Piercing Screams and Heavenly Smiles

Over his lifetime, Barton Stone witnessed the many bodily “exercises” of frontier revivals. In his 1847 autobiography, he described the forms that religious ecstasy took. A condensed excerpt:


The falling exercise was very common among all classes, the saints and sinners of every age and every grade, from the philosopher to the clown. The subject of this exercise would, generally, with a piercing scream, fall like a log on the floor, earth, or mud, and appear as dead.

At a meeting, two gay young ladies, sisters, both fell, with a shriek of distress, and lay for more than an hour apparently in a lifeless state. At length they began to exhibit symptoms of life, by crying fervently for mercy, and then relapsed into the same death-like state, with an awful gloom on their countenances. After awhile, the gloom on the face of one was succeeded by a heavenly smile, and she cried out, “Precious Jesus!” and rose up and spoke of the love of God.

The Jerks

Sometimes the subject of the jerks would be affected in some one member of the body, and sometimes in the whole system. When the head alone was affected, it would be jerked backward and forward, or from side to side, so quickly that the features of the face could not be distinguished. When the whole system was affected, I have seen the person stand in one place, and jerk backward and forward in quick succession, their head nearly touching the floor behind and before.


The dancing exercise generally began with the jerks, then the jerks would cease. The smile of heaven shone on the countenance of the subject, and assimilated to angels appeared the whole person. Sometimes the motion was quick and sometimes slow. Thus they continued to move forward and backward in the same track or alley till nature seemed exhausted, and they would fall prostrate on the floor or earth.


The barking exercise (as opposers contemptuously called it) was nothing but the jerks. A person affected with the jerks would often make a grunt, or bark, if you please, from the suddenness of the jerk.


It was a loud, hearty laughter, but one [that] excited laughter in none else. The subject appeared rapturously solemn, and his laughter excited solemnity in saints and sinners. It is truly indescribable.


The running exercise was nothing more than that persons [who,] feeling something of these bodily agitations, through fear, attempted to run away and thus escape from them. But it commonly happened that they ran not far before they fell or became so greatly agitated that they could proceed no farther.


The singing exercise is more unaccountable than anything else I ever saw. The subject in a very happy state of mind would sing most melodiously, not from the mouth or nose, but entirely in the breast, the sounds issuing thence. Such music silenced everything, and attracted the attention of all. It was most heavenly. None could ever be tired of hearing it.

By Barton W. Stone

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #45 in 1995]

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