What would it feel like to be so overcome with religious enthusiasm that one howls like a dog?
Here’s a scenario that plays in my mind: It is 200 years ago—early 1800s—and I’m a young woman living on the American frontier in what is roughly modern-day Ohio. I’m attending my first “camp meeting,” which is an open-air church revival presided over by traveling preachers. These are men with regular jobs, blacksmiths and farmers, who exhibit extreme dedication to the Lord by adding preaching to their list of responsibilities. This will be my first exposure to a worship setting that is not my family’s kitchen table. The preachers call themselves “Methodists.”
My imaginary gathering takes place in a big field. A preacher tells the assembled crowd that God isn’t just something you open a book and read about: God is here right now. He’s inside each of us and if we feel Him working in us, we shouldn’t be shy—we should shout or do whatever else we want because these expressions demonstrate our love for God. As he speaks, the preacher paces back and forth and his face turns red and he looks like a man possessed. He begs God to make his presence known and when he falls to his knees and puts his hands in the air, it’s as if the Holy Spirit rips through the crowd. People shout, shake, and cry. There’s moaning, babbling, fainting—and, yes, some people even howl and bark like dogs.
Two centuries and 2,000 miles further along, I’m making my way to the Sunday worship services of a group of Quakers. For the last few days, I’ve been reading the first-hand accounts of attendees at early religious revivals in the early frontier. In this book, ordinary people recount the wackiest spectacles they witnessed at camp meetings. Some of their stories had me in stitches. I’ve been preparing to embark on the next phase of this journey, which is a series of denominations known for their emotional devotion. The Quakers were some of the earliest purveyors of passion-filled worship. They earned their nickname from their reputation for trembling with emotion during their services.
When I walk in, I’m a few minutes late. Having struggled to find the right building, I’ve missed whatever introductory remarks were offered. A group of about 10 sit on overstuffed couches and chairs arranged in a circle. The median age is mid-70s. It could easily be a group therapy session at a senior center—except nobody is talking and their eyes are closed. I spot a cylindrical device out of the corner of my eye and think “oxygen tank!” Turns out it’s just a fire extinguisher. I join the circle and get comfortable. My heart is racing from climbing a hill outside.
After 15 minutes, I open my eyes and take a closer look at each person. If I had to guess who is in charge, I’d say it’s one of the two guys whose extra-long beards make them look like members of the rock band ZZ Top, or maybe it’s the old woman smiling like a beatific Ma Kettle. For a group whose name is based on shaking, they are surprisingly still…