Joseph Brown’s Adventures with the Jerks

Douglas L. Winiarski

Col. Joseph Brown (1772–1868), n.d., photographic print. Source: Picture Collection, ca. 1800–1970, Box 2, Folder 35, THS 193, Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville. Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

It was long after sunset on a brisk fall evening in 1804 when Joseph Brown drew the reins on his horse near the summit of Cumberland Mountain and settled in for the night. He had been riding all day along Avery’s Trace to attend a treaty meeting with the Cherokees at the Tellico Blockhouse in East Tennessee. Slipping down from his saddle to prepare a small meal of corn for himself and his mount, Brown paused in prayer. Suddenly his body began convulsing uncontrollably. Brown had been “taken with the Jirks,” the latest and most extraordinary of the somatic exercises that exploded across the trans-Appalachian west during the Great Revival (1799–1805). He continued to experience them over the next five decades until his death in 1868.[1]

I’ve been thinking a lot about the jerks recently. They’re a fascinating spirit possession phenomenon that complicates our understanding of the origins of the southern Bible Belt. Once dismissed an bizarre curiosity in the history of evangelicalism, the jerks and other bodily exercises of the Great Revival loom especially large in the controversies that precipitated what Nathan Hatch famously called the Democratization of American Christianity—a landmark study that turns thirty this year.[2] Jerkers like Joseph Brown pose a special problem for historians of the early republic. After all, his first experience with jerking occurred on the road to a treaty council in which the Federal Government sought to dispossess the Cherokee of their homelands. Was there a connection between frontier revivalism and western expansion?

The jerks originated near Knoxville during the summer of 1803 and spread rapidly among Scots-Irish Presbyterians in the Carolina piedmont, the Kentucky bluegrass country, the Shenandoah Valley, and Middle Tennessee. Successor to the falling, dancing, and laughing exercises, which dominated discussions of revival events at places such as Cane Ridge, Kentucky, the strange new convulsions generated considerable controversy. Scores of witnesses claimed to have seen revival converts thrashing like fish out of water or bouncing around the camp meeting grounds “like a foot-ball.” Puzzled onlookers struggled to determine whether the jerks were evidence of an epidemic, a form of demonic possession, or a sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit.[3]

Several days before he set out for the treaty council at Tellico, Brown attended a revival meeting near his home in Nashville. Everyone was buzzing about the jerks. At one point, Brown overheard a group of “wicked young Men” conversing by the meetinghouse door. The jerks must be the work of the devil, one scoffed, “or Brown would have it.” For the pious Brown—son of a Presbyterian church elder and a staunch revival advocate—the jerks were a revelation. The “Vearey Moment I Submitted” to the overwhelming power of God’s Holy Spirit coursing through his body, he later reflected of his experiences on Cumberland Mountain, “I felt More Comfort than I had Ever felt before.” The jerks made him “want to sink into the will of god.”[4]

Brown’s spiritual travels encapsulate much of the creative energy animating Hatch’s thundering legions of upstart evangelicals. Within a few years of his first experiences with the jerks, Joseph Brown abandoned the Presbyterians, cast aside his Calvinist theological heritage, and took to the roads as a preacher in the schismatic Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Yet his lifelong experiences as a jerker remain out of step with Hatch’s definition of evangelicalism, which privileges sola scriptura, vernacular preaching, innovative hymnody, and an unlearned ministry. Recovering the jerks and other somatic phenomena of the Great Revival reveals a movement equal to the anarchistic and antinomian variants elsewhere in North America and more closely aligned with the emergence of Pentecostalism later in the century than most scholars have presumed.[5]

Joseph Brown, Biographical Sketch No. 1, ca. 1860, 9, Joseph Brown Papers, 1772–1965. Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Yet Brown was much more than a jerker and a Protestant schismatic. He was one of “nature’s noblemen,” explained an early biographer, “a pioneer and leading spirit of the great South-west.” In 1788, Brown was captured by a Cherokee war party as his family traveled down the Tennessee River to take possession of lands in Middle Tennessee granted to his father for service in the American Revolution. Ransomed two years later, he served as a guide on the punitive Nickajack Expedition, which devastated the Cherokee Lower Towns in 1794. Brown settled first in Nashville and later on lands ceded by the Chickasaws; his 1806 log cabin served as the first jail in Maury County. Elected colonel of the Tennessee militia, he fought with Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1813. In an odd sequence of events following the battle of Talladega, Brown kidnapped eight men and women he believed descended from the slaves his father had lost during his Cherokee captivity decades earlier, then promptly sold them to his brother in Natchez. By 1830, Brown had emerged at the top of the county tax lists as the proprietor of an extensive cotton and tobacco plantation worked by nearly two dozen enslaved laborers. In later years, he eagerly shared tales of his frontier “adventures” with newspaper correspondents and antiquarians, including Lyman Draper. Today, a historical sign marks the location of Brown’s pioneer homestead; his name adorns a local elementary school; and a portion of his plantation forms part of The Antrim, a stately brick mansion built by a cousin and fellow pioneer, which hosts hundreds of wedding events each year.[6]

Pioneer evangelical, frontier Indian fighter, plantation master—Brown left a tangled legacy for historians of the early republic. His “Autobiographical Sketch” affords a rare opportunity to reconsider the troubling relationship between early American evangelicalism and settler colonialism, Native American dispossession, and the expansion of slavery. Inserting religion into these ongoing scholarly conversations serves as an essential corrective to Hatch’s largely laudatory account of evangelical ascendancy in the early republic. To be sure, a number of historians have begun to reconsider the democratization thesis in recent years. Amanda Porterfield and others have demonstrated how evangelicals preyed on pervasive political anxieties in a fragile republic, fueled the South’s volatile culture of honor, drenched their sermons in violent rhetoric, and fashioned proslavery theologies and ideologies.[7] Much more work remains to be done, however, to connect the democratic impulses of the Great Revival to the darker imperial aspirations of the new nation.[8]

A closer look at the religious experiences of complex figures such as Joseph Brown may hold the key. He spent the final decades of his life away from home, itinerating relentlessly among Cumberland Presbyterian congregations from Virginia to Texas. And he never stopped jerking. Brown understood the convulsions he endured throughout his life as a humbling providence of God. He inhabited a world of dramatic conversions, signs and wonders, somatic phenomena, and continuing revelation. But what did it mean to “sink into the will of god”—as a man, a husband, a preacher, a pioneer, a soldier, a master? How might the volatile religious climate of evangelical revivalism in the Old Southwest have shaped what he later called his life of “adventure and strife”? What, in short, is the history of the “lived religion of empire” in the early national period?[9]

Surely the answers will tell us something not just about the past, but also about the vexed state of religion, racism, violence, and populist politics in our own contentious historical moment.


Endnotes

[1] Joseph Brown, Biographical Sketch No. 1, ca. 1860, 9, Joseph Brown Papers, 1772–1965, Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville.

[2] Douglas L. Winiarski, “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival,” William and Mary Quarterly 76 (Jan. 2019), 111–50; Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT, 1989).

[3] Richard M’Nemar, The Kentucky Revival, or, a Short History of the Late Extraordinary Out-Pouring of the Spirit of God, in the Western States of America. . . . (Cincinnati, OH, 1807), 61. For a curated digital archive of nineteenth-century accounts of the jerking exercise, along with an interactive map and teaching guide, visit History of the Jerks: Bodily Exercises and the Great Revival (1803–1967), ed. Douglas L. Winiarski (available online at https://blog.richmond.edu/jerkshistory/2018/11/21/brown1803-01/).

[4] Brown, Biographical Sketch, 9.

[5] On evangelical radicalism, see G. A. Rawlyk, The Canada Fire: Radical Evangelicalism in British North America, 1775–1812 (Kingston, ON, 1994), esp. 124–40; and Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017), 16–17. For connections with early Pentecostalism, see Deborah Vansau McCauley, Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History (Urbana, IL, 1995), 259–75.

[6] Richard Beard, Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 2d ser. (Nashville, TN, 1874), 236–37; [title?] Republican Banner (Nashville, TN), Feb. 6. 1868. C. Somers Miller surveys of Brown’s life and legacies in “The Joseph Brown Story: Pioneer and Indian in Tennessee History,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 32 (1973), 22–41; for a more recent analysis of his captivity, see Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA, 2010), 152–56.

[7] Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago, 2012); Robert Elder, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790–1860 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2016); Jeffrey Williams, Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism: Taking the Kingdom by Force (Bloomington, IN, 2010); Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC, 2008).

[8] For three excellent recent contributions, see Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, NY, 2015); Jennifer Graber, The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West (New York, 2018); and David Walker, Railroading Religion: Mormons, Tourists, and the Corporate Spirit of the West (Chapel Hill, NC, 2019).

[9] “The Early History of the South-West,” South-Western Monthly 1 (1852), 78. I borrow the potent phrase “lived religion of empire” from Jennifer Graber, “The Imperial Angle: Martin Marty Narrates U.S. Religious History,” Martin Mary’s Righteous Empire (1970) Revised: Theorizing the Study of Religion and U.S. Empire, American Academy of Religion Roundtable, San Diego, CA, Nov. 22, 2014 (available online at https://raac.iupui.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/RAAC_Significant-Sessions-2.pdf).

27 January 2020

About the Author

Douglas L. Winiarski is Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and Chair of Department of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond.

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