Along with my wife and kids, I visited Montgomery Bell State Park last weekend. I went for amazing $3-per-hour jon boat rentals, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the park is home to a historical site of importance to 19C American religious history. In fact, I was so overcome with the history of the place that we’re going back this weekend, but this time to camp for a few days.
The historical site is a log cabin where three ministers—the Reverends Samuel McAdow, Finis Ewing, and Samuel King—founded the Cumberland Presbyterian Church on 4 February 1810. Without permission from the “mother” Presbyterian Church, the three were reorganizing the Cumberland Presbytery, which had been dissolved for following the “New Light” trends within early 19C American religion.
Distrusted by the “Old Lights,” the New Lights embraced the American frontier style of religion found in revivalism, ecstatic experiences with the Spirit, and an untrained ministry. Perhaps their greatest sin in the eyes of the Scottish Calvinists (mainstream Presbyterians), was the denial of predestination and belief in freewill soteriology. While efforts were made historically, to differing degrees of success, to reunite with the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Cumberland Presbyterianism stands as its own independent denomination with around 50,000 members. It also is the first Reformed church, Presbyterian or otherwise, to ordain women, which occurred in 1889.
In this church’s history I find a group of nineteenth-century faithful dissidents who reorganized their churches into a new body, which, while small, remains relevant and vibrant to this day. Remind you of anyone? Religious rebels demanding power to the people is as old as Moses, repeated in our history and experience by Joseph Smith Junior. It is the story of the Reorganization as well, with an interesting parallel in the reorganization of the Cumberland Presbytery.
But there are more connections to this brand of Presbyterianism and the Latter Day Saint movement than religious rebellion. Always wary that correlation does not imply causation, still I think we owe these Cumberland Presbyterians some credit or influence upon the Restoration. They were the kindling for the fires of the Second Great Awakening, having the first ecstatic experiences with the Spirit that we would call pentecostalism today. The Cane Ridge Revival, and 100 years later, the Azusa Street Revival, owe a debt to Cumberland Presbyterianism. And, in that the Stone-Campbell movement was born out of the fires of Cane Ridge, which were kindled by the movings of the Spirit among Cumberland Presbyterianism, in this unique brand of American religion I find roots and precursors to the Latter Day Saint movement.
As I stood in the shadow of this log cabin where the Cumberland Presbyterian Church had been founded, the pieces all started to fall together in ways I hadn’t considered before. And I was struck with the thought that perhaps another traveler could stumble upon another log home, but of one Peter Whitmer, where, on 6 April 1830, a small group was responding to the Second Great Awakening and prompting of the Holy Spirit. I thought also of someone stumbling upon a sign in Amboy, Illinois, indicating the location of a Goldman’s Hall, site of a conference held in 1860. I even considered a log cabin tabernacle built in Kanesville, Iowa. Surprised to stumble upon this site, I was overcome with a sense of the Spirit moving among diverse groups and peoples. It did not bother me that these groups came to different conclusions over the details, because they were all united in being endowed by the Holy Spirit with the testimony of Christ.
I came to Montgomery Bell for a day of fishing and the cheap jon boat rentals, and left amazed at a story of religious history and devotion that was both new in 1810, and as everlasting as human spirituality and longing for communion with the Divine.