Holy Roller was an early assignation to Pentecostals, but the term is an Americanism that has existed since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1842, Holy Rollers were identified in the Southern Quarterly Review, published in New Orleans, as a “new species of religion,” and was loosely used for decades to refer to any Christian religions characterized by extreme emotionalism or physical manifestations. Many “sanctified” Wesleyan and Methodist groups fell into this category. Speaking of one Mr. Cummings in his memoirs, published in 1894, Charles Godfrey Leland says:
He was a Methodist . . . “They say he is a Jumper, but others think he has gone over to the Holy Rollers.” The Jumpers were a sect whose members, when the Holy Spirit seized them, jumped up and down, while the Holy Rollers under such circumstances rolled over and over on the floor. (216)
Holy Roller was not solidly considered a euphemism for Pentecostalism until the 1920s. In the 1925-1928 Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, anyone searching for “Pentecostal Movement” found the reference: “See Holy Rollers.” In time, Holy Roller became synonymous with Pentecostal and was sometimes considered a pejorative term.
In the popular press, Holy Roller was initially used to describe any extreme sect. The term made its unfortunate debut in the New York Times in April 1904, when a crazed mother from Oil City, Pennsylvania burned her 8-month-old daughter and cut off the child’s hand. The woman was identified as a Holy Roller (“Cut Her Child’s . . . ” 5). In March 1905, the term was included in the headline of a New York Times article: “Bearded Angel Leads Holy Rollers Here,” an interesting piece about a small group of millennial cultists led by a couple who claimed to be angels guiding the remnant of the Lost Tribe of Israel to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where they awaited the imminent coming of Christ (“Bearded Angel . . . ” 16).
Mostly, Holy Rollers made their way into newspapers through their boisterous services. What all Holy Rollers have in common is the fact that they are historically a rowdy bunch. Holy Rollers, whether simply sanctified or positively Pentecostal, had regular run-ins with neighbors, police and judges. Before the days or hermetical faith, sealed inside the well-insulated walls and double pane windows of our contemporary climate-controlled cathedrals, the saints of God worshipped often in the open air, homes, tents, or buildings with doors and windows open to the world, and their nightly meetings could extend for hours into the night, disrupting sleep for blocks around!
All over the nation, Holy Rollers were repeatedly enjoined, fined, and even jailed for their raucous religion! While the term Holy Roller was never applied to the saints of Azusa Street Mission, police did raid their meetings, and they were popularly called “Holy Kickers” and “Holy Jumpers” in the Los Angeles Times. In August 1909, a Cleveland, Tennessee group of Holy Rollers were issued an order against “making loud and unusual noises” after they marched throughout the town singing and praying (“Holy Rollers Enjoined”). In March 1917, a “white man” named Barnes was arrested in Sherman, Texas for conducting all night “Holy Roller” meetings (“Holy Rollers Arrested” 9). Holy Rollers in Evanston, Illinois made front page news in Chicago in June 1919 when they ran into trouble with neighbors, who “appealed to police to quiet the religious acrobats” (“Police Clamp Lid . . .” 1). In St. Louis, a local “Holy Roller” group was turned over to Prosecuting Attorney F. Ralph by neighbors who charged that the church “creates loud and unnecessary noises, tears their clothing and rolls upon the ground until late in the night” (“Holy Roller Sect . . . “1). In Philadelphia, an entire Holy Roller congregation, including “several young women”, was arrested on 29 October 1921 and held for $600 bail for disorderly conduct (“Policeman Break Up . . . ” 1). A York, Pennsylvania pastor and his followers were also taken into custody in September 1931. The fervent worshippers continued their shouting and dancing at the police station, and the city mayor was called from bed and sternly warned the group: “Now understand you can’t have any more such performances here. You had those people in a frenzy tonight; you might have driven them crazy. They did not even know who they were or what they were doing. No more of it.” The congregation lifted an offering to cover their pastor’s fine and was released (“Old Time Back Rolling Religion . . . ” 3).
In 1931, Rev A. O. Bell, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, complained to police about the “Holy Rollers of the Church of God” across the street from his assembly, complaining that his sermon could not be heard over the din of their worship. Bell staged a revival of his own, and police refused to get involved (“Holy Rollers Win . . . ” 11).
Carter G. Woodson, a renowned African American historian and the initiator of Black History Month, countered the criticism of Clarence Darrow, famed “Monkey Trial” attorney, who said that “the Negro emphasizes ‘narcotics’ or religion” by highlighting examples of the high-spirited Holy Rollerism of white “Holiness” churches. Woodson used the example of a white Church of God congregation in Huntington, West Virginia, “where they daily indulge in such whooping and screaming in ‘unknown tongues’ that the Negroes have had to report them to the police as a nuisance.” Woodson concludes: “I have made a carefully study of the Negro church, but I have never known Negroes to do anything to surpass this performance of these white heathen” (“The Negro Emphasizes . . . ” 9).
Today, the term Holy Roller is a veritable euphemism for Pentecostals. It is still primarily derogatory, implying all of the ugliness of religious extremism and fanaticism and has been widely applied in recent media to vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Despite its unbecoming origins and its consistent usage as a slur, it does characterize the emotive and powerful response of revival-minded Christians, recalling the days when Sanctified people did, in fact, roll on the floor. While we may not wear Holy Roller as a badge of honor, as Apostolics, we remain inextricably connected to the fiery faith attributed to earlier generations of Holiness and Pentecostal people who chose a passionate personal experience over dreary dogmatism and changed the face of worldwide Christianity with the power of Pentecost. We are still Holy Rollers!
“Bearded Angel Leads the Holy Rollers Here.” New York Times, 24 March 1905, pg. 16.
“Cut Her Child’s Hand Off. Act of a Mother Insane on Religion Victim May Recover.” New York Times, 12 April 1904, pg. 5.
“Holy Roller Sect Disturbers of Peace.” Chicago Defender, 27 September 1919, pg. 1.
“Holy Rollers Arrested.” Chicago Defender, 17 March 1917, pg. 9.
“Holy Rollers Enjoined.” New York Times, 9 Aug 1909, pg. 3.
“Holy Rollers Win in N.J. Noisefest, Police Hands Off.” Afro-American, 8 Aug 1931, pg. 11.
Leland, Charles G. Memoirs. London: William Heinemann, 1894. Pg. 216.
“The Negro Emphasizes ‘Narcotics’ of Religion. Whites as Emotional in Field of Religion as Negroes, Says Writer.” Philadelphia Tribune, 18 Jun 1931, pg. 9.
“Old Time Back Rolling Religion Irks York Cops.” Afro-American, 19 Sep 1931, pg. 3.
“Policemen Break Up Holy Roller Meeting. Chicago Defender, 30 Oct 1920, pg. 1.