Shakers & Jerkers (Greenville, Virginia, 1805)

The Journal of East Tennessee History recently published the first of a two-part series of articles in which I chronicle the Shakers’ epic “Long Walk” from New York to Ohio in 1805. Part travel narrative, part missionary report, Shaker letters from the Long Walk shed new light on the controversial “bodily exercises” that dominated accounts of the Great Revival (1799–1805). Centered in the Kentucky Bluegrass Country, this powerful succession of Presbyterian sacramental festivals and Methodist camp meetings played a formative role in the development of early American evangelicalism and the emergence of the southern Bible Belt. The Shakers were eyewitnesses to some of the most bizarre spectacles associated with the western revivals.

 "The Jerks,"  Virginia Argus  (October 24, 1804). Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia, Richmond.

"The Jerks," Virginia Argus (October 24, 1804). Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia, Richmond.

Spurred by a newspaper report describing an outbreak of the strange somatic fits known as “the jerks” in the remote village of Abingdon, Virginia, Shaker leaders in New Lebanon, New York, dispatched three missionaries to investigate the Great Revival and gauge the prospects for evangelizing the western settlements. At the time, sectarian followers of British émigré Ann Lee, the “Elect Lady” and purported second coming of Christ in female form, had achieved widespread notoriety for their perfectionist theology, celibacy, pacifism, communal villages, and, especially, ecstatic dancing practices. Early descriptions of the Shakers “laboring” worship, as they called it, bore a striking resemblance to accounts of the bodily exercises of the western revivals.

Leading a packhorse encumbered by a large portmanteaux and bearing printed copies of a strident letter proclaiming the Shakers’ millennial new dispensation, John Meacham, Issachar Bates, and Benjamin Youngs set out on New Year’s Day, 1805. For more than two months they struggled through some of the worst winter weather of the nineteenth century. The Shaker missionaries traveled more than 1,200 miles south through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, then up the Great Valley of Virginia, through East Tennessee, over Cumberland Gap, and into the Kentucky Bluegrass country—the heart of the Great Revival. By March 1805, the trio had reached the small settlement at Turtle Creek near Lebanon, Ohio.

 Clover Mount (Robert Tate Homestead), Greenville, Virginia, ca. 1803. Image courtesy of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, Richmond.

Clover Mount (Robert Tate Homestead), Greenville, Virginia, ca. 1803. Image courtesy of the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, Richmond.

Along the way, the Shaker missionaries were keen to meet with Scots-Irish Presbyterian “jerkers”—men and women who had experienced unusual somatic fits during powerful revival meetings. As they passed through Greenville, Virginia, Meacham and Youngs spent an afternoon interviewing members of the family of Robert Tate, a prosperous Presbyterian elder, Revolutionary War veteran, and slaveowner, about their experiences with the jerks. The record of that conversation, carefully recorded by Youngs in a letter, is arguably the most detailed account of the bodily exercises of the Great Revival ever written. Although the Shaker missionaries moved on from Greenville, they continued to encounter “jerkers” like the Tates throughout the western settlements. Within a few years, hundreds of these radical “revivalers” and their families had converted to Shakerism and gathered together in a network of five communal villages that the missionaries organized in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

“Shakers & Jerkers, Part 1” presents an edited transcription of the missionaries’ January 31, 1805, letter, in which they narrated their progress from New York to Virginia and reported their encounter with the Tate family. Scheduled for publication in the 2018 volume of the Journal of East Tennessee History, the second installment in the series will cover the Shakers’ travels through Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as their early efforts to spread the gospel in southern Ohio. It also includes an unforgettable account of a Presbyterian society meeting in East Tennessee in which Meacham, Youngs, and Bates witnessed not only the jerks, but trance walking and other unusual somatic phenomena.

For colleagues seeking new readings for their courses on early American religious history, “Shakers & Jerkers” provides a vivid portrait of popular religion in the trans-Appalachian west. Graduate courses might effectively pair these edited Shaker texts with prominent studies of the Great Revival and southern evangelicalism: John Boles, The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1972; Lexington, Ky., 1996); Paul K. Conkin, Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost (Madison, WI, 1990); Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York, 1998); Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001); or Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, N.J., 1999). Readers interested in learning more about the Long Walk and western Shakerism should begin with Stephen J. Stein’s definitive Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (New Haven, Conn., 1992); see also Carol Medlicott’s excellent biography, Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey (Hanover, N.H., 2013).