- Barton Warren Stone: Revisiting Revival in the Early Republic
The old revivalist Barton Warren Stone sat up in an armchair at his daughter’s home in Hannibal, Missouri, in the small hours of November 9, 1844. Wracked by pain, he asked for a last pipe of tobacco as family members sang to him. Mouthing the first verse of the Isaac Watts hymn, “Why should we start, and fear to die?” he called his son to his side, rested on the young man’s shoulder, and died. His death had been a long time coming. Less than a month earlier, a listener at his final sermon noted, “He can preach well yet. But he looks like time has marked him as a victim of eternity.”u1 Stone’s demise was a sad echo of his heyday forty-three years earlier, when he led Kentucky’s single greatest revival at Cane Ridge, described by one scholar as “America’s Pentecost.”2 In the heart of the Bluegrass, Stone had preached to audiences thousands strong until his lungs ruptured. Ignoring medical advice, he continued to address the throngs, blood and sweat drenching the pores of his body, palsied with fever. “My mind became unearthly,” Stone recalled. His physician suspected the onset of consumption, but Stone attributed a seemingly miraculous [End Page 161] overnight recovery to “the grace of God,” enabling him to preach on through the revival.3
Stone was a pivotal figure in the history of Kentucky and of antebellum America, yet his legacy is contested and his reputation as one of the prophetic voices of American evangelicalism has dwindled. Stone’s reputation suffered from both sectarian and secular criticisms and misrememberings, none perhaps more emblematic than that of Mark Twain, the grand old man of American letters. As a young boy living in the Hannibal, Missouri, Sam Clemens (as he was then) was close friends with Will Bowen, his near neighbor in the town. Bowen was the rebellious son of Samuel A. Bowen and Amanda Stone Bowen—Barton Stone’s eldest daughter. Stone himself, resident at nearby Jacksonville, Illinois, was a frequent household visitor with the Bowens. Clemens’s scrapes with Will furnished anecdotes told years later by Twain on the lecture circuit, most notably the time he visited his pal’s house for a game of euchre, when “[a] Baptist [sic] minister” arrived home, disturbing their hand. Sam stashed the cards in the closet, under the baptizing robes of the minister, incidentally his friend’s grandfather. A few days later, Twain recalled, his friend looked on with “horror to see the minister one day, in the river baptizing his converts . . . the cards commenced to float upon the water, the first cards being a couple of bowers and three aces.”4 There is some poignancy in reflecting that Stone, anonymously pilloried here, died in the same parlor where Sam Clemens played his furtive hands of cards.
As Twain’s anecdote underlines, Stone’s puritanical image left him open to ridicule. Yet this image was largely constructed by posterity. While Stone scorned idle pastimes such as euchre, he was by no means a joyless pulpit-thumper but was instead a loving husband and family man, a preacher whose humility belied his controversial [End Page 162] reputation. One former congregant described him as “cheerful, and sometimes even facetious . . . a man of considerable wit and humor.”5 But he was also inscrutable. Reserving mirth for family and close friends, he exuded apocalyptic gravitas in the pulpit. Stone appears Janus-faced to the historian, revealing himself through the odd flash of manuscript evidence but generally entrenched behind his published sermons and writings on such topics as the millennium and the evils of slavery. His private correspondence—excepting published letters and a few fugitive papers in manuscript—is now lost, further limiting our understanding, while exposing him to ad hominem attacks over the years. Stone’s extensive failure to detail his experiences at Cane Ridge is also curious, given the central significance to American religion of the Great Revival. Writing his memoirs in the 1840s, Stone distanced himself from the enthusiasm of early camp-meeting revivals. To understand why he did...