The Christmas Revival on the Early American Frontier
“The first remarkable season of the outpouring of the Spirit, which we enjoyed in this congregation, began about the middle of December, 1781,” recalled Pastor John McMillan in a letter years afterward. “Many were pricked to the heart with deep convictions, and a goodly number, we hope, became the subjects of renewing grace.”
Thus began a revival among the first churches established on the American frontier, which was providentially timed to exert an inestimable influence on “the great Western field then opening with inviting promise to Eastern emigration,” church historian Iain Murray wrote in “Revival & Revivalism.”
Thus did America’s frontier echo the first Christian revival (Acts 2:1-41), when a Spirit-filled preacher boldly proclaimed the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord Jesus, impressing upon his hearers their guilt and their need for repentance. “Remarkable experiences of revival have marked the Christian church since the first century and the day of Pentecost,” noted David Closson, director of Family Research Council’s Center for Biblical Worldview. When the Holy Spirit comes, Jesus had foretold, “He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). More than 17 centuries later, the Holy Spirit still carried on that work in the hearts of those who heard the gospel.
The First Breath
“It made its first appearance among a few who met together for social worship, on the evening of a Thanksgiving day, which had been appointed by Congress,” McMillan wrote.
After the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, the Congress had declared Thursday, December 13, 1781 to be: “a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer … to celebrate the praises of our gracious Benefactor; to confess our manifold sins; to offer up our most fervent supplications to the God of all grace, that it may please Him to pardon our offenses, and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws; … and [to] cause the knowledge of God to cover the earth, as the waters cover the seas.”
The last of these requests was an appeal to God to fulfill his words found in Numbers 14:21, Isaiah 11:9, and Habakkuk 2:14. In the backwoods of western Pennsylvania, a handful of Christians gathered in God’s name with these petitions in mind, and the Holy Spirit began immediately to answer them.
The first outpouring at this impromptu gathering “encouraged us to appoint other meetings for the same purpose on Sabbath evenings,” recounted McMillan. “The appearances still increasing, Sabbath night societies were continued with but little interruption for nearly two years. It was then usual to spend the whole night in religious exercises; nor did the time seem tedious, for the Lord was there, and his work went pleasantly on.”
“The Lord was there” (see Ezekiel 35:10, 48:35). What a simple yet all-sufficient statement. What blessed assurance of God’s mercy, what sweet communion with Christ, and what fruitful fellowship in the Holy Spirit must these Christians have had. They kicked off their work week with an all-night prayer meeting (Matthew 18:20), and, because of the Spirit’s work, they found it pleasant rather than tedious.
The Lord Jesus Christ has been with his people since the first Christmas. As Matthew recorded, quoting Isaiah 7:14, “‘the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23). The eternal Son of God took on flesh, and for the next 30 or so years he walked among his people. They unjustly rejected and executed him although “he committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). Yet he got up from the grave, ascended to heaven, and took his seat at the right hand of God.
On his last night with his followers, Jesus inaugurated a New Covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20) and promised to send them the Holy Spirit, so that he would abide with them always (John 14-16). Christians are the heirs of this New Covenant, of which Jeremiah wrote:
“And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:38-41).
These believers found comfort in Christ that they lacked in the material world. “There were no mills to grind flour for bread and no roads bringing goods across the mountains,” “no stone, brick, or frame house,” only log cabins, catalogued Murray. These frontier settlers had to improvise winter coats from skins or blankets and carry “such scarce commodities as iron and salt” across unforgiving terrain on pack horses. Worst of all, the sparsely populated settlements were vulnerable to marauding bands of Native Americans, who killed, burned, and kidnapped settlers until 1794.
From the end of the French-and-Indian War (1763) to the end of the Revolutionary War (1783), approximately 20,000 English-speaking inhabitants had moved across the Allegheny Mountains into “territory that had previously been a wilderness,” said Murray. These first settlers, who “lived plain and resolute lives amid astonishing hardships,” were nevertheless “concern[ed] for the preaching of the gospel and for the establishment of churches,” said Murray.
The first ministers to respond were Thaddeus Dod, McMillan, and Joseph Smith (not the founder of Mormonism), Murray related. In 1779-1780 these men settled west of the Monongahela River, south of Pittsburgh, in what is now Washington County, Pennsylvania. Along with a fourth minister, James Power, these men formed the Presbytery of Redstone (named after a fort), the first American church association west of the mountains.
The revival that began around Christmas 1781 was not confined to McMillan’s congregation; Murray reported “parallel events” in the ministries of Dod and Smith. Dod’s church of 25 members met inside a small fort “on account of the danger from Indian attacks” and covenanted together in August 1781. “Not long afterwards, the services in the fort ‘were attended by a revival of religion.’” Also “‘In the winter of 1781 and 1782, God began to pour out His Spirit on the congregations of Upper Buffalo and Cross Creek,” where Smith was the pastor (a shortage of ministers in early America often left a single man overseeing multiple congregations).
Conversions and More Conversions
These outpourings of the Holy Spirit brought about conversions immediately, and they continued to bear fruit for years afterward.
As a result of the first spark of revival in Dod’s congregation, “upwards of 40 were admitted to the church,” which had previously numbered 25. “The confined circumstances of the fort did not, apparently, permit a solemn celebration of the Lord’s Supper [which would officially mark the members of the church], and to gather in the open air was too hazardous on account of the danger from Indian attacks,” wrote Murray. It was nearly two years later when “in May 1783 they were able to assemble for the first time in a barn to share in a communion services, a day remembered by ‘unusual tokens of the Divine presence.’” Dod subsequently recorded that the church was marked by a “regular increase” in members, but that there were also “several seasons of special religious interest, which brought in larger numbers.”
The revival bore similar fruit in Smith’s congregations. “In the Autumn of 1782 the sacrament of the Lord’s Sup[p]er was administered for the first time in Cross Creek. About 50 persons from both congregations [Cross Creek and Upper Buffalo] were received into full membership,” quoted Murray. “This work continued, with but little abatement, for six or seven years. The most gracious visitation was in June 1787, when about 50 members were added to the church of Cross Creek.”
In McMillan’s congregation, the work bore even more fruit for longer. “At the first sacramental occasion after the work began, 45 were added to the church, many of whom continued bringing forth the fruits of righteousness, and filling important offices in the church, until they were removed to the world of spirits,” said McMillan. “This time of refreshing [see Acts 3:20] continued, in a greater or less degree, until the year 1794,” the year when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in western Pennsylvania. “Upon every sacramental occasion during this period,” he added, “numbers were added to the church, who gave comfortable evidence of having obtained a saving change of heart; but, as I neglected to keep a register of their names, I cannot now ascertain the number.”
“The 1781 Christmas revival on the then-American frontier demonstrates all the marks of an authentic religious revival,” Closson said, “including repentance, an emphasis on God’s Word, humility, and a heightened concern for the lost.”
Springboard for Further Missions
The near-constant revival atmosphere did not prevent Dod, McMillan, and Smith from each establishing schools to train more young men for the ministry. These schools were quite informal at first, nameless and with students moving freely between them. But they eventually graduated over “100 young men, many of whom afterwards became distinguished preachers,” cited Murray.
Murray included an early account of McMillan’s school:
“Whenever he found a young man of piety, who appeared to have gifts promising extensive usefulness in the Church, he took him into his family, taught him without charge, and trained him up for the ministry.… He was in the habit of furnishing indigent young men with the means of prosecuting their studies for the Gospel ministry — always as a loan, telling them to return it when they were able so that he might assist others.”
Smith described the importance of the task, “though some men of piety and talents may go to a new country, at first, yet if they are not careful to raise up others, the country will not be well supplied.” In other words, the purpose was not to enhance their own personal ministry, but to advance the kingdom of God as a whole. In pursuing God’s work as their end, he extended the impact of their ministries much further than they ever would have reached under human influence alone.
Ministers were scarce in the nearly empty wilderness which settlers had just begun to inhabit, but these schoolmasters were “cautious in their selection of men for training and service,” Murray described. “They wanted, and made provision to secure, strong men; and all who joined them seemed to be made partakers of their own spirit.”
Some of the graduates of these backwoods classrooms became “eminent pastors, preachers, and missionaries,” said Murray, who proceeded to name the exploits of some of these mighty men of faith. The flame of revival continued in the congregations of Thomas Marques, which saw 123 members added in four years. “James Hughes was much used in the same region [western Pennsylvania] before becoming principal of what became Miami University” in Ohio. “Joseph Patterson and Samuel Porter were leaders in the Pittsburgh area through the first quarter of the nineteenth century.” Elisha Macurdy still labored in ministry at the age of 80 (in 1842), at which point he was somewhat of an elder counselor to the Synods of Pittsburgh, Ohio, and Wheeling.
The ministry of this early revival spilled over into the Ohio River Valley and into America’s great central basin, enlivening future generations as they settled across the fertile farmlands of the Midwest.
Amid incessant work and frontier hardship, these pastors might have collapsed under the strain were it not for the indispensable support of their wives. Murray considered it “too important to go unmentioned … that the wives of these men were no less in stature as Christians than their husbands.” In his estimation, only “uncommon piety” made them equal to the hardships they encountered.
These women fasted, prayed, and cheerfully provided for the basic needs of their households from the scant supplies on hand. They shared even their kitchens, “at times, with their husbands’ school pupils.” They endured “hardship and loneliness, the early death of children, the fear of the frontier, and all else that became a part of their daily lives,” even though they had been “not raised in the backwoods but educated and accustomed to the established communities in the East.”
“All in all, they presided over homes that were happy both in life and death,” Murray summarized. The most beautiful testimony is in McMillan’s own words, “My wife and I lived comfortably together for more than 43 years; and on the 24th of November, 1819, she departed triumphantly to take possession of her ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The Work Is Ours, Results Are God’s
Like all revivals, although these men (and their wives) labored faithfully, the fruit was first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit, not a result of their skill. Of McMillan, who became known as “the apostle of the West,” a contemporary, James Carnahan, wrote that, “He would not be called a man of genius, or of splendid talents. He wrote and spoke plain English, which the most illiterate could understand.” He “seldom mov[ed] his hands in the pulpit,” and his “generally doctrinal” sermons lasted for an hour.
All McMillan did was preach faithfully. His doctrine-heavy preaching “embrac[ed], at different times, the whole system of doctrine taught in our Confession of Faith.” He “never omitted” the application of this doctrine, but rather used it to make “appeals to the hearts and consciences of his hearers.” Carnahan recalled that, “In describing the wretchedness of the lost, especially of those who had enjoyed the privileges of the Gospel, he was tremendous.”
Carnahan recorded of McMillan that “God blessed his preaching in a remarkable manner.” Besides his regular preaching in church, McMillan would also preach to crowds of 1,500-2,000 people in the open air, he recalled, and the non-extraordinary preacher held the attention of every single one. He continued preaching for another half century; shortly before his death in 1833, he “was still preaching … ‘with almost the energy of middle life.’”
Smith, by contrast, had more rhetorical flair than McMillan, according to a description furnished by E.H. Gillett, a 19th century pastor, professor, and historian. “In the pulpit, and out of it, his power was wonderful. His soul was thrown into his utterance. His voice was ‘now like thunder, and now like the music of heaven.’ His manner ‘had a strange kind of power about it, totally indescribable,’” Gillett recorded. “His tones, his emphasis, his holy unction, and the holy vitality of his soul made them indescribably impressive.” Even these gifts seemed to be enhanced by the power of God’s Holy Spirit in him.
Smith used these gifts to open up true spiritual realities to his hearers. “I never heard a man who could so completely unbar the gates of hell and make me look so far down into the dark, bottomless abyss, or, like him, could so throw open the gates of heaven and let me glance at the insufferable brightness of the great white throne,” Gillett quoted Reverend Samuel Porter. “He would often rise to an almost supernatural and unearthly grandeur, completely extinguishing in his hearers all consciousness of time and place.”
These differences in style underscore that the revival was not manufactured by these men, but produced by God. They would have agreed with Paul when he wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Indeed, God gave these men the fundamental unity that Murray identified as “a vital part of their success.” “It was patently more than the same education,” he wrote. “They were possessed by the same conception of Christianity. They knew fellowship with God. They believed in a gospel which had to be felt in its power and in the Holy Spirit, on whose energy all success depends.”
A month ago, I had never even heard of this revival, and I imagine you hadn’t either. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a few backwoods communities might strike us as unimportant. At the very least, they seem unrelated to the momentous events then taking place in America’s coastal cities. Even Murray admitted how remarkable it was that “the first records of revival in western Pennsylvania are found” “amid such primitive condition and at a time when, further east, the attention of the nation was still absorbed in the Revolutionary War (1775-83).”
Yet Murray recognized “the overruling of God in history” in both the time and place of this revival. “The opening [of this part of the country for settlement] came at a time when true religious experience had prepared men and women for hardship and heroism that was to be key to the occupation of the great valley of the Mississippi and to the movement towards the Pacific,” he wrote. “Here churches were needed that would have deep and sure foundations and whose example would give guidance and inspiration to the many yet to be formed in the regions beyond. Just such congregations came into being in the manner we have seen.”
Christians who yearn for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in American churches can take comfort from God’s strategic, sovereign providence, which appointed this revival at the launchpad of western expansion. No scandal, no apostacy, no internal controversies, no cultural opposition, no persecution will ultimately derail or defeat the church, because none of those things can prevent God’s Holy Spirit from being poured out on his chosen ones at a time of his choosing.
God’s sovereign timing was on display in Jesus’s first coming. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). God’s people may have looked for his Chosen One to appear in the time of Abel or Isaac or Joshua or Solomon or Ezra or the Maccabees, but he came in “the fullness of time.” His Spirit does, too.
God’s sovereign timing also governs Jesus’s second coming, of which “no one knows” the day or hour (Matthew 24:36). “The Spirit and the Bride [the church] pray, ‘Come’” (Revelation 22:17), and Jesus responds, “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20).
Jesus declared, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). And so, the kingdom of heaven continues to expand and conquer until he comes again.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.