Family Dynamics and the Great Revival: Religious Conversion in the South Carolina Piedmont

Article excerpt

IN JANUARY 1802 THE REVEREND SAMUEL MCCORKLE LED THE DEDICATED core of his Presbyterian congregation across the North Carolina piedmont to a sacramental camp meeting in Randolph County. Such meetings were nearly as old as Presbyterianism itself, but lately they had come under attack as stories of promiscuous assemblies and wild enthusiasm filtered into the Carolinas. McCorkle was concerned. Describing himself as a man "long enlightened with the rays of science and religion" who was "far, very far from enthusiasm, and its constituents," McCorkle was critical of the disorder and "moral chaos" reportedly characteristic of camp meetings. Accordingly, he approached the Randolph gathering with caution and skepticism. (1)

His worst fears seemed to be confirmed on the second day of the meeting when, "as if by an electric shock, a large number in every direction, men, women, children, white and black, fell and cried for mercy." McCorkle initially greeted this "scene of seeming confusion" with "horror" and "some degree of disgust." As he crossed the grounds, moving from preaching stand to encampment to woods and disoriented by the tangle of fallen, shouting, praying, and pleading worshippers, his "mind seemed to be made up of a strange mass of sensations." For the next two days McCorkle struggled to come to terms with the bodily excesses of the camp meeting, and although he concluded that "there was no crime" in the "external disorder" of revival worship, he was nevertheless troubled by the spontaneous enthusiasm the revival generated. He remained troubled until the final evening, when his son was religiously "impressed." His child's spiritual awakening resolved all of McCorkle's doubts about the efficacy of the revival. McCorkle became an enthusiastic proponent of the revival and described his own transformation in terms resonant of awakened sinners: with "joy unspeakable, even raptures," he affirmed the "glorious work" of the revival and "expressed an ardent zeal to promote" it. (2)

McCorkle's conversion to revivalism was not atypical. The conversions of youth were a prominent feature of early camp meetings and subsequently generated support for the revival from fathers and mothers who, like McCorkle, otherwise feared and opposed its emotional excesses and disorder. While historians have noted this pattern of youth conversions and called attention to the importance of family religion to southern evangelicals, recent studies have made disruption of the family and household the major theme of early evangelicalism. According to this literature, southern evangelicals fashioned a counterculture that rejected the worldly value system based on wealth, status, and honor, instead making piety, humility, and dependence the measure of personal worth. The evangelicals undermined patriarchal households by elevating dependents--wives, children, and slaves--to positions of moral superiority and leading them to act independently in matters relating to their spiritual welfare. Scholars indicate that evangelical Christians threatened and divided southern families, provoking heated and frequently violent conflicts between dominating patriarchs and their dependents. A threat to the hegemony of the ruling gentry, to the authority of patriarchs over wives and children, and to the carefully guarded racial caste system of the South's slave society, evangelicals seemed bent on subverting the social order. As a result they were feared and marginalized until they made peace with slavery, patriarchy, and affluence. (3)

As important as these issues are, McCorkle's experience reminds us that they tell only part of the story of early southern evangelicalism. In the first place, McCorkle and his evangelical cohort were not stern patriarchs who dominated their households by controlling their dependents; instead these men were often loving, devoted, and compassionate fathers for whom the emotional bonds of family took precedence over the political ties of households. …