February 7, 2017: That Old-Time Religion

Not long ago I told you about “A Forgotten Anniversary,” the most infamous journalistic hoax of its day. This week I’d like to feature a genuine forgotten anniversary, with no hoax: the month, 137 years ago, that what’s now commonly called “Old-Time Religion” came to our section of Appalachia and has remained ever since. This isn’t to say that our ancestors didn’t worship prior to that time. They certainly did, intently. But before 1880 there was an entire vocabulary of religious terms, now so common across the Bible Belt that many people think of them as having been established by the very Apostles, but which then hadn’t even been heard in Kentucky, much less quoted. George Owen Barnes, the so-called Mountain Evangelist, changed all that, and we’ve not been the same since.

Barnes was a Kentuckian himself, from Stanford in Lincoln County south of Lexington and until 1872, a Presbyterian minister. But during his travels after leaving his denomination he spent time in Chicago and fell in with Dwight Lyman Moody, founder of the Moody Bible Institute. Moody himself had made a prior evangelistic trip to Great Britain and been heavily influenced by an obscure British sect called the Plymouth Brethren, which used a unique form of Bible interpretation and religious terminology and which Moody brought back to America with him. He adopted and used the terms “Great Tribulation” (in capitals), “Rapture” (likewise capitalized, along with its three variants, “Pre-Tribulation,” “Mid-Tribulation,” and “Post-Tribulation,” the latter word often shortened to “Trib”), “Great White Throne Judgment” (as opposed to “the Judgment Seat of Christ,” whatever either may mean), and “the plan of salvation” and “personal Savior” in addition to commandeering the sect’s “Seven Dispensation” view of humanity. Thus armed, Moody attempted to evangelize the entire country anew. The dogma pretty much requires shaking out the Bible’s text as if the individual verses were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then trying to wedge them back together to accommodate the doctrines, but it remains integral to modern evangelicalism though it often requires the interpretations of D. L. Moody himself and the Bible commentators and publishers Cyrus Scofield and Charles Ryrie to make any sense. Anyway: after Barnes embraced Moody’s positions he secured financial backing from John G. Owsley, a fellow Lincoln Countian who’d struck it rich in Chicago, and back to Kentucky he went to preach Moody’s gospel.

Barnes and his evangelistic crew began exhorting in Lexington in late 1879, slowly traveled eastward, and finally reached the Big Sandy Valley in early February 1880. A hurricane could hardly have caused more tumult. Up and down Levisa Fork the Barnes troupe went that month, staging faith-healing as well as soul-saving, making converts by the hundreds, and even winning support from local ministers. Barnes even managed to found the Pike County community of Elkhorn City, which he originally called “Camp Praise-the-Lord” but which was shortened to “Praise” before the coal companies co-opted the land. He thus introduced Pentecostalism and so-called Holiness to eastern Kentucky even before those movements had adopted formal names, making the area ripe for the proselytizing of the Anderson, Indiana and Cleveland, Tennessee variants of the Church of God, both of which were organized only a few years after Barnes left Kentucky, as well as later and smaller denominations and independent Pentecostal and Holiness churches.

Sadly, Barnes didn’t keep a good reputation within the evangelical community. At least his errors were of poor judgment rather than malicious intent. Soon after the big Kentucky revival Barnes and his family joined up with John Alexander Dowie, the self-proclaimed “Prophet Elijah” and founder of the so-called Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. Besides opposing all forms of medical treatment in favor of faith healing, Dowie preached that the earth was both flat and at the center of the universe, and he dressed himself in a bizarre getup based on the biblical description of Aaron’s priestly garments in Exodus. About three years before Barnes’ death in 1908, Dowie was deposed from leadership in his church for financial impropriety and another charismatic preacher replaced him. Barnes outlived Dowie, but it’s likely that the Mountain Evangelist died still believing in “the Prophet’s” flat, universe-centered earth and that all medical treatments besides faith healing were sinful.

George Owen Barnes’ eastern Kentucky crusade was probably the high point of his ministry. The belief system of our area certainly changed dramatically because of it. But Barnes’ story likewise makes it obvious that it’s still better to read Scripture through our own eyes rather than his and the sources that he depended on—and come to our own conclusions, wherever reason may lead us.


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