Historian Bernice McCullar in her Atlanta Journal newspaper column "Georgia Notebook" of Nov. 28, 1966, told a tale that still haunts many people: "Tombstones Tell the Tale of Great Revival of 1873."
In August 1836 a faithful group of Christians came together in Cherokee County, Ga., to form a new Baptist Church. The church quickly earned a reputation for welcoming all people including "Colored People" and Indians, although historian Floyd C. Watkins remembered that there were always separate entrances and seating for men and women.
None in this diverse congregation could imagine events of 40 years later as the Rev. Francis Marion Williams held the annual revival at Sharp Mountain Baptist Church. He "was about to line out the hymn" when worshippers saw a bright light accompanied by sounds of rushing water, angel voices and music.
The congregation huddled together, scared yet calm, and began to pray. Most remained in the church overnight while watching the light and listening to the music. People came from miles around to witness this miracle, which continued for weeks. Rev. Williams had Rev. Benjamin Hitt and Rev. Elias Allred cut a hole in the frozen Etowah River to baptize a record 73 converts.
Over the years, many people read the McCullar article and searched in vain for the church's legendary tombstones that tell the tale. Only James Hendrix's marker states that he joined the church in November 1873 as one of the converts. The church minutes show that the revival began on Nov. 2 and ended 10 days later. Sharp Mountain accepted 62 new members by experience. The Dec. 6 meeting received 15 other members and 4 more so joined on Dec. 26.
Only the baptisms appeared in the press. The Atlanta Constitution reported that the Dec. 6 meeting had 66 people baptized in 16 minutes. The Christian Index announced that Williams' revival at Sharp Mountain brought in more than 80 converts by experience and baptism.
The Index further noted that on the first Sunday in December, Allred and Hitt administered baptisms to 79 persons in 15 minutes despite "unfavorable" weather. "A. K.," the author, wrote of it as "the most remarkable revival ever held in Cherokee Georgia," and that "the glorious work of the Spirit was indeed overwhelming."
The miracle has a less than miraculous explanation, however. Wet rotting logs can develop "foxfire," a slow combustion that gives no heat but makes sounds. Fireflies glow by this same means. Geological faults can also cause electro-magnetic discharges of "balls of fire" and plasma. Such phenomena can also cause ultra-sonic noise that affects nerves, causing chills and hallucinations. People susceptible to hypnotic suggestions through preaching or by dreams can experience vivid hallucinations.
The congregation had a difficult past that could inspire delusions. The Civil War had violently divided the congregation. Confederate authorities arrested Rev. Allred and executed minister John Richards. The congregation saw playing musical instruments and paying the preacher as sins against God. The congregation had begun to hold revivals only when the spirit moved them.
Historian John Seawright discovered that in 1866 Josiah Henry Josiah Scruggs from East Tennessee won numerous converts with his powerful preaching. Scruggs, however, had left Alabama for having fondled a girl on the mourner's bench. Cookston's Creek Baptist Church near Parksville in Polk County, Tenn., excluded him from membership in May 1861. After Sharp Mountain, he served congregations in Arkansas and Texas with continued controversy.
The older members of the Sharp Mountain congregation refused to admit Scruggs' members to fellowship until they received baptism by a licensed minister. In 1868, the Hightower Baptist Association ruled in favor of accepting Scruggs' followers but deemed Sharp Mountain as a rebel "slab-off outfit" (a sawmill term for bad wood).
According to Watkins, the pro-Scruggs faction at Sharp Mountain responded by locking the church with a chain and padlock. Mary Brown Watkins, sister of Gov. Joseph E. Brown, used an axe to break the chain while singing "Work for Jesus." The Scruggite controversy raged on for 20 years, creating two new associations, divisions among churches and acts of violence.
After the 1873 revival , witnesses came to realize that they saw a natural rather than a miraculous event. They chose to promote and remember the baptisms rather than the inspiration that briefly brought unity to a badly divided church when it most needed a miracle.
Robert Scott Davis is senior professor of history at Wallace State College in Hanceville, Ala. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.