Reports of a bizarre new religious phenomenon made their way over the mountains from Tennessee during the summer and fall of 1804. For several years, readers in the eastern states had been eagerly consuming news of the Great Revival, the powerful succession of Presbyterian sacramental festivals and Methodist camp meetings that played a formative role in the development of the southern Bible Belt and the emergence of early American evangelicalism. Letters from the frontier frequently included vivid descriptions of the so-called “falling exercise,” in which the bodies of revival converts crumpled to the ground during powerful sermon performances on the terrors of hell. But an article that appeared in the Virginia Argus on October 24, 1804, announced the sudden emergence of a deeply troubling new form of convulsive somatic distress. Alarmed observers had given the strange new “bodily agitations” a name. They called them “THE JERKS.”

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Copyright © 2017 East Tennessee Historical Society. This article first appeared in Journal of East Tennessee History 89 (2017), 90-110.

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