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.
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 ...