Powerful, and sometimes strange, physical manifestations are often commonplace during times of revival. When the Holy Spirit dropped in on the early 1st century Christians during that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, it is recorded that God’s visit was accompanied by a supernatural rushing wind and tongues of fire in that very room. And, the commotion of activity that followed caused some outsiders to think that the Christians had gotten drunk on wine that morning. So, too, revivals in later times have displayed supernatural phenomena and curious behaviors that some have considered inappropriate.
The camp meetings of the early 1800’s were no exception to this. In fact, apparently bizarre and disorderly behavior seemed to be the rule during these revivals. This must be understood in the context of the dead orthodoxy that dominated most mainstream expressions of Christianity at the time. The spirit of over-intellectualized and duty-bound religion looked down on the notion of a personal and even emotional response to the living God. So, it is not that much of a surprise that God would capture people’s hearts and inject bursts of strong emotion into this great awakening.
What were some of these strange things seen at the revivals? One commonly-seen response during the meetings was people spontaneously falling to the ground. People of all ages, of all races, men and women, would frequently collapse or faint to the floor. Usually it would happen as the preacher was presenting the Word of God to the crowd and challenging them to consider where they stood in regard to sin and to God Himself. That is why the falling down was accompanied often by an overwhelming sense of conviction of sin and fearing for one’s soul. People would groan and cry out to God for mercy as they lay upon the dirt.
But, interestingly, the historical records tell us that this falling down was not confined just to the meetings during the sermons. It would happen before the events or afterwards, on the way walking to town, or in the middle of people worshiping or praying or talking together. It was far more than the power of persuasion or the pressure of crowd thinking. It was God’s presence that made the difference.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the accounts of critics, doubters, and trouble-makers who attended the camp meetings hoping to disprove the proceedings or cause some mischief. In one instance, an older man had gone to a meeting with a custom staff with a sharp nail on one end. His plan was to poke and prod those who fell down to jolt them back to attention. Little did he realize that the Holy Spirit would surprisingly overwhelm him in the middle of a conversation and send him collapsing to the floor. When he awoke one hour later, he admitted his bad intentions and confessed his sin. Time and again, numerous stories tell of those who had no desire or intent to ever fall down, yet the irresistible presence of God would override their stubbornness and reveal a God who is mighty at work in our midst.
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