Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism

By Shepard, Samuel C., Jr. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism


Shepard, Samuel C., Jr., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism. By ELLEN EsLINGER. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. xxi, 306 pp. $38.00.

ELLEN ESLINGER provides a social context for the famous Kentucky revivals of 17981802 and posits a new interpretation of these early episodes of the Great Revival. She correctly maintains that previous scholars of the topic have focused on the revivals themselves and left the impression that participants were primitive farmers whose frontier lifestyles relied on rudimentary economic and political institutions. To remedy this oversight, she devotes the first two-thirds of her book to a thorough description of Kentucky between 1775 and 1800. By the latter date, Kentucky had survived attacks by the British and Native Americans and had gained its independence from Virginia. Those struggles gave way to massive immigration, a thriving agricultural economy, and prosperity. Still, Eslinger depicts a state facing an array of problems. Land speculators made real estate expensive and often unavailable. The flood of newcomers included people of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds and thereby left Kentuckians without a sense of community. Political conflict reached a crescendo in disputes about the state's constitution. The federal government aggravated Kentuckians with its inept dealings with Native Americans, its inability to gain reliable access to the Spanishcontrolled Mississippi River, and its imposition of the excise tax on whiskey.

For Kentuckians struggling with these difficulties, Eslinger contends, the revivals served as a source of social integration. She disputes the notion that the state's population was "starved for religious worship" (p. 169) on the eve of the Great Revival. In the 1790s congregations multiplied, the number of ministers increased, and Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians had created coherent state and local organizations. …

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