History Book: The Second Great Awakening and the Manson murders

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, August 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Today, a man on a tightrope thrills a crowd with an unexpected spectacle. Plus, 50 years ago, a shocking mass murder in Los Angeles.

EICHER: But first, the story of the largest and most well known camp meeting of the Second Great Awakening. Here’s Paul Butler.

MUSIC: [Camp meeting on the 4th of July]

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today with August 6th, 1801 in the early years of the Second Great Awakening. Presbyterian minister Barton Stone begins a week-long camp meeting about 20 miles east of Lexington, Kentucky. He invited other Presbyterian and Methodist congregations to his church in Cane Ridge for a shared communion service. 

His building could accommodate about 500, so he erected a tent as well. Late in the week, people began to arrive and set up camp around the grounds. Audio here from a lecture by Thomas Sullivan of Puritan Reformed Audio Books:

SULLIVAN: People were coming in their wagons. It was too far for them to go home, and so they just set up camp.

The meeting began quietly on that Friday with a full house. Nothing out of the ordinary, except a handful of spontaneous prayer meetings that sprouted up after the gathering. But the next day as people continued to stream in, excitement spread. Preachers addressed the crowds in the church and in the tent. They even cut down trees so they could use the stumps as makeshift pulpits. 

Men, women, and children alike responded with weeping and wailing as they felt the weight of their sinful condition. Many fell to the ground, some moaning, others seemingly unresponsive. 

SULLIVAN: The meetings resembled a battlefield where people were lying around under conviction like they had been shot…

Some pastors returned to their own churches for Sunday morning services: spreading news of the revival. Many returned the next day, bringing others with them. Numbers swelled to more than 10,000. 

In his book “The Great Revival of 1800,” author William Speer writes: 

SULLIVAN: The shouting, the shrieking, praying, and nervous spasms of this vast multitude produced an unearthly and almost terrible spectacle…

Methodist minister James B. Finley heard of the revival and came mid-meeting. He could hear it long before he arrived. He later described the scene this way:  

SULLIVAN: The noise was like the roar of Niagara, the vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated by a storm. 

Many who experienced the Cane Ridge Revival compared it to the Day of Pentecost. And like Peter’s sermon, Joel chapter two seemed to describe the meeting as “sons and daughters prophesied,” and the Spirit fell on slaves and free alike. 

After seven days, the meeting ended almost as unexpectedly as it began. Similar revivals and camp meetings continued for decades. Barton Stone eventually left the Presbyterian church and became the leader of the Restoration Movement. He called for Christians to return to a simpler and more Biblical expression of faith and practice as seen in Acts chapter two—spawning a handful of new denominations. 

MUSIC: [Camp meeting on the 4th of July]

Next, August 9th, 1969.

NEWS REPORT: In a scene described by one investigator is reminiscent of a weird religious rite: five persons, including actress Sharon Tate, were found dead at the home of Ms. Tate and her husband screen director Roman Polanski.

Officials were baffled by the brutal murders. They had no leads. Two months later though, police arrested members of the Charles Manson cult for stealing vehicles. While in custody, one of them boasted to a cellmate about the Tate murders.

Police soon arrested the other killers. During the 1970 and 71 trials, juries learned that Manson had no particular vendetta against any of the victims. He merely hoped that a wave of “helter skelter” killings of Los Angeles elites would spark a revolution. 

AUDIO: [Sound of press conference]

The two juries found Manson and four of his followers guilty. The judge sentenced them all to death. But California abolished capital punishment in 1972, commuting their sentences to “life in prison.” 

Charles Manson died in 2017 of natural causes. 

SONG: [Helter Skelter—The Beatles]

And finally, August 7th, 1974:

NEWS CLIP: I tell you what, I have a very queasy feeling in my stomach right now because, let’s see, I’m at 1500 feet and there is somebody out here on a tightrope…

Audio from a CBS newscast 45 years ago. 

NEWS CLIP: That somebody was Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old Frenchman doing his highwire act 1,350 feet up and no net below. 

He walks back and forth for about 45 minutes without any safety gear. 

NEWS CLIP: When I see a beautiful place to put my wire, I cannot resist…

Petit eventually submits to authorities and is charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing. His punishment? To do a free show for children, on the ground, in Central Park.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book, I’m Paul Butler.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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