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Hampden-Sydney

Hampden-Sydney College was not technically Presbyterian and was definitely not supposed to be narrowly denominational. It was founded in 1776 as a school to turn out Christian men who would serve the community. This goal was a new and liberal conception in the South, where most colleges were founded solely to further denominational schemes. Hampden-Sydney’s first president, Samuel Stanhope Smith, a Presbyterian clergyman, said that it was to “form good men and good citizens on the common and universal principles of morality, distinguished from the narrow tenets which formed the complexion of any sect." Furthermore, although the school was founded by the Presbytery of Hanover, most of its trustees, including Patrick Henry and James Madison, were Anglican. Admittedly, although Henry was an Anglican like his father, his mother had been a devout Presbyterian, and perhaps because of her. Henry was sympathetic to “dissenter" causes.

President Stanhope Smith resigned in 1787 and was replaced by his brother, the Reverend John Blair Smith. The Smith brothers, the best that Virginia Presbyterian- ism had to offer, were indeed Scotch-Irish; but far from being ranting, raw backwoods moralists, they were gentlemen who had won the respect of the Anglican planters and lawyers who made up the establishment. John Blair Smith, a Princeton classmate of “Light Horse Harry” Lee who went to Virginia in 1775, was evangelical and devout but did not follow those amusing excesses in moral conduct that made backwoods Calvinism ridiculous. Instead of being dour and judgmental, he was animating, clever and urbane. Such men made their mark. “During the fifteen years he lived in Virginia, Presbyterianism first emerged from the group of sects tolerated by the gentry as perhaps suitable for people of no particular importance, and became popular with the ruling class,” wrote the historian, Cary Johnson.

The year 1787 was an important year at Hampden- Sydney for a reason absolutely no one could have guessed at the time. There began the second Great Awakening, a series of revivalistic tremors to shake American religion and change American religion forever. In the autumn of 1787 a Presbyterian student, Cary Allen, went to a revival meeting in an Anglican Church held by a Reverend Hull, who seems to have been a Methodist. During the meeting he began the holy jerks, groaning, shaking, and trembling, which climaxed by his falling to the floor. Allen said he surrendered to God there on the floor, and arose changed. Shortly after, but not at this meeting, three others were converted, and soon the four were holding secret prayer meetings. This kind of emotional prayer meeting naturally could not remain secret long.

A Faithful Narrative by Jonathan Edwards, a work describing the conversion of many hundreds in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1735, describes something near this: “Commonly persons’ minds immediately before this discovery of God’s justice are exceedingly restless, and in a kind of struggle and tumult, and sometimes in mere anguish; but generally as soon as they have this conviction.., they then come to a conclusion within themselves that they will lie at God’s feet, and wait his time, and they rest in that, not being sensible.” That there were some defects in this system of grace was freely admitted in Chapter 5, “Defects and decline of the work “ in which Edwards said, “a gentleman of more than common understanding... exceedingly concerned about state of his soul.. .kept awake night, meditating.. .so that he had scarce any sleep at all” finally decided his condition as a sinner was hopeless and cut his throat.

This excessive emotionalism naturally disturbed urbane President Smith; however, he was wise enough not to make martyrs of the young men by turning them out. Indeed he asked them to hold their prayer meeting in his parlor, and naturally everyone wanted to come. Revivalism became the fashion, but Smith tried to keep a Presbyterian discipline of order upon it. For instance, Methodist and Baptist revivals in the area enjoyed leaping, falling down, screaming, groaning, kicking and shouting, but if any of this happened during Smith’s worship services, he paused to say, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.. you must compose yourself.” By such means Smith was able to contain revivalism at Hampden-Sydney. In fact, by dignity and order, he used it to some advantage. But it could not be contained elsewhere. The revival spread to another Presbyterian school, Liberty Hall (later Washington and Lee), and then to Kentucky, where the Presbyterians began revivals but soon found them too much to cope with.

The Presbyterian ministry could not contain the emotional common folk, but the Methodists and Baptists used this to their advantage. From Kentucky waves of camp meeting revivalism spread phenomenally at the same time that another phenomenal rise and spread occurred, that of corn-based whiskey or Bourbon, which was first made in the late 1780’s in Georgetown, Kentucky, by a Baptist minister, the Rev. Elijah Craig. At camp meetings one might enjoy the spirits of one’s choice.

Although John Blair Smith left Virginia in 1790 to accept a call to the Pine Street Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, his spirit was to be the prevailing one at Hampden-Sydney in the time Waddel studied there. The emotions of revivalism were encouraged but under control. To be a Presbyterian clergyman was to be a gentleman whose main duty was service to the community.

Waddel entered Hampden-Sydney on January 3, 1791, having spent the preceding six months on campus preparing successfully to enter the senior class. Moses became friends with the new President, the Rev. Drury Lacy, who when young was pro-revivalism. In a letter to Waddel, his former pupil, dated February 20, 1793, Lacy said, “When you have an opportunity of writing tell me every- thing--how you were received among the old tough heads- - whether you have had courage to stand to your resolution to sing Watts’ hymns?” But Lacy was not an innovator in all respects; he closed his letter by remarking, “Dissipation is gaining ground upon us. There has been dancing at Prince Edward Court house.. .may the Lord overturn, overturn, overturn.. .such damnable practicing.”

The hymn-singing mentioned by Lacy was one of the great controversies of the day. Isaac Watts, an English Puritan, objecting to the exclusive use of Psalm-singing in Calvinist worship, introduced new evangelical themes of a cheap and sentimental nature alongside the Psalms as well as bowdlerizing the violence out of some of the Psalms. These hymns appealed to the revivalist party. But when Watts’s Psalms were sung in 1778 in Poplar Tent Church in Waddel’s North Carolina, one of the conservative elders (probably a “tough head”) walked out, bellowing, “Give us none of your new lilt.”

Instead of the paper requirement of two years residency, Waddel completed his studies in eight months and twenty-six days to finish in September 1791. William Henry Harrison, also listed as one of the eight seniors in the class of 1791, stayed at Hampden-Sydney a shorter time than usual because his parents withdrew him in fear of the possible religious excesses of revivalism. George M. Bibb, a future Secretary of the Treasury, was also a member of this senior class.

Waddel was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Hanover. As was the custom, this licensing was done by the gentlemen of the Presbytery after long and grueling examinations to check competency in Latin and Greek, Calvin’s theology, the Presbyterian form of church government, knowledge of the Bible, and the Westminister Confession of 1647 and its catechisms. These licensing examinations, which usually lasted hours, were too thorough, rigidly creedal, and deadeningly catechetical. The Presbyterian clergy, hair-splitting medieval scholastics often, were prepared to argue a text for hours. Getting licensed was an emotional experience as well as an intellectual accomplishment. Forty-one years later Waddel could still remember in his diary the exact day-- May 12, 1792--he was licensed by the Presbytery of Hanover.

When the Rev. James Waddel proudly invited his young kinsman to preach his first sermon at his church, Moses accepted. As an old man he recorded in his diary, “Forty- four years ago this day (May 16, 1792) I preached my first sermon in Orange County, Virginia, in the church and presence of James Waddel. The text was John 12:26. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be.”

 

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