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).

Fayerweather Family Prayer Bills (Boston, 1770s)

I discovered this interesting group eighteenth-century religious manuscripts shortly after Darkness Falls on the Land of Light went to press. They are excellent examples of what New England Congregationalists called prayer bills or prayer notes—small slips of paper bearing prayers to be read by ministers during Sabbath worship exercises. Unlike the few surviving prayer bills, nearly all of which are scattered among the papers of prominent clergymen such as Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, this collection remained in the family of the prosperous Boston and Cambridge merchant, Thomas Fayerweather, and were passed down to his posterity along with his voluminous business correspondence and account books.

As with most prayer bills, the Fayerweather notes fall into one of two major classes. The Boston merchant composed petitionary prayers beseeching God for protection and healing in the face of impending life crises, such as his wife’s pregnancies or the illnesses of family members. During the ensuing weeks, Fayerweather penned prayers of thanksgiving or sanctification in which he sought to demonstrate his family’s resignation to the will of God. The form of each prayer request, moreover, closely followed the standard conventions of the genre, which remained relatively unchanged from the late seventeenth century through the early 1800s. That Fayerweather preserved these ephemeral manuscripts suggests that he may have envisioned the notes as a record of God’s dealings with his family in much the same way that puritan diarists often used their devotional journals to mark remarkable or providential events in their lives.

Robert Feke,  Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805),  ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.1, Historic New England. Bequest of Miss Eleanor Fayerweather.

Robert Feke, Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805), ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.1, Historic New England. Bequest of Miss Eleanor Fayerweather.

Baptized as an infant in Boston’s Old South Church, Thomas Fayerweather (1724–1805) was raised in one of New England's wealthiest families. At a young age, he learned the merchant’s trade from his father and spent several years with relatives in Philadelphia and Maryland. Returning to Boston, Thomas married Sarah Hubbard (1730–1804), daughter of the treasurer of Harvard College, in 1754; they had four children between 1757 and 1769. Over time, Fayerweather expanded his business enterprises, trading a wide range of foodstuffs, commodities, and enslaved Africans from Maritime Canada to the West Indies, New York to London, and in ports in Central America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. It is not clear whether Thomas or Sarah ever affiliated with the Old South Church, although they presented their children for baptism in a regular order at the venerable Boston meetinghouse. (His older brother Samuel, by contrast, joined in full communion at the peak of the Whitefieldian revivals in 1741, after he experienced a wrenching conversion and was beset by dramatic visions of Satan.) In later years, Fayerweather moved his family to an impressive mansion on “Tory Row” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with many of the “Genteel Folks” of the Revolutionary era, as the future president John Adams described Fayerweather’s elite social circle, he purchased pews in both the local Congregational meetinghouse and the Episcopal church. At the time of his death in 1805, Fayerweather’s estate was valued at more than 64,000 dollars.

Robert Feke,  Sarah Hubbard Fayerweather (1730–1804),  ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.2, Historic New England. Estate of Eleanor Fayerweather.

Robert Feke, Sarah Hubbard Fayerweather (1730–1804), ca. 1740–1760, Accession Number 1993.141.2, Historic New England. Estate of Eleanor Fayerweather.

The seven prayer bill manuscripts presented below are part of the Thomas Fayerweather Papers, 1737–1818 (Mss 80) at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston and are reproduced here by permission. I have organized them in chronological order based on the birth and baptismal dates of Fayerweather’s children and the deaths of Sarah Fayerweather’s sister, Thankful, wife of Boston physician Thomas Leonard (d. December 2, 1772), her father, Thomas Hubbard (d. July 14, 1773), and her mother, Mary Jackson Hubbard (d. February 15, 1774). Written on the back of a list financial transactions with business contacts in central Massachusetts, the sixth document includes copies of prayer requests that Fayerweather submitted to the ministers of the Old South Church.

I discuss prayer bills at greater length in “The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion & Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings.” Massachusetts Historical Review 14 (2012): 53–86; and Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, 67–69 (see also 204–205, 452–454, and 563–565 for the spiritual odyssey of Fayerweather’s radical New Light brother). For edited transcriptions of the largest surviving collection of eighteenth-century prayer notes, see Stephen J. Stein, “‘For Their Spiritual Good’: The Northampton, Massachusetts, Prayer Bids of the 1730s and 1740s,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 37 (1980): 261–285. On the broader religious culture of Boston’s eighteenth-century merchant community, see Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton, N.J., 2010). For genealogical information on the Fayerweather family, see John B. Carney, “In Search of Fayerweather: The Fayerweather Family of Boston,” New England Historic Genealogical Register 145 (1991): 57–66; and Harlan Page Hubbard, One Thousand Years of Hubbard History, 866–1895 (New York, 1895), 92–94. A number of Fayerweather family artifacts, including the portraits by Robert Feke displayed below, may be viewed in the online collections of Historic New England.


[ca. 1757–1769]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife returns thanks to God for his great goodness in granting her a safe deliverance in Child birth & ask’g your prayers that begun Mercy may be perfected,

for perfecting mercy,

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1757–1769]

Thomas Fayerweather & wife returns thanks to God for his great goodness in raising her from the perils of child birth & giving her an opportunity to wait on him in his house Again.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. December 1772]

Thomas Fayerweather & wife desires prayers, that the dispensation of Gods Providence, in the Death of her Only Sister, may be sanctified to them.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1773]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife, desires prayers for her Father, very week & low, that God would be pleas’d to Bless the means, us’d for his Recovery, or fit & prepair him, & all concern’d, for his Will & pleasure.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. July 1773]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires prayers that the Dispensation of Gods Providence in the Death of her Father may be sanctified to them & to their Children.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

[ca. 1774]

First note.

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires your prayers for her Mother; very week & low that God would be pleased to Bless the means us’d for her Recovery or fit & prepair her & all concerned for his Will & pleasure.

 

2d. note second Sabbath morning

Mary Hubbard with her Children desires the continuance of your prayers for her; remaining very week & low, that God would be pleased to support & prepare her, & all concerned for his holy will & pleasure

 

2 Note if T Fayerweather & Wife had have put up one was as follows, (not sent)

Thomas Fayerweather & wife desires the continuance of your prayers for her Mother Apprehended drawing near her great change that God would be pleased to fit & prepair her & all concern’d for his Soveraign Will.

 

NB. The note wrote by Madm. G. as follows not sent.

Mary Hubbard remaining very week and low desires Continuance of your Prayers for her, that God would support her and prepare for his Holy Will and pleasure.

(pray’d to God to support them, & comfort them in their afflictions.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Fayerweather8.JPG

[ca. February 1774]

Thomas Fayerweather & Wife desires prayers, that the Dispensation of God’s Providence, in the Death of her mother may be sanctified to them, & to their Children.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.

Courtesy New England Historic Genealogical Society.