Teaching Resources

Questions for Discussion

1. Examine some of the earliest accounts of the jerks. When and where did this distinctive bodily practice begin? How prevalent were they? What kinds of people experienced the jerks? Which denominations? How did they spread?

2. What were some of the earliest explanations for the jerking exercise among ministers and physicians? What medical theories were used to make sense of these extreme fits of bodily distress?

3. How did clergymen’s interpretations of the jerks change over time? Consider looking for texts involving the Kentucky Presbyterian Thomas Clelland; or compare two classic accounts of the jerks by Barton W. Stone and Peter Cartwright.

4. Only a handful of jerkers left first-person reports of their experiences. For two examples, see the Shakers’ interview with members of Robert Tate’s family in Greenville, Virginia, and the autobiography of Tennessee pioneer Joseph Brown. How did the Tates and Brown explain their bodily fits? How did their interpretations differ from those of their contemporaries

5. Examine accounts of the jerks appearing in the journals of Shaker missionary Benjamin Seth Youngs. How, if at all, did his understanding of the bodily exercises change as he grew more familiar with these practices? In what ways did Shaker interpretations of the jerks, especially Richard McNemar’s Kentucky Revival, differ from those of other, more mainstream Protestants?

6. Over time, accounts of the jerks began to appear in local and denominational histories, autobiographies, and other retrospective accounts of pioneer life in the west. But many of these stories read more like folklore than eyewitness reports or reliable historical accounts. What can we learn from these “jerker tales“?

7. View the film clip from Peter Adair’s 1967 documentary, Holy Ghost People, which depicts an evening worship meeting at a Pentecostal serpent handling church in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Which bodily exercises from the Great Revival are still evident? Serpent handling developed among independent Holiness and Pentecostal churches at the turn of the twentieth century. How is this new practice related to the traditional bodily exercises?

Further Reading


The Great Revival

Boles, John B. The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Religion in the South. 1972; reprint, Lexington, Ky., 1996.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain-Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800–1845. Knoxville, Tenn., 1974.

Conkin, Paul K. Cane Ridge: America’s Pentecost, The Curti Lectures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Eslinger, Ellen. Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism. Knoxville, Tenn., 1999.

Haselby, Sam. The Origins of American Religious Nationalism, Religion in America. New York, 2015.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn., 1989.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York, 1997.

Sparks, Randy J. On Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Evangelicalism in Mississippi, 1773–1876. Athens, Ga., 1994.

Bodily Exercises

Fuller, Robert C. The Body of Faith: A Biological History of Religion in America, Chicago History of American Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Jortner, Adam. Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic, Jeffersonian America. Charlottesville, Va., 2017.

Meyer, Neil. “Falling for the Lord: Shame, Revivalism, and the Origins of the Second Great Awakening.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9 (2011): 142–166.

Moore, Peter N. “Family Dynamics and the Great Revival: Religious Conversion in the South Carolina Piedmont.” Journal of Southern History 70 (2004): 35–62.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Winiarski, Douglas L. “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 76 (2019): 111–150.


Cole, Charles C., Jr. Lion of the Forest: James B. Finley, Frontier Reformer, Ohio River Valley Series. Lexington, Ky., 1994.

Lyerly, Cynthia Lynn. Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770–1810. New York, 1998.

Richey, Russell E. Early American Methodism, Religion in North America. Bloomington, Ind., 1991.

Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists. New York, 2009.

Wigger, John. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York, 1998.

Williams, Jeffrey. Religion and Violence in Early American Methodism: Taking the Kingdom by Force, Religion in North America. Bloomington, Ind., 2010.


Boles, John B. Religion in Antebellum Kentucky. Lexington, Ky., 1976.

Norton, Herman Albert. Religion in Tennessee, 1777–1945, Tennessee Three Star Books. Knoxville, Tenn., 1981.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001.

Thompson, Ernest Trice. Presbyterians in the South, 3 vols. Richmond, Va., 1963.

Westerkamp, Marilyn. Triumph of the Laity: Scots-Irish Piety and the Great Awakening, 1625–1760, Religion in America. New York, 1988.

Weeks, Louis. Kentucky Presbyterians, Presbyterian Historical Society Publications. Atlanta, Ga., 1983.


Garrett, Clarke. Origins of the Shakers: From the Old World to the New World. 1987; reprint, Baltimore, Md., 1998.

Kanon, Tom. “Seduced, Bewildered, and Lost: Anti-Shakerism on the Early Nineteenth-Century Frontier.” Ohio Valley History 7 (2007): 1–30.

Medlicott, Carol. Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey. Hanover, N.H., 2013.

Neal, Julia. The Kentucky Shakers. Lexington, Ky., 1982.

Stein, Stephen J. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, Conn., 1992.

Taysom, Stephen C. Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries, Religion in North America. Bloomington, Ind., 2011.

Winiarski, Douglas L. “Shakers & Jerkers: Letters from the ‘Long Walk,’ 1805 (Part I).” Journal of East Tennessee History 89 (2017): 90–110.

Winiarski, Douglas L. “Shakers & Jerkers: Letters from the ‘Long Walk,’ 1805 (Part II).” Journal of East Tennessee History 90 (2018): 84–105.

Frontier Culture & Scots-Irish Immigration

Aron, Stephen. How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay. Baltimore, 1996.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998.

Finger, John R. Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition, History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier. Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

Friend, Craig Thompson. Kentucke’s Frontiers, History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier. Bloomington, Ind., 2010.

Griffin, Patrick. The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots-Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689–1764. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Hofstra, Warren R. Ulster to America: The Scots-Irish Migration Experience, 1680–1830. Knoxville, Tenn., 2012.

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwester, 1720–1830, History of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier. Bloomington, Ind., 1996.

Leyburn, James G. The Scotsh Irish: A Social History. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1962.

Perkins, Elizabeth A. Border Life: Experience and Memory in the Revolutionary Ohio Valley. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998.

Sachs, Honor. Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier, Lamar Series in Western History. New Haven, Conn., 2015.

Religion in Appalachia

Callahan, Richard J. Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust, Religion in North America. Bloomington, Ind., 2009.

Kimbrough, David. Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995.

McAuley, Deborah Vansau. Appalachian Mountain Religion: A History. Urbana, Ill., 1995.

Browse by Category