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The "Jerks"

According to the "Handbook of Revivals" by Henry C. Fish (p.17-19), the Methodist evangelist Lorenzo Dow, "preached in the Court-house at Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1805, when about one hundred and fifty of his hearers were exercised with 'the jerks;' that is, with violent spasmodic contractions of the muscles, which sometimes turned the head quickly from right to left and back again; and sometimes threw the person on the ground, where he rolled about strangely."

Of this and similar incidents, Dow stated, "A Presbyterian minister told me that while preaching the day before some had the jerks. I believe it does not affect those naturalists, who wish and try to get it to philosophize upon it; and rarely those who are the most pious; but the lukewarm, lazy professor is subject to it. The wicked fear it, and are subject to it; but the persecutors are more subject to it than any, and they have sometimes cursed and swore and damned it, while jerking."

Henry Fish continues, "Dow says that 'persecutors' had it, without relaxing their open hatred of religion. Others testify that they have been thrown into 'the jerks' by hearing a description of the jerking of others, and without any religious impression, either attending or following the attack." The Methodist revivalist Peter Cartwiright even mentions one fatal case of the 'jerks.' This man cursed all religion, but got a powerful case of the 'jerks' even while he tried to run from them. "At length he fetched a very violent jerk, snapped his neck, fell, and soon expired, with his mouth full of cursing and bitterness."