About 1802 Reverend Walker of Bethesda Presbyterian Church heard of the religious revival that was taking place in Kentucky, and the strange phenomenon, called “the falling down exercise” which accompanied the revival. The value of this marvel was being discussed and debated by many of the old-school preachers, and Walker decided to travel to Kentucky and see it first hand and draw his own conclusions.
Soon after his return he preached at a big camp meeting at the Waxhaws where he told his audience about his visit to Kentucky and how whole congregations were “struck down by the Spirit of God, and falling confessed their sins and praised the eternal Father . . .” Hearing what they believed was a mighty manifestation of the presence of God, the congregation was moved, and it was there the “falling down exercise” was first seen in South Carolina.
Not long after that, Walker conducted a camp meeting at his own church, Bethesda, and here many fell under the power of God. Many saw the experience as “a nervous affectation, arising from sympathy and undue excitement of feeling.” George Dale, it was said, believed the thing to be of the Devil and on more than one occasion when he witnessed the crowds writhing and groaning on the ground, hid behind a tree and cried out, “What morose noise is this, I hear? Methinks ’tis some demoniac!” Then he ran away as though he was fleeing from a contagious disease. Other said it was the Holy Spirit. It was said that “drunkards were reformed, the profane became godly, and many who had been scoffers were, from this time, true believers.” One of these was George Dale, who attended the camp meeting at Bethesda and experienced first-hand “the falling down exercise.” Ten years later he told a friend that from that day on, he never doubted his conversion for one moment. Others who were affected by the experience, however, fell by the wayside and returned to their sins “like a dog to his vomit.”
Whether it was a move of the Spirit of God or mass hysteria, “the falling down exercise” was reported to have proceeded from Bethesda, spread over western York County and the state “like a mighty wind stirring up dead men’s bones, then lulled as a storm exhausted of its strength.”
Another folklore concerning Reverend Walker went like this: In the days before anti-drinking temperance societies made their appearance in York County, the appearance of whiskey was expected at every social gathering. Alcohol consumption was treated so casual that even a minister who downed a few social drinks did not even warrant the lifting of an eyebrow. Although there was no condemnation in drinking, drunkenness was denounced as a sin that must be followed by repentance, and sometimes with open confession.
It was told that on the occasion of the public hanging of a man by the name of Floyd for the murder of Chester County Sheriff Nunn, Reverend Robert Walker of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church planned to attend. On his way to Chester he stopped by a parishioner’s home that invited him in for a drink. While enjoying each other’s company, he man’s wife said she was concerned for the criminal’s soul and asked the preacher if he would stop on his return and tell her whether the criminal showed any sign of repentance and whether he accepted the hope of salvation held out before him. He told her he would be glad to do so.
About sundown the parishioner and his son was near the road completing some farm chores when the young boy looked up and saw Rev. Walker coming at a full gallop. When the horse neared the gate, it suddenly dropped into a long trot thinking it was about to make one of its usual stops. The sudden change in gait unbalanced the rider and he nearly lost his seat, but when it regained his balance he urged the horse on and spoke to the older man with a dignified “Good afternoon, Squire.” Watching the preacher disappear down the road, the young boy turned to his father, and said, “Paw, Mr. Walker was drunk!” The man turned to his son, “Let me never hear of you saying such a thing as that again, sir, or I’ll give you such a whipping as you never had in your life!”
In a few moments the farmer drew down his tools and proceeded toward the house followed by his son. He passed his wife and daughters who were working in the hall and stepped into a room and called to his wife, “Katie!” She followed and they closed the door. The boy, curious as to what was about to be said, crept near the door and heard his father tell the sad report. Eventually his mother and father came out of the room with long, sad faces and the boy suddenly realized the seriousness of the incident.
Two days later they were sitting in the meetinghouse of Bethesda with the rest of the congregation hearing the old preacher tearfully confess his intemperance. The entire congregation shared in his sorrow and tears. Forgiveness was freely given and this incident was never allowed to hinder the old man’s ministry among the people of Bethesda.
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
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