Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Scottish Antecedents to American Revivalism, or The Roots of Cane Ridge

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.

To this day, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hosts an annual event they call "Campmeeting." Though a far cry from the "holy fairs" that emerged in Scotland during the early 1600s, at least in name the gathering in Baton Rouge represents a faint echo of what was, at one time, a powerful tradition. Beginning sometime in the eighteenth century, this tradition made its way to America and, in turn, deeply impacted Protestantism on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, historian Leigh Eric Schmidt sets out to provide an extensive history of the regional communion gatherings that were "a critical part of the religious culture of the evangelical Presbyterians" for roughly two centuries in Scotland and a century in America (p. 205). Schmidt says that his goal is simply to understand these events themselves. He compares this to other approaches that seek to identify what caused the revivals or what they generated. He says that his work is about neither causation nor consequence. Instead, it is a sort of "ethnographic history," an exploration of what the revivals meant to their participants and how attendance at the holy fairs shaped their worlds (6). In the interests of a full description, Schmidt makes use of all sorts of "material evidences" and "disparate disciplines" (7). He wants to find out what the sacramental gatherings were like for average people, even those who were not sympathetic to what was happening. He especially wants to avoid simply reporting the exploits and experiences of the ministers (7).

In Chapter 1, a stand-alone history, Schmidt provides a brief description of the early development, basic character, and transatlantic extension of the Presbyterian regional communion gatherings. Regarding their nature, Schmidt writes: "What separated the festal communions from earlier sacraments were such characteristics as outdoor preaching, great concourses of people from an extensive region, long vigils of prayer, powerful experiences of conversion and confirmation, a number of popular ministers cooperating for extended services over three days or more, a seasonal focus on summer, and unusually large numbers of communicants at successive tables" (24).

In Chapters 2 and 3, the author changes over from diachronic description to synchronic analysis. Here, he focuses on the experiences that people had before, during, and after the communion gatherings. What was it like to prepare for, travel to, and participate in one of the festal communions? What did the average person actually do? The author succeeds in showing that the communion gatherings realized minister John Livingston's premise that what the Word is to the ear, the Eucharist should be to the eye. Schmidt also reveals, for example, how five spiritual disciplines traditionally associated with participation in the sacramental occasions--self-examination, personal covenanting, secret prayer, meditation, and devotional reading--led up to and generated the kinds of powerful, unforgettable experiences that people wanted to relive year after year.

Finally, in Chapter 4, Schmidt describes how the sacramental season fell into disuse during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Why did this happen? Schmidt says that it was the result of mainly two factors: the influence of the Enlightenment, which made the festal communions seem contemptible, and the rise of a capitalist economy, which made them seem wasteful. What these two storms left behind, Victorian standards finished off.

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