John Blair Smith (1756-1799) graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1773 at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). At age nineteen he was called to be a tutor at the new Hampden-Sydney College, a Presbyterian institution located in south central Virginia. Four years later he became the school’s president.
While serving at the college, Smith simultaneously pastored a few Presbyterian churches in and around Prince Edward County. Smith called the elders of his churches to prayer, and those times of intercession developed into prayer circles “in different parts of the congregations where a few could assemble.”
Of the nearly eighty students at Hampden-Sydney College in the fall of 1787, only one was definitely known to be a Christian while two others were earnestly seeking after Christian truth. Those three began to meet for prayer on Saturday afternoons, but in the woods some distance from campus so they would not be discovered by their fellow students.
One afternoon rain threatened, so the trio met in one of the college rooms. After locking the door, they began to sing and pray quietly, not wanting to be overheard. But they were found out, and a large group of students quickly gathered in the hallway, banging on the door, yelling, swearing and threatening if the trio did not cease and desist all such spiritual exercises at the college.
Two professors arrived at the scene of the ruckus and ordered all the students back to their rooms. That evening the entire student body was called together, and President Smith demanded to know the cause of the disturbance and who had led it. The leaders confidently stepped forward and stated that they had found a few of their fellow students “carrying on like the Methodists” and they were “determined to break it up.” Rather than condemning the participants in the small prayer group, Smith publicly commended them and invited them to hold their prayer meeting in his parlor the following Saturday.
People were greatly surprised when one week later Smith’s parlor was completely filled by the number of people who attended the prayer meeting. Surprise turned to amazement when just one week after that nearly the entire student body and many neighbors from around the college showed up for the prayer meeting, overflowing the parlor and other rooms of Smith’s home! As more neighbors heard of what was happening at the college, they all wanted to attend subsequent Saturday prayer gatherings. Those needed to be held in the large College Hall, which was filled for the weekly prayer sessions.
The widespread results of this sudden mighty moving of God’s Spirit were truly remarkable. Within two weeks fully half of the college students fell under heavy conviction of their sins, and many eventually came to faith in Christ. Deep spiritual impressions and concern spread throughout the surrounding neighborhood. Prayer meetings multiplied and Smith devoted himself entirely to preaching in the college and in his congregations.
One testified of this revival: “Every other business appeared for a time forgotten in the all-absorbing interests of religion. The awakening in the congregations received a great impulse in every direction … By the commencement of the year 1788, there was a general awakening in Prince Edward, Cumberland and Charlotte counties. The professors of religion awaked as from sleep and put on the armor of godliness; some declared themselves convinced that their former profession had been a lifeless one and professed conversion anew.”
John Smith’s father Robert, himself a minister from Pennsylvania, visited his son during this revival and reported in part: “The half was not told me of the display of God’s power and grace among them; no not the tenth part. I have seen nothing equal to it for extensive spread, power and spiritual glory, since the years 1740-1741 [the first Great Awakening in America]. The work has spread for an hundred miles … Not a word scarcely about politics; but all religion in public and private. They run far and near to sermons, sacraments and [praying] societies.
“The blessed work has spread among people of every description, high and low, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, orthodox and heterodox, sober and rude, white and black, young and old; especially the youth, whom it seems to have seized generally. 225 hopeful communicants have been added to the Lord’s table among John Smith’s people, in the space of eighteen months, chiefly of the young people.”
Surely the God who worked so mightily in these ways in the 1700s is capable of working similarly in our own time and places. May we be encouraged to start (or continue) seeking such God-wrought revival in our own churches and communities.
A fuller account of this revival under John Blair Smith’s ministry is recorded in Iain Murray’s excellent book Revival and Revivalism (published by Banner of Truth), pages 95-99. That volume contains much helpful, inspiring material on the subject of revival, especially during America’s Second Great Awakening.
Copyright 2015 by Vance E. Christie