While reading about various religious phenomena—both positive and negative—one of the recurring aspects that forces itself on our attention is contagion. Going back at least to the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the idea of crowd sourcing religious frenzy can be disturbing. It involves groups of people and loss of control. Not only is the frenzy itself frightening, but also the apparent paranormal accoutrements to such enthusiasm. In more specific terms, the revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” and the mass exorcisms described by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism both boast supernatural elements. I’m not saying there can’t be a scientific explanation, but I am saying what happens in such circumstances has been understood to be supernatural by educated, experienced people. Both demoniacs and new religious converts display superhuman strength and atavistic behaviors that one doesn’t otherwise see in a lifetime. Once they start happening, they spread.
This is one of the draws of charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues can be quite contagious, I’m told. According to Cuneo’s carefully anonymized accounts, so can demonic possession with its attendant paranormal activity. Some scientists have explored the idea of consciousness as a “hive mind” phenomenon. Many “minds” brought together can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. We’re used to this in the world of insects, but since humans like to be radically individual we miss the instances where it occurs among our own species. While not always so, such events are often religious in nature. People gathered together in emotionally charged settings, personal experience draws off of that of others, and suddenly a person’s doing something they formerly believed to be “impossible.” God and demons both have explanatory value here.
Despite our tendency to want to destroy each other, humans have great potential when we work together. Our petty fears and jealousies could be contained, disassembled, and repurposed, if only we possessed the will to do so. The desire to stand out in a crowd—not to blend in but to be a unique individual—runs strong in our fractured psyches. We hate being mistaken for somebody else. Religious experiences, much maligned these days, tend to be group experiences. Yes, a mystic may have a personal and highly individualized rapture, but in the presence of others the excitement may be shared. “Mass hysteria” and group hypnosis have sometimes been posited as the culprits behind such events. Those who participate, however, use other terms to describe what has transpired. They may not call it a “hive mind,” and they won’t be alone in rejecting the phrase.
It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.
A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.
Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Adventists, David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World, Great Disappointment, Joseph Smith, Millerites, Second Great Awakening, Seventh-Day Adventists, William Miller
I find myself in Syracuse. Skirting the very edge of the Burnt Over District, Syracuse is only a short distant from Oneida, birthplace of one of the uniquely American religions to have been conceived in this area. Moving further west, several of the religions following the “Second Great Awakening” roared through the state, including the one that was to become the Mormon Church. Looking out over the rugged hills, I wonder what might be in this land that inspires such religiosity. Americans are known world-wide for their religious predilections, and back before the South took the privilege of doling out religious mandates, upstate New York was busy churning out new religions. Of course, this was in the days before the extreme urbanization of culture took hold. Individuals, often isolated from others and struggling to survive in a sometimes harsh climate (they are calling for snow this weekend, still), they turned to God in new and innovative ways.
There must be a point at which religion reaches satiety. How many religions does one nation need? Thus, revivalists found a tired population here in the Burnt Over District. How much energy does it take to build a new faith from scratch? Some flared brightly and burned out (like the Oneida Community), while others flourished to the point of putting forth presidential candidates (I need not say which new religion has offered us a candidate too wealthy to countenance). Something in the soil, perhaps. Something in the mountain air.
Scholars opine that the Second Great Awakening occurred in part, at least, in reaction to the skepticism that was surging through intellectual circles at the time. America has always been good for a backlash or two. While many thinkers were praising the accomplishments of intellect, Smiths and Noyeses were at home brewing up that new-time religion for which Americans thirst. We are great consumers of religion. In the early 1800s revival after revival spread through New York, as well as through the southern states. The south reacted by boosting the Methodist and Baptist populations. New York gave us new religions. Americans aren’t that choosey. In a pinch, just about any religion will do. I stand here in Syracuse, the mid-April snow drifting down about me and wonder what is about to awake in this skeptical age.
Moses starts a new religion
As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.
It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.
Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?
It's all a matter of perspective.
Posted in Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Brian A. Pavlac, camp meeting, glossolalia, klikushi, Pentecostals, Russia, Second Great Awakening, Witch Hunts in the Western World, witchcraft