A History of the Jerks

The Jerks

Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

No, this is not a political post.

Over at The Panorama, University of Richmond religion professor Douglas Winiarski writes about the jerks, a “fascinating spirit possession phenomenon” often associated with certain forms of evangelical Christianity.  It looks like this short piece draws from Winiarski’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article,”Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” Winiarski also wrote about the jerks in an August 2019 piece at the Uncommon Sense blog.

Here is a taste of his piece at The Panorama:

It was long after sunset on a brisk fall evening in 1804 when Joseph Brown drew the reins on his horse near the summit of Cumberland Mountain and settled in for the night. He had been riding all day along Avery’s Trace to attend a treaty meeting with the Cherokees at the Tellico Blockhouse in East Tennessee. Slipping down from his saddle to prepare a small meal of corn for himself and his mount, Brown paused in prayer. Suddenly his body began convulsing uncontrollably. Brown had been “taken with the Jirks,” the latest and most extraordinary of the somatic exercises that exploded across the trans-Appalachian west during the Great Revival (1799–1805). He continued to experience them over the next five decades until his death in 1868.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the jerks recently. They’re a fascinating spirit possession phenomenon that complicates our understanding of the origins of the southern Bible Belt. Once dismissed an bizarre curiosity in the history of evangelicalism, the jerks and other bodily exercises of the Great Revival loom especially large in the controversies that precipitated what Nathan Hatch famously called the Democratization of American Christianity—a landmark study that turns thirty this year. Jerkers like Joseph Brown pose a special problem for historians of the early republic. After all, his first experience with jerking occurred on the road to a treaty council in which the Federal Government sought to dispossess the Cherokee of their homelands. Was there a connection between frontier revivalism and western expansion?

Read the rest here.