I recall the phrase holy rollers being used in my childhood to describe various ecstatic, mostly Pentacostal sects. When the local movie theater in my old neighborhood went dark it was rented to such a sect who put the name "Dancing Deliverance Revival" on the marquee, where it remained for may years until the building was demolished along with its neighbors and replaced by a K-mart store as part of an urban renewal project.
Now Pentacostalism actually began in Los Angeles around the turn of the 20th century, and until I found this book published in 1842 I was unaware that the term Holy Rollers was so old. I recall my mom telling me that the various Pentacostal groups, which were quite numerous in our rather slummy suburban region of Los Angeles, were called holy rollers because of their propensity to get so carried away during religions services that they would fall to the floor and roll about. My mom, being of a far more conservatively heretical religious group, thought that the rollers were probably possessed by demons, rather than the holy spirit that the rollers themselves believed themselves to be expressing, though that's another story.
But here I find this reference to holy rollers in a book from that early 19th century era which came to be called the Great Awakening. though it might be better described as the Counter-Enlightenment, having been to a great extent a reaction against the secular influence of the Enlightenment, the earlier social and intellectual movement which had brought a great interest in the culture and philosophy of the ancient Pagan classical world. Zadock Thompson clearly shared the sentiments of much, or even most, of early 19th century New England when he described the behavior of the New Lights sect. New England's Protestants, who had not too long before been considered fanatical heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, were evidently quite offended by these new heretics, and Thompson's passage about the sect is quite entertaining:
"New Lights.— This is a name assumed by a small band of fanatics, who commenced a brief career in the town of Hardwick in the early part of 1837. Their leader, whose name was Bridgeman, had been a professed Universalist, but having his mind discomposed by frequent attendance upon prayer meetings in his neighborhood, and becoming, as some thought, partially deranged, he professed to be inspired from on high, and was not long in enlisting several followers. They commenced their career by interrupting the regular exercises of the religious meetings of the neighborhood, by occasionally uttering in a tremendous sing-song scream or yell, passages or parts of parts of passages of scripture, pretending to act under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Soon they become the chief actors in these meetings, and such numbers began to be drawn together to hear and see their strange doings, that it was found inconvenient to hold their meetings in private houses, and they therefore held them for a while in a school house. But this proving too small for the multitudes that came together, they went into the south meeting house in Hardwick, which had been built some years before by a private individual, with the nothing-arian motto, Liberty of Conscience, inscribed on its front. They also changed their time of holding meetings from the evening of a week day to the Sabbath; and there, Sabbath after Sabbath, for several months,the spacious house was crowded with a motly and tumultuous assemblage from that and the neighboring towns. The exercises consisted of the most ludicrous and foolish performances, such as frightful yellings, barking in imitation of dogs, foxes and cuckoos, jumping, swinging the arms and rolling on the floor. From this last circumstance they were sometimes called holy rollers. The leader in this drollery, as it was called, professed to have had it revealed to him that the men should not shave; they accordingly suffered their beards to grow for several months, and thereby acquired the appellation of the long beards. At length it was revealed to another of their number that they must all be shaved, and it was done.Zadock was probably not much of a fan of the Enlightenment, either, or he wouldn't have used the phrase "...the nothing-arian motto Liberty of Conscience..." in describing the old meeting hall the New Lights used. The phrase Liberty of Conscience fairly reeks of Enlightenment attitudes, but I'm sure whatever free thinker had built the hall would have been as offended as Zadock by what was going on inside it at those meetings. Zadock Thompson himself was an Episcopal priest but also a noted naturalist, so though apparently a child of the Great Awakening he also appears to have availed himself of the scientific fruits of The Enlightenment.
"Although no more than six or eight persons took a very active part in these meetings, still they were countenanced and encouraged by large numbers of the inhabitants of Hardwick and the neighboring towns. Many of these were ignorant and weak minded persons who were deluded and led astray, but the greater part were the idle and irreligious, who were better pleased to spend the the Sabbath in attendance upon what was denominated the Hardwick Theatre, than with those who were engaged in rational religious worship. But, as happens to most fanatics, their career was short. The publication of a discourse, in the summer of 1838, leveled at their absurdities, by the late Rev. Chester Wright, at that time minister of Hardwick, and the imprisonment of some of their number for the disturbance of religious worship, soon put a stop to their droll meetings, and for the honor of our common nature, and of the state of Vermont, and of our holy religion, it is hoped that such disgraceful proceedings will not be repeated within our state."
On one occasion I did visit the Dancing Deliverance Revival, when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I think. I would never have done it on my own, but was talked into it by a more adventurous friend, and I did it less out of curiosity about the events taking place than out of a nostalgic curiosity about the theater itself, where I had seen so many westerns, comedies, musicals, and creepy science fiction movies as a child. Not much was going on that night, there being only a preacher giving a vociferous but not especially peculiar sermon, and a handful of watchers, mostly overweight and sad looking middle aged women and a few straggly-looking children. I saw them only from a distance, as they were all in the front of the hall and we stayed in the back rows. Nobody rolled on the floor, though there was a bit of vocal response that sounded as though it might be leading to full-on wailing. I found the whole thing more dispiriting than either dramatic or "droll." Revival or no, I was certainly not revived.
That experience convinces me that, had I lived in Hardwick in 1837, I would not have been one of those townspeople who went to the New Lights meetings for trollish entertainment, and I certainly would not have gone for spiritual enlightenment. I guess I have that in common with Zadock Thompson, but I doubt I'd have thought of the participants the same way he did. After all, he was a priest and these heretics were rivals. I would probably have been a bit fearful of their fanaticism, but more sympathetic than judgmental toward them as people, even as alien as they would have seemed to me. Now that I recall the sad-looking people at the Dancing Deliverance Revival, the thought comes to me that even then I suspected that they might have gotten more happiness out of seeing one of the movies that had once played at the theater than they did out of listening to that preacher who had taken it over. I certainly had.