Moved by Spirit

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…

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12 thoughts on “Moved by Spirit

  1. You hit on the likely explanation of why all the non-Quaking Quakers are seen: there’s just no need anymore. To paraphrase an old lyric, how’re you going to keep the kids down on the farm after seeing gay Paris?

    In a repressed religious environment that frowned on “Worldly” release of pent-up energy, the singing, dancing, exhortations and Holy Rolling in Church services seem fun, and better yet, it was supposedly endorsed by God. The church was trying to maintain a monopoly on such expressive activities (and many church services nowadays seem like dry, boring clubs, perfect for those who’ve never stepped into an actual club).

    I get a kick out of evangelists who speak in tongues, when they’re clearly only spouting gibberish. The original idea behind the “gift” of speaking in tongues was for blessed individuals (missionaries of the early Christian churches) to speak a foreign language without having to actually learn it, for the purpose of spreading God’s message to natives of a foreign land.

    (NOTE: YHWH has only himself to blame for creating THAT problem: where did foreign languages came from, according to the Tower of Babel story? GOD dun it. So is God actually working against His Divine Will, yet again, creating problems that He later has to solve? Busy-work much?)

    Anyway, back to the “gift” or “miracle” of speaking in tongues:

    It was easy to fool the uneducated (who wouldn’t know if a foreign language was properly spoken, since they didn’t speak it, either), so the pseudo-miracle of speaking in tongues had begun in the NT.

    And note that translators had long existed, and were prized for their special ability, with many serving in the royal courts, long before Christianity. So the translation element was the miracle: the instant learning was.

    (Instantaneous learning reminds of a young childhood friend who loved listening to music, so thought he could just pick up a guitar and start playing it, channeling his pent-up emotions to produce beautiful soulful music. He was rather disappointed to realize it doesn’t work like that: you actually have to LEARN to play music, and no spirit or muse is going to do the practicing for you.)

    Now, this doesn’t mean that those who speak in tongues INTENTIONALLY or CONSCIOUSLY deceive: they probably actually BELIEVE they CAN speak a foreign language, and likely just got caught up in group-think, falling for mass suggestion by being in a crowd, surrounded by those who thought similarly.

    Apparently no one reads “The King’s New Clothes”, the children’s story about the dangers of mass delusion.

  2. I once heard a funny story about a young woman who took her male youngster to a Quaker meeting for the first time. At the beginning of the service the leader said, “We sit in the silence until Spirit moves us to speak. When you are moved to speak please feel free to do so.” A few minutes into it the young lad stood up and yelled, “Stamp out forest fires. Keep Tennessee green.” I know little about the Quakers but as a Registered Nurse I had a private duty case caring for a Doctor who came from an old money Quaker New England family. He was one of the kindest men I ever met. His family was very generous with the nurses.

  3. OK, so this is the cliff-hanger….who will be first to speak? I suppose there can be some group-think in these sorts of situations, but I’m also guessing that these folks are old enough to where the others’ opinions don’t much matter….

    • Ahhh, wouldn’t it be nice if older people weren’t subject to group-think, as if we outgrew it? Unfortunately, all ages are susceptible, but the eldest having seen many examples of the costs incurred by those who don’t go with the flow, and are subconsciously gleaned not to rock the boat (esp when the group is based on a shared belief, and questioning it is asking for trouble). Corporations are beset by problems stemming from group-think, and corporate boards are generally populated by middle-aged adults.

      For many, the goal becomes to get in the position to MANAGE the herd, to become a LEADER of the group, since it’s better to be able to DEFINE and INTERPRET the ideology (and anyone who’s witnessed retirement community politics will understand what happens when people with too much time on their hands play power games).

      • what you say is too true, Dave. I was simply assuming the best for the “old” folks (I’m not far behind) that Corinna was describing. God has been “prying” me away from some of the group think I have been involved in for most of my life. Part of the bar he’s been using has been understanding his father heart, so that opinions of the group aren’t so important to me anymore. I suppose we will find out in the next installment what Corinna’s impression of them was, and whether they were more moved by the group than by the Spirit….(I’ll keep my fingers crossed).

  4. I love Corrina’s way of writing and setting the scene, introducing us to the environment of the church and the people and then leaving us hanging. She’d be a good writer of mysteries. 🙂 Nevertheless, she has me hooked.

  5. A good book about the pentecostal movement is The Azusa Street Mission & Revival, by Cecil M. Robeck. The book is complete with pictures and newspaper clippings from the LA Herald and other newspapers — back before political correctness. Azusa Street happened in the early 1900s in Los Angeles. It had roots in Wesleyan holiness. This movement embraced women preachers, the poor and rich, and people of color. It was quite the movement! Mel Robeck is a scholar but he is also Assembly of God, so he brings a unique understanding to pentecostalism.

      • I don’t know about all of this talk. Sounds like none of us really knows a whole lot about the Quakers…..the Society of Friends. I went on to the internet and found a Society of Friends site and found it to be quite interesting. My younger sister attended Quaker meetings for awhile, and what she told me was that there was a lot of silence and when someone did speak, they were very measured with their words….because, if I understood correctly from my reading, they were words from God. I hope I got that right. My understanding from my brief reading is that there are two branches of Quakers, and they operate differently. The Quakers also seem to have evolved a great deal from their earlier times. Where have we hear that before? A quick look-see might bring our conversation to one which is based on some actual knowledge.

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