Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival




Of the many dramatic embodied religious exercises that spread across the trans-Appalachian frontier and southern backcountry during the Great Revival (1799–1805), none drew more astonished commentary or more virulent opposition than “the jerks”: involuntary convulsions in which the subjects' heads lashed violently backward and forward. Nearly a century before the derisive phrase holy roller was coined to describe the ecstatic worship practices of Holiness and Pentecostal evangelicals in Appalachia, the subjects of these extraordinary fits were known as “Jerkers.” Drawing on more than two hundred published and manuscript accounts, this article examines the origins and controversies surrounding the infamous jerking exercise. Letters and journals composed by three Shaker missionaries during their 1805 “Long Walk” to the trans-Appalachian frontier provide especially vivid descriptions of the jerking phenomenon. The jerks emerged late in the Great Revival among Scots-Irish Presbyterians in east Tennessee and spread rapidly throughout the southern backcountry. While ministers, physicians, and skeptical laypeople denigrated the jerks as a nervous disorder, others understood the convulsions as a form of spirit possession in which the Holy Spirit violently wrenched reluctant sinners into the new birth. Not only did the jerks fuel the explosive growth of the earliest Shaker communities in the west, they also influenced the development of the distinctive regional religious culture that scholars have termed Appalachian mountain religion.

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Copyright © 2019 Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. This article first appeared in The William and Mary Quarterly 76:1 (2019): 111-150.

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Citation Example for Article (Chicago):

Winiarski, Douglas L. "Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival." The William and Mary Quarterly 76, no. 1 (January, 2019): 111-150.