I’m going to a Christian festival this weekend. Let me say that again, just to make sure I heard myself properly. I’m going to a Christian festival this weekend. I..I’m doing what?? Believe me, it’s as strange for me as it is for you. The worst part is I think I might actually enjoy it. This is what happens when you research ecstatic experience. Eventually, like Howard Moon among the yetis, you can’t help but join the dance.
We’re freaked out by the idea of collective ecstasy. It goes against the Enlightenment commandment, by now deep in our psyches, that we must stay rational and in control at all times. It’s socially acceptable to feel collective ecstasy only during certain prescribed moments – during the Olympics, for example, or a rock concert, even perhaps during the Queen’s jubilee. But during a church service? Good God no. How embarrassing. How happy-clappy.
And yet our modern outlets for ecstasy have sacred roots. The rock festival, for example, grew out of a strange religious phenomenon from the 18th century called the Camp Meeting. Let me tell you the story.
In the 18th century, when Anglican Christianity was becoming more and more sober, rational and Deistic, some people started to seek a more emotional, passionate, ecstatic form of worship in Methodism. A big part of Methodism’s appeal was its hymn music, much of it written by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The Methodists developed a style of worship that was very interactive and spontaneous, where people were encouraged to feel the Spirit and to shout out their praise to the Lord. Worship would not be confined to the church – Methodists also pioneered outdoor preaching and services, and ‘love-feasts’ – where worshippers would bring food and share it with each other.
Methodism rapidly spread to America, where it became popular both with white Protestants and African-Americans. The inter-racial congregations of American Methodist churches developed their own style of worship, mixing the hymnody of European Methodism with the rhythm, clapping, shouting and call-and-response of African religion. It is here, in the Methodist churches of Philadelphia, Virginia, New York and Kentucky, that you can find many of the roots of R&B and rock n’ roll.
Take ‘the shout’, one of the key ingredients of rhythm and blues, soul, funk etc. The Methodist shout was first heard in Britain, where worshippers would cry out when they really felt the Spirit come upon them, but shouting took off among the inter-racial congregations of the Second Great Awakening in American in 1800.
Itinerant preachers became expert at slowly building congregations up into an ecstatic frenzy (a practice that became known in gospel music as ‘worrying’ the audience), building them up and then finally letting them loose – known in gospel as ‘house wrecking’. We read of one Methodist preacher, around 1800, who would drop his voice, then whisper, then slowly raise his voice until the congregation would join in and start to shout, then the preacher would quieten them and say ‘stop, stop my honies, not now! bye and bye!’, teasing them until ‘he showed the sign of ending, by waving his hankerchief with the word now! Then the whole church was in an instant uproar, jumping and shouting’.
Is this not like James Brown teasing the audience into a frenzy in his famous Live at the Apollo gig of 1962?
Preachers’ sermons would be as much songs as talks, alternating singing with speaking (a practice that singers like Elvis Presley or Solomon Burke would use to great effect), and building up call-and-responses from their audience. The congregation were a big part of the service – indeed, if the preacher was too staid or uptight, the congregation would take over from them and ‘get happy’ without him. Songs were largely improvised, phrases thrown from preacher to congregation, choruses repeated over and over – the Spirit emerged out of the group dynamics, just like at a music festival.
Here’s a recreation of a ‘shouter circle’ put on for the benefit of the Library of Congress (it would have been about 100 times more full-on than this, but it gives you an idea!)
People really let loose at camp meetings, which appeared in America in the second half of the 18th century and took off in the Second Great Awakening in 1800. One of the first big camp meetings was in Red River, in Kentucky, where thousands of Presbyterians gathered and were preached to by an old Methodist minister. On the third day, the ‘glory of God’ broke out in the worshippers – ‘some fell to the floor, screaming and praying for mercy…the floor was soon covered with the slain’. The Presbyterian ministers were astonished, but the old Methodist preacher assured them ‘he was acquainted with such scenes’.
Did not the Bible talk of how ‘every heart shall melt…and every spirit faint, and all knees shall be as weak as water’? This phenomenon of being ‘slain in the spirit’ used to happen in Welsh methodist churches too – apparently worshippers would faint and be passed back over the congregation like sacks of wool. Perhaps our modern rock festival practice of bearing bodies over the crowd has its roots in this Methodist practice.
Worshippers at camp meetings felt as if, just for a moment, heaven had come down to Earth, as if the Kingdom was briefly manifesting around them. One worshipper at a Baltimore camp meeting felt ‘God came near, sinners fell in abundance, Christians rejoiced and shouted’; another declared that a camp meeting ‘was like God’s ancient and holy hill of Zion on her brightest festival days’. Is this not how festival goers sometimes feel today, at places like Woodstock or Burning Man or Glastonbury (the latter founded, by the way, by Michael Eavis – a committed Methodist). Do we not also feel, very occasionally, that we have created some ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’, a temporary Kingdom?
There was a lot of dancing back then, too, and many of our modern dances came from Methodist services. We hear of Methodist worshippers in 18th-century Wales, for example, leaping up and down with joy (a practice that earned them the name ‘Welsh Jumpers’ – they reminded observers of roe deer). This, it seems to me, is the origin of punk pogo-dancing.
In America, Methodists and Baptists developed the ‘circle dance’, which seems to have had African roots. Worshippers would form a circle and go round and round, clapping and dancing with joy, while ‘penitents’ would repent of their sins in the middle of the circle until they too ‘got happy’ and joined the circle. Some European priests worried about such practices and tried to stop them happening in the church, but worshippers just went outside the church and carried on their dance, shaking loose until they felt ‘at liberty’. We can perhaps see remnants of the Methodist circle dance today, in break-dancing and krumping:
The ‘headbang’ has pre-Christian roots, in the ecstatic worshippers of the mountain-goddess Cybele, who got into trances by ‘moving their necks around with supple motions and whirling their loose hair round’. But the practice re-appeared among worshippers in the American Great Revival: ‘Their heads would jerk back suddenly, frequently causing them to yelp…Sometimes the head would fly every way so quickly their features could not be recognised.’
This sort of ecstatic Methodist worship then fed into Pentecostalism, which first appeared in Los Angeles in 1906. A few decades later, the body-shaking ecstasy of Pentecostalism was secularised and turned into rock and roll, by pioneers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Tina Turner and James Brown. They weren’t all Pentecostalists (Elvis and Aretha were Baptists), but their twitching, shaking, whirling, fainting, shouting ecstasies owed a lot to the Sanctified Holy Roller preachers of Pentecostalism.
At its best, rock n’ roll and soul express the hopeful and even utopian beliefs of the gospels – that people from different cultures, races and gender can overcome their differences and unite; that the enslaved will be freed from their prisons; that the exiled and lost will find their way back home; that things will get better. I can be down with that. So off I go to the Christian festival. I’ll be the guy in the corner, krumping to Oh Come All Ye Faithful.