In the late 1790's, James B. McGready, a frontier Presbyterian minister, held a series of services in Kentucky. He aroused a spiritual fervor that came to be known as the Great Revival of 1800. Gatherings soon grew too large to be held inside. At Cane Ridge in 1801, a mammoth outdoor meeting, lasting several days, was led by Barton W. Stone. Most of the 20,000 persons present camped out at the meeting grounds. This was the beginning of the camp meetings that became a prominent feature of frontier life.
The evangelistic fervor of the Great Revival led the Methodists to establish a system of circuit riders, ministers who made the rounds of the backwoods settlements on a regular schedule. Other denominations also adopted the system. Often the traveling minister was the only trained religious leader available to remote areas.
In most rural communities, a church was one of the first public buildings erected. If a settlement had no church, or if some of the pioneers belonged to a denomination that had no church in the area, groups gathered in cabins and barns for religious services led by someone who “had a call" (felt inspired) to preach.