Tag Archives: Samuel Houston

- Jailing the Jerkers



Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, Rockbridge County, National Register Nomination, Virginia Dept. of Historic Resources, http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Rockbridge/TimberRidgePresChurch_photo.htm, accessed 20 June 2017.

Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, sponsored four residential fellows for the 2016-2017 academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Doug Winiarski, Religious Studies professor at the University of Richmond, spent the spring semester researching and writing Shakers, Jerkers & the Shawnee Prophet: Religious Encounters on the Early American Frontier, 1805-1815.

Samuel Houston probably scoffed at the legal proceedings against him as he stood before the bar in the Lexington, Virginia, courthouse on 6 August 1805. How could his peers on the grand jury take this case of assault and battery seriously? After all, he was one of the most prominent men in the Rockbridge County: a decorated Revolutionary War officer, a wealthy planter, and a slaveholder. Most important, Houston was a devoted member and patron of the Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, the handsome stone edifice that stood only a few yards from his imposing log house.

The charges against Houston stemmed from a bizarre new religious phenomenon known as “the jerks”: involuntary convulsions, in which the subjects’ heads lashed violently backward and forward in quick succession like a “flail in the hands of a thresher.” The strange bodily fits erupted unexpectedly during the Great Revival (1799–1805), the powerful succession of Presbyterian sacramental festivals and Methodist camp meetings that … read more »

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