Presbyterian Pentecostals?

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Douglas Winiarski (Univ. of Richmond) has a remarkable article in the latest William and Mary Quarterly on the history of the jerking exercise, or the “jerks,” in the Second Great Awakening. Religious historians since the 1800s have often alluded to outbreaks of the jerks in the revivals, but until Winiarski, we have only had a vague sense of where the jerks happened, how often, and among what groups.

In one sense, the jerks were just a continuation of the type of exuberant piety that dated at least to the Reformation. Groups such as the Quakers got their name for their alleged convulsions in worship, which enemies and critics highlighted disparagingly. Worshipers experiencing such bodily effects would presumably have explained them with reference to being overwhelmed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The jerks, however, were dramatic and apparently uncontrollable physical manifestations that originated in specific places and among specific groups in the early phases of the Second Great Awakening. Perhaps counterintuitively, these “somatic” (bodily) exercises commenced in the early 1800s among Presbyterians, especially Scots-Irish Presbyterians of the trans-Appalachian Upper South. Although we often think of Presbyterians as one of the most cerebral of the historic evangelical traditions (in contrast to Methodists and Baptists), Winiarkski paints a picture of some Presbyterians as proto-Pentecostals.

Winiarski explains [subscription] that these ecstatic experiences (jerking uncontrollably as a sign of the Spirit’s moving) represent “one of the most puzzling episodes in the history of early American evangelicalism: When and where did the jerks begin? Who was subject to them? Where did they go? And most important, what did they mean to and how were they experienced by revival participants?”

The answers are surprising. The jerks originated in east Tennessee late in the Great Revival. Never widely embraced by Methodists or enslaved African Americans, they were, instead, an innovation in religious practice pioneered by the Scots-Irish laity. The jerks figured prominently in a burgeoning popular culture of signs and wonders that often, but not always, flourished outside the control of Presbyterian ministers. . . .

Debates over the causes and meanings of the jerks merged with broader currents of backcountry religious dissent, including theological controversies over Calvinism and concerns over ministerial qualifications, and amplified the ecclesiastical schisms that racked the western Presbyterian churches during the first decade of the nineteenth century. The upstart Shakers, renegade Cumberland Presbyterians, and other “new sectaries” that emerged out of these ruptures drew their earliest adherents from radical revival supporters, many of whom had experienced, witnessed, or countenanced extreme forms of somatic agitation.

Narrowing our interpretive gaze to focus on spirit-filled religious practices such as the jerks simultaneously restores exercised bodies to their rightful place at the heart of the Great Revival and reveals a persistent strain of “radical evangelicalism” or “radical spiritism” that flourished in early American Protestantism. Rooted in the laity’s fascination with continuing revelation and the somatic presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, this constellation of beliefs, practices, and experiences decisively shaped the evangelical awakenings that spread across the Atlantic world during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and fueled many of the theological and ecclesiastical controversies that ensued.

The fact that the jerking exercise had its unlikely origins among seemingly staid Scots-Irish Presbyterian Calvinists suggests that the “Pentecostal implications” of early evangelicalism—its anarchic, ecstatic, mystical, and potentially antinomian tendencies—were much more widespread and far more significant than historians have acknowledged.

As with earlier eruptions of visionary and bodily charismata, the jerks provided evidence that God worked in extraordinary ways, even by sending the Holy Spirit to penetrate the bodies of faithful saints and reprobate sinners. “I always looked upon the jerks as a judgment sent from God,” Peter Cartwright later explained in his autobiography, “first, to bring sinners to repentance; and, secondly, to show professors that God could work with or without means, and that he could work over and above means, and do whatsoever seemeth him good, to the glory of his grace and the salvation of the world.” Thus, the jerking exercises of the Great Revival bridged the divide between the Whitefieldian revivals of the 1740s and the Holiness-Pentecostal traditions of the later nineteenth century.

As I have argued elsewhere, the experience of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit was often what struck converts, including George Whitefield, as new about their newfound evangelical faith in the First Great Awakening. Some radical evangelicals in the First Great Awakening claimed all manner of charismatic experiences, including revelatory dreams, trances, visions, healings, and (ever so occasionally) speaking in tongues. The jerks, though never that common outside of Presbyterian circles in the early 1800s, were another manifestation of those ecstatic tendencies that were always part of the spectrum of evangelical piety.

Although it is beyond the scope of Winiarski’s analysis, he suggests that these somatic experiences became less common during the 1800s as Presbyterians and other mainstream Protestant denominations became more polite and refined. The proto-Pentecostal energy fed into independent Holiness churches, and ultimately into the new Pentecostal denominations themselves, such as the Assemblies of God or the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee).

As Jonathan Edwards noted in Religious Affections, ecstatic experiences are routinely a part of real revival. God chooses to work in this way in many instances, although it is often difficult for believers to sort out the substance from the superficial in these claimed experiences. That is why Edwards recommended that we should not dismiss such experiences out of hand, nor immediately accept them as clear evidence of the Spirit’s work. Instead, we should always test the long-term results of revival by the glory it brings to God and the godly fruit it produces in a believer’s life.

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