These letters are important evidence to understand Jefferson’s religious life for it shows that Jefferson clearly heard preachers outside of his own Anglican/Episcopal tradition prior to going to Washington. Before looking at more of Jefferson’s relationship with clergymen and religious groups while president in Washington, the previous reference to Presbyterian minister John Glendy’s preaching in Charlottesville* induces us to understand more about the religious culture back in Jefferson’s home of Central Virginia, something ignored by most Jefferson biographers.
*Jefferson wrote “…a man rarely sees as eloquent a preacher twice in his life”—this was in reference to Rev. John Glendy
The Second Great Awakening And The Restoration Movement The Second Great Awakening first emerged in the Piedmont in the late 1780s but then, after sporadic revival activity in the 1790s, exploded again in a second wave about the turn of the century and was mainly expressed in the form of interdenominational camp meetings. The camp meeting was a uniquely American contribution to evangelicalism. In these popular open-air meetings, hundreds and even thousands of people would gather for five or six days to hear preaching from a variety of ministers, sometimes of various denominations.
In Virginia, this phase of the revival began among Baptists around 1800 (lasting through 1804). Presbyterians were less involved, but Rev. Drury Lacy and the Hanover Presbytery spoke of it approvingly in 1801 and 1802.100 Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury preached in Jefferson’s Albemarle County on September 8, 1800 and records in his journal that he “was divinely assisted.” Itinerant evangelist Lorenzo Dow also preached in an Albemarle camp meeting in 1802. Significant revival came to Albemarle in 1802 and in the adjacent counties that today are identified as Orange and Madison. Its primary leader was Jefferson’s old friend on the Anglican vestry but now a Methodist circuit rider – Rev. Henry Fry. Rev. Fry organized some of these open-air camp meetings in the town of Milton, east of Charlottesville and very close to Monticello. In 1802, one of these lasted for a whole week, and fifty people were converted.
Of special notice is the fact that during the camp meeting years, the highest number of new converts reported in the state of Virginia occurred in 1802, with Albemarle County second only to adjacent Augusta County in this regard. In fact, between 1801 and 1806, there were more camp meetings in Albemarle County than in any other single county in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.
In short, Jefferson’s home county saw a great deal of Virginia revivalism.