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Kentucky rogues and rascals: part one

You probably have heard legends about circuit-riding preachers from the 1800s who traveled by horseback to sparse settlements in America, ministering to those in isolated places.

Kentucky was one of those places definitely not for the faint of heart. Most early settlers lived in isolated areas, surrounded (in the early days) by Indians who tried to drive them off their land by surprise raids and torture. And then there was the threat of bears and wildcats. Life was so strenuous and lonely that many turned to liquor to dull the emotional pain. This resulted in wild fights and brawls. These early settlers of Kentucky became famous for their ability to gouge out eyes and bite off pieces of one another’s ears or noses in drunken fury.

Kentuckians had to grow tough and resilient. But, lacking the influence of the communities they left behind, they also grew away from the faith and high level of morality their ancestors traveled to the New World to practice.

Logan County, in particular, was considered the worst in all the state. Though Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1796, no one was there to enforce the law. Thus, Logan County became a haven for horse thieves, murderers, highway robbers and those passing counterfeit money. A few decent people tried to establish churches but were overwhelmed by the rogues among them.

Enter Reverend James McGready, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian circuit rider who wore buckskin breeches likes the rest of the settlers, and preached in a plain yet vivid style. Even the lawbreakers, when they weren’t drunk, regarded him as their friend.

Three small congregations existed in Logan county. Pastor McGready encouraged the people in these frontier churches to sign a covenant agreement. They were to pray each Saturday evening and Sunday morning for a religious awakening in their county. In addition, they agreed to fast and pray the third Saturday of each month for the transformation of their county.

At first things got worse instead of better. McGready urged his people to not give up. They searched their own souls, asking God to show them where they needed to repent.

The first inklings of a genuine revival began a year later, when McGready scheduled a weekend meeting, ending with a communion service. In July of 1799, according to reports of the meeting, “some of the boldest, most daring sinners in the county covered their faces and wept bitterly.”

God wasn’t finished with these people. In June of 1800, McGready scheduled a second quarterly meeting, this time at the Red River church (one of the tiny congregations). He was astonished when over five hundred people attended! Some traveled by wagons from over a hundred miles away.

The meeting lasted from Friday until Monday. During the last service, something extraordinary happened. As John McGee, a Methodist minister from Tennessee, made one last appeal “to let the Lord Omnipotent reign in their hearts and submit to Him, and their souls should live,” the silence was broken. A woman began shouting loudly at one end of the meeting house. (Presbyterians were notorious for silent, respectful worship). Hardened sinners began weeping. Soon the floor was covered with the most profane ones crying out to God for mercy.

News traveled like wildfire through the region. McGready scheduled yet another meeting for the third of his charges, this one along the Gasper River. He sent word for people to bring supplies and wagons and prepare to camp.

The circuit-riding preacher was astonished when ten thousand people showed up! Logan County was so remote that Lexington, the nearest big town, was over a hundred miles away. And it numbered only 1800 people.

What happened in that weekend meeting was beyond description. The Spirit of the living God began dealing with the most vile and wicked among them. Many fell down “as men slain in battle." They groaned as they realized they had offended the God of the universe with their wicked behavior. They cried for mercy. Finally deliverance came, and they rose, loudly testifying to all around about the forgiving, cleansing power of the God of heaven.

The crowds became so large that several ministers preached at the same time outside in a large clearing in the woods. Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians stood on tree stumps or in wagons to address the people.

Note: There is much more to this story, but due to its length, we will save it until next time. You can read the sequel next Monday, October 5th at

Taken from the book From Sea to Shining Sea by Peter Marshall and David Manuel. C. 1986, Fleming H. Revell Co.


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