martha (McFarlane) McGee, Scotch-Irish Prebyterians who were among the wealthiest people in the county. John McGee died in 1773, when William was only five years old, but John left his family well provided for, and his mother later married William Bell, a mill owner who was himself very well off. (Martha McFarlane McGee Bell has a remarkable story of her own connected to Cornwallis's campaign through North Carolina in 1781. I'll get to that story in another post.)
When he was ten years old, William began studying with the Rev. David Caldwell, a local Presbyterian minister and Princeton graduate who ran a well-regarded academy for boys. Caldwell's school was described by a 19th-century historian as "an Academy, a College, and a Theological Seminary" where students studied classical languages and theology. The school trained many of the ministers who would go on to fuel the religious revival. William, intending to become a minister, spent ten years studying with Caldwell and was, it is suggested, impeccably prepared for the ministry by the time he was twenty.
The only trouble was, he didn't feel that he had had the "conversion experience" that he felt was necessary to his Christian life, and was burdened by the spectre of sin. His older brother John later wrote: "His distress was unspeakable, under a conscious sense of the frowns of an angry God which hung over him. This may seem strange to some, when they are informed of the manner of his life prior to this time. I do not believe he ever drank a pint of ardent spirits, or swore a profane oath, in his life. He was the most moral youth I ever saw."
And John, it seems, knew from sin. While William was studying his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, John--"a wild young man," one source tells us--ran off and bummed around on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. While he was away, he wrote home with a big surprise for his mother and brother: with no formal training at all, John had joined the Methodists and had quickly become a preacher on the traveling circuit.
I should explain that the Methodists and Baptists who were traveling the South after the Revolution were seen as a threat to the Presbyterian domination of the Scotch-Irish. The Methodists and Baptists were preaching a more experiential, less intellectual religion, and a more inclusive gospel that suggested that people could, by embracing Christ and the church, effect their own salvation. This was contrary to the Presbyterian doctrine of predestination--the idea that God had predetermined who would be saved and who would not, and nothing people could do could change their fate. People who had just won a war for the right to govern themselves were receptive to the Baptists and Methodists telling them that they could have a role in their eternal life as well.
Martha Bell so disapproved of her son's new faith that she considered disowning him. When he came home two years later, he wanted to hold prayer with his family. His mother was opposed, but WIlliam persuaded her that they should hear him out. As a historian later said, "they soon began to believe there was a change in him and began to treat him with respect."
John's arrival seems to have helped William sort out his doubts and fears. As one historian put it: "William McGee was chosen by the family to be a preacher, but God made a preacher first of John McGee, and he was God's instrument in the conversion of his brother, who soon began to preach the Gospel."
We don't know when William became a licensed Presbyterian minister, but it was probably around 1795. Not long after that, he and John both went out to the Tennessee frontier to preach. William took charge of a congregation in Sumner County, in the middle of the state's long border with Kentucky, a place where religion was seen to be in decline.
And this is where it gets interesting. The Presbyterians of that day carried on an old Scotch-Irish ritual of holding communion in large groups about four times a year. People would come from long distances and be tested on matters of religious faith and knowledge before they were permitted to take communion. It was at one of these, at Red River Church across the border in Kentucky, in June 1800, that the first stirrings of revival were seen. William McGee was invited to participate, as was his brother John--a sign of Presbyterian-Methodist cooperation on the frontier. I'll let Mike Sublett of Restoration magazine tell it from there:
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday passed quietly and reverently - as these Presbyterian Communions were wont to go. On Monday, though, as one local minister preached, a woman who had long sought assurance for her salvation began shouting and singing. The preacher concluded the sermon, and all the ministers left the church - except for the McGee brothers.
Presbyterian William sat on the floor near the pulpit and began weeping. Soon the congregation was weeping, seeking the full security for salvation. Methodist John rose to preach; a witness said he exhorted people to let "the Lord God omnipotent reign in their hearts, and to submit to him."
People began to cry and shout.
Then the woman who had first started shouting let out a shrill of anguish. Methodist John McGee, seemingly entranced, made his way to comfort her. Someone (probably his Presbyterian brother) reminded him this was a Presbyterian church; the congregation would not condone emotionalism! Later John recalled, "I turned to go back and was near falling; the power of God was strong upon me. I turned again and, losing sight of the fear of man, I went through the house shouting and exhorting with all possible ecstasy and energy, and the floor was soon covered with the slain" - people were falling in ecstasy.
James McGready, the minister who had presided over that meeting, knew he was on to something, and scheduled what is considered the first religious camp meeting a month later at Gaspar River Meeting House, not far from Red River. The results were just like Red River, and William McGee is said to have preached with passion. "Towards the close of the sermon," McGready later wrote, "the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as his voice."
The revivals continued in other locations that fall, and among those who heard about them was Barton Stone, another Presbyterian minister and former student of David Caldwell, McGee's former teacher. Stone was pastor of a church at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in Bourbon County near Lexington. (He would later be one of the founders of the Restoration movement, out of which the Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ denominations were born.) In the spring of 1801 Stone attended one of the camp meetings he'd been hearing about on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and he came back with plans for his own, which took place in August 1801. He spread the word that it would be an experience not to be missed, and the turnout was greater than anyone expected. The McGee brothers came to preach, among many other ministers, and many thousands of people descended on the rural spot--far more than the locals could accommodate. I've seen estimates ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 people. One writer has called it "The Religious Woodstock of 1801."
Cane Ridge is as famous for the excesses of enthusiasm that occurred there--a kind of mass hysteria--as is it is for its influence on American religion. Stone himself later described some of the things that went on, which he described as "religious exercises": "falling" (the fainting previously described); "the jerks," a series of spasm-like movements that sometimes affected the head and sometimes the whole body; a beatific kind of dancing; "barking," which was just the jerks accompanied by grunts; an entirely solemn and humorless laughter; and singing.
All this made the traditional Presbyterian authorities uneasy, and their support for the revival movement was tepid. It was this tension that would soon lead to a split between the larger Presbyterian body and the ministers on the Kentucky-Tennessee frontier.
But the presenting issue was not theology or worship style but education. It was hard to get qualified preachers on the frontier, and in McGee's presbytery, they had ordained a number of young men who had not had a formal education in theology and ancient languages. McGee took the side of the "young men," as they were known during the long dispute with the larger church that followed. I imagine he was torn--he himself had been the product of a careful and rigorous education, and yet he had seen the powerful work that his Methodist brother and other untrained ministers had been doing on the frontier.
Beyond the question of education was another one that the revivals brought to the fore: McGee and many of his fellow Presbyterians on the frontier, witnessing the sensational and dramatic conversion experiences of the revival, began to have doubts about the doctrine of predestination. McGee himself is said to have been deeply confused and undecided about this, and his uncertainty kept him from signing on right away when some of his colleagues took steps to separate from the larger church in 1809. But by 1810 he joined the new Cumberland Presbyterian denomination and indeed is considered one of its founders.
McGee continued to preach in frontier churches until his death in Tennessee in 1817. He and his wife Anna King--the sister of one of his ministerial colleagues--had eight children. One of them, named Martha for his mother, married James Burrow and moved to Lawrence County, Missouri. (Most of the McGees moved to a different part of Missouri after William's death.) Among James and Martha's children was a son named William for his preacher grandfather. William Burrow died in the Civil War, fighting for the Union in the battle of Fayetteville. His wife, Frances Stacy, died around the same time, leaving two orphaned daughters-- Artelia Jane and Martha Burrow. Martha later married John Washington Vermillion; they were the parents of Walter Vermillion, Blanche Branch's father.
Blanche, of course, was a Methodist, and whatever pride she might have had in her ancestor (I found all this information and shared it with her late in her life) was probably tempered by the fact that William was not a Methodist. But he came as close as a Presbyterian could--to the point of not being a very good Presbyterian! And one detail I didn't find until recently would surely have pleased her. As some of you know, Francis Asbury was one of the leading lights of Methodism--John Wesley himself appointed Asbury as one of the two first Methodist bishops in America, and he led American Methodism for 32 years, taking time to travel throughout the country preaching. He kept a journal of his travels, and on January 26, 1790, he stopped in on William McGee's family in North Carolina. Here is what he wrote: "Thence we went to Mr. William Bell's, on Deep River, and were received in the kindest manner; before I left the house, I felt persuaded that that family would come to experience the power of religion."
Asbury nailed it.