Rev. James McGready: Revival and Community in backcountry North Carolina and the Kentucky frontier

Rev. James McGready (1763-1817) is most often represented as a “Son of Thunder”: a firebrand of New Light Presbyterianism on the American frontier. His charismatic preaching on the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands kindled the Great Revival of religion (1797-c. 1810), itself prefiguring the Second Great Awakening in the United States. His “Short Narrative of the Revival of Religion in Logan County” has been called America's most influential religious narrative since Jonathan Edwards's account of the colonial revivals in New England. Today, however, the historical McGready is stubbornly obscure, his legacy dimmed due his lack of posterity, the antagonism of clerical contemporaries, and tragic decline into ill health and alcoholism. This paper reclaims his legacy as a central figure in the religious history of early Appalachia by framing his career in the context of two major currents of backcountry American life: the practice of communal negotiation, or “regulation” of social norms; and the sacramental structure of the Lord’s Supper or “Holy Fair” tradition—the foundation of the Scots-Irish revival religiosity which McGready embodied. The former tradition explains his fall from grace as a backcountry preacher rousted by North Carolinian congregants) ironically McGready was an early champion of temperance and critic of frontier whiskey culture). The latter explains his reemergence as a charismatic revivalist in Kentucky, while contextualizing his preaching in the communal context of lay exhortation by the socially marginalized and dispossessed—notably women, children, and the enslaved.