By Robert Scott Davis
Senior Professor of History Wallace State College
Historian Bernice McCullar provided many Georgians of her day with all of the history of their state that they ever knew through her popular Atlanta newspaper column, "Georgia Notebook." In her piece of November 28, 1966 in The Atlanta Journal, she told a tale that still haunts many people: "Tombstones Tell the Tale of Great Revival of 1873."
McCullar wrote of how she and a friend were looking for a tombstone in northern Cherokee County. They came upon grave markers that told a bizarre story.
Reverend Francis Marion Williams held the annual revival at Sharp Mountain Church in late September of 1873. He "was about to line out the hymn" for his congregation of Pickens and Cherokee County members when a bright light suddenly appeared in the log church that emitted what sounded like rushing water, angel voices, and music.
Members of the congregation had such awe of the light that they refused to leave the log church except when necessary. People literally came from miles around, and from other counties, to witness this miracle. The light continued for weeks and finally, when the baptisms began, Williams had to have the aid of colleague reverends Benjamin Hitt and Elias Allred to cut a hole in the frozen Etowah River to baptize the record 73 converts.
Over the years, many people who had read the article searched in vain for these legendary tombstones in the Sharp Mountain Church cemetery. On James Hendrix's grave marker alone, it states that he joined the church in November 1873 as one of 77 converts baptized the following December.
The church minutes show only that the revival began on November 2, 1873 and ended 10 days later. The church received 62 persons as new members by experience. The December 6 meeting received 15 other members and four more so joined on December 26.
The Atlanta Constitution reported that the December 6 meeting had 66 people baptized in 16 minutes. The Christian Index of January 8, 1874 that proudly announced that Reverend F. M. Williams had held a revival at Sharp Mountain Baptist Church for 11 days in November that brought in more than 80 converts by experience and baptism. On the first Sunday in December, the reverends Elias Allred and Hitt administered baptisms to 79 persons in 15 minutes despite "unfavorable" weather. "A. K.," the author, wrote of these events as "the most remarkable revival ever held in Cherokee Georgia" and proof that "the glorious work of the Spirit was indeed overwhelming" but he wrote nothing of the circumstances.
Dr. Robert Gardner found in the Hightower Baptist Association minutes that from 1870 through 1872 the membership of Sharp Mountain Baptist Church grew only from 53 to 58 members, with few if any baptisms. The minutes for 1873 do not survive but, in the minutes for 1874, the first association meeting after the events of November-December 1873, the church had a membership of 165 counting 105 baptisms! The following year, the church remained at a membership of 165 and had only two baptisms. The association minutes contain no explanation for these statistics.
A major "awakening" had happened in this small log country church but whatever happened, no one chose to comment on the details, except perhaps in some now unknown way to Bernice McCullar 90 years later. The Sequoyah Regional Library has a file on the Reverend Francis Marion Williams with extensive biographical material on Williams but not one word, even in his obituary, about the revival of 1873, however.
The light and sound have a probable, less than miraculous, explanation. Wet rotting logs sometimes develop "foxfire," a slow combustion that creates a phosphorescent glow that does not give off heat and a sound. Fireflies glow for this same reason.
Scientists have also discovered that geological faults cause electro-magnetic discharges of "balls of fire" and plasma, believed to cause some of the "unidentified flying object" sightings. They theorize that these same magnetic fields cause ultra-sonic noise that effect nerves causing cold chills and hallucinations. Under such conditions people can have exceptionally vivid hallucinations and become particularly susceptible to hypnotic suggestions, such as preaching, by events (like the light), or by dreams. Alien abduction tales likely have an origin in such conditions.
Floyd C. Watkins devoted a whole chapter to Sharp Mountain Church in his Yesterday in the Hills without mentioning the revival of 1873. He did remember that the church had separate front entrances and seating for men and women. The congregation only held revival when the spirit moved them. Its members also prohibited playing musical instruments and paying the preacher as sins against God.
Recent events had also contributed to the emotional instability of members of the community and the congregation. In 1873, Georgia and the nation ended the Civil War-Reconstruction era. The Reverend Elias W. Allred, and probably his fellow ministers, worked in those years in healing the often-violent divisions in the north Georgia communities brought about by the politics of the war.
The Confederate Home Guard hanged Reverend John B. Richards of nearby Conn's Creek Baptist Church (and Sharp Mountain Baptist?) for preaching against secession. State officials arrested Reverend Allred of Pickens County, despite his serving in the legislature, for working with the federal army to organize a company of men to defend against Confederate depredations.
The late John Seawright discovered that an equally divisive controversy followed. In 1866, Josiah or H. J. Scruggs from East Tennessee arrived and, with his powerful preaching, won a numerous following. Word reached the congregations that Scruggs had left Alabama for having fondled a girl on the mourners bench and had been excluded from the Cookston's Creek Baptist Church in Tennessee in May 1861.
After starting the controversies in Georgia, he moved to Arkansas and new problems. The older members of the Sharp Mountain congregation refused to admit to fellowship Scruggs' new members until they received baptism by a licensed minister. In 1868, the Hightower Association, however, accepted Scruggs' followers, however, and declared Sharp Mountain a rebel "slab-off outfit" (a saw mill term for bad wood) for refusing them as members.
According to Watkins, the Scruggs faction responded by locking the church with a chain and pad lock. Grandmother Mary Brown Watkins, sister of Governor Joseph E. Brown, used an axe to break the chain while singing Work for Jesus. Unable to mend the divisions at Sharp Mountain, she transferred to a church in Ball Ground. The Scruggite/Slab-offs controversy raged on for 20 years, creating two new associations, divisions among churches, and even acts of violence.
These events began before the strange revival of 1873 but whatever happened that November likely pushed an already tense situation to a new level. After the revival and the baptisms, witnesses likely came to realize that they had seen a natural rather than a miraculous event.
The members of the church chose to promote and remember the results rather than the cause. The event brought at least brief unity to a badly divided congregation when it needed a miracle most. Did the revival include an unearthly light? The Reverend elias Walter Allred witnessed this event and many more but he left no writings known to survive. If only he had. Instead, the what happened at the revival very much depends, then and since, on what one chooses to believe and to tell. . .