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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Some Oddities of Belief

By Charles Chauncy (1705–1787)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1705. Died there, 1787. Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New-England. 1743.]

THE WAY in which these fears have been excited, in many places is not, in my opinion, the best evidence in favor of them. People have been too much applied to, as though the preacher rather aimed at putting their passions into a ferment, than filling them with such a reasonable solicitude as is the effect of a just exhibition of the truths of God to their understandings. I have myself been present, when an air of seriousness reigned visibly through a whole congregation. They were all silence and attention, having their eye fastened on the minister, as though they would catch every word that came from his mouth. And yet, because they did not cry out or swoon away, they were upbraided with their hardness of heart and ranked among those who were sermon-proof, gospel-glutted; and every topic made use of, with all the voice and action the speaker was master of, to bring forward a general shriek in the assembly. Nay, in order to give the people a plain intimation of what he wanted, this same preacher sometimes told them of the wonderful effects wrought by the sermon he was then preaching; how in such a congregation, they were all melted and dissolved, and in another so overpowered, that they could not help screaming out or falling down, as though they had been struck dead. Nay, one of the preachers in this new way, was so open some months ago, as in plain words to call upon the people to cry out, and plead with them to do so. This he did three several times in one sermon, and had upon it so many loud cries. And ’tis too well known to need much to be said upon it, that the gentlemen, whose preaching has been most remarkably accompanied with these extraordinaries, not only use in their addresses to the people, all the terrible words they can get together, but in such a manner, as naturally tends to put weaker minds out of possession of themselves. A friend in the country, in a letter to me upon these matters, expresses himself in these words, “Under the preaching and exhortations of these itinerants and exhorters (the manner of which is frequently very boisterous and shocking, and adapted to the best of their skill to alarm and surprise the imagination and passions), it is no unusual thing for persons to be plunged into the utmost anxiety and distress, which is often attended with a trembling of the body, fainting, falling down, etc. The preacher now frequently grows more tempestuous, and dreadful in his manner of address and seems to endeavor all he can to increase, and spread the rising consternation, and terror of their souls: which, by this means, is sometimes spread over a great part of an assembly in a few minutes from its first appearance. I have seen the “struck” (as they are called) and distressed brought together, from the several parts of the assembly, into the square body by themselves, and two or three persons at work upon them at once, smiting, stamping and crying out to them with a mighty voice, in the most terrible manner and language;—the poor creatures fainting, screeching and bitterly crying out under them. You may easily think what terrors of imagination, distraction of passions, and perplexity of thoughts they endured. I was last summer at an evening lecture at a neighboring parish, at which one of the most famous preachers in the new method carried on. He had entered but a little way in his sermon (which was delivered in a manner sufficiently terrible) when there began to be some commotion among the young women. This inspired him with new life. He lifted up his voice like a trumpet, plentifully poured down terrors upon them. About half a score of young women were presently thrown into violent hysteric fits. I carefully observed them. When he grew calm and moderate in his manner, though the things delivered were equally awakening, they by degrees grew calm and still; when he again assumed the terrible and spake like thunder, the like violent stragglings immediately returned upon them from time to time. Sometimes he put a mighty emphasis upon little unmeaning words and delivered a sentence of no importance with a mighty energy, yet the sensible effect was as great as when the most awful truth was brought to view.” This account may be relied on. For it is given by one capable of making observation, and who bears as unblemished a character as most ministers in the country.

Agreeable whereto is the account we have printed in the Boston Post-Boy; in which the writer, speaking of the itinerant preachers, among other things, observes: “Their main design in preaching seems not so much to inform men’s judgments, as to terrify and affright their imagination; by awful words and frightful representations to set the congregation into hideous shrieks and out-cries. And to this end in every place where they come, they represent that God is doing extraordinary things in other places, and that they are some of the last hardened wretches that stand out; that this is the last call that ever they are likely to have; that they are now hanging over the pit of destruction, and just ready this moment to fall into it; that hell-fire now flashes in their faces; and that the devil now stands ready to seize upon them, and carry them to hell: and they will oftentimes repeat the awful words, ‘damned!’ ‘damned!’ ‘damned!’ three or four times over.”

It is well known, no preacher in the new way has been more noted for his instrumentality in producing these shriekings and faintings and tremblings, than the Rev. Mr. James Davenport of Southhold; and yet, one of the ministers of this town (who has always been a great friend to that which he esteemed the good work of God going on in the land) having been, one night, a witness to this inexpressible management among the people, and the terrible effects consequent thereupon in their screaming and crying out, and the like, thought himself obliged in conscience to go to him the next day, and declare against such a method of acting: And accordingly went, and told him to his face (as he himself informed me) that in the appearance of the last night, he was persuaded, there was no hand of the spirit of God; and that it was no other than might have been expected, if a man raving mad from Bedlam had gone among the people, and behaved as he had done. And one of the charges exhibited and proved against this Mr. Davenpart, when brought before the General Assembly of Connecticut, was, “That he endeavored by unwarrantable means to terrify, and affect his hearers.” And that,

1. “By pretending some extraordinary discovery and assurance of the very near approach of the end of the world; and that though he did not assign the very day, yet that he then lately had it clearly opened to him and strongly impressed upon his mind, that in a very short time all these things would be involved in devouring flames.” (N. B. This same impression, he told the people at Boston, he had lately had upon his mind, and was as sure the day of judgment was at the door, as of the things he then saw with his eyes; and made use of this accordingly, as an argument to work upon their passions.)

2. “By an indecent and affected imitation of the agony and passion of our blessed Saviour; and also by voice and gesture, of the surprise, horror, and amazement, of persons supposed to be sentenced to eternal misery, and,

3. “By a too peremptory and unconditioned denouncing damnation against such of his auditory, as he looked upon as opposers; vehemently crying out, that he saw hell-flames flashing in their faces, and they were now! now! dropping down to hell! And also added, Lord thou knowest, that there are many in that gallery, and in these seats, that are now dropping down to hell!”

An account of Mr. Davenport’s preaching, not altogether unlike this, a gentleman in Connecticut wrote to one of the ministers in this town, upon his own knowledge, in these words: “At length he turned his discourse to others, and with the utmost strength of his lungs addressed himself to the congregation, under these and such like expressions, viz.: ‘You poor unconverted creatures, in the seats, in the pews, in the galleries, I wonder you don’t drop into hell! It would not surprise me, I should not wonder at it, if I should see you drop down now, this minute, into hell. You Pharisees, hypocrites, now, now, now, you are going right into the bottom of hell. I wonder you don’t drop into hell by scores, and hundreds,’ etc. And in this terrible manner he ended the sermon.” ’Tis then added: “After a short prayer, he called for all the distressed persons (which were near twenty) into the foremost seats. Then he came out of the pulpit, and stripped off his upper garments, and got up into the seats, and leaped up and down for some time, and clapped his hands, and cried out in those words: ‘The war goes on, the fight goes on, the devil goes down, the devil goes down!’ and then betook himself to stamping and screaming most dreadfully.”

And what is it more than might be expected, to see people so affrightened as to fall into shrieks and fits, under such methods as these? Especially when they have first been possessed of the notion that the persons who make use of them are men of God in an extraordinary sense; as being sent immediately, as it were, to deliver his messages to them. The mind is now prepared to receive almost any impression from this kind of persons; and it is no wonder if, by their terrifying voice and action, people are thrown into agitations and convulsions.

I doubt not but the Divine Spirit often accompanies the preached Word, so as that, by his influence, sinners are awakened to a sense of sin, and filled with deep distress of soul. But the blessed Spirit must not, at random, be made the author of all those surprises, operating in strange effects upon the body, which may be seen among people. They may be produced other ways; yea, I trust, that has been already said, which makes it evident they have actually been produced, even by the wild and extravagant conduct of some overheated preachers.