Segment from Born Again

You Gotta Have Faith

Historian Thomas Kidd shares the story of Mercy Wheeler, who rose and walked after being bedridden for 20 years, and explains the controversy over her miraculous recovery.

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BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Hey, Brian, Peter.

BRIAN: We’re going to begin today in the early 1700s. That’s when pastors in New Englandstarted worrying that young people were turning away from God.

THOMAS KIDD: So there was a sense that they needed what they called a revival of religion.

ED: This is Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University. He says these pastors started prayingfor something big to happen where people would renew the relationships with Jesus and takeup the cause of spreading the faith.

THOMAS KIDD: And it’s one of those classic historical chicken and egg questions. They startpraying a lot for revival to come, and guess what, it comes. And so whatever you think aboutprayer, they sure were talking about revival an awful lot, and it comes in force starting in the1730s.

PETER: This upsurge or Protestant energy in the 1730s and 1740s came to be known as theFirst Great Awakening. And it played out in an especially interesting way for a woman inPlainfield, Connecticut by the name of Mercy Wheeler.

ED: When Mercy was 20 years old– this was in the mid-1720s– she fell ill with the burningague, something like malaria. A looseness in her joints left her unable to walk and sometimes toweak to speak.

On her worst days, her family couldn’t be sure she was even alive. And this went on for years.But mercy also had periods of clarity. In those times, she devoted herself to reading the bible.

THOMAS KIDD: She begins to wonder if it was possible that as she read in the Gospels, andthe New Testament, and in the Book of Acts where there are routine reports, especially inChrist’s ministry of miraculous healings, she begins to think through whether she might receivea miraculous healing.

PETER: 17 years after becoming bedridden, Mercy Wheeler was still focused on this notion thatGod might heal her. In 1743 she set up a revival meeting in her home and invited a visitingminister to preach a sermon. But when that meeting finally arrived, Mercy began to get a littlenervous.

THOMAS KIDD: She is going through some turmoil in her own mind because she’s waiting,she’s thinking well, maybe I was presumptuous, maybe it’s not going to happen. The meetingis continuing on and she’s waiting and not much seems to be happening.

ED: Then suddenly everything changed. Powerful Bible passages flashed across Mercy’s mind.

THOMAS KIDD: One of them is to the effect of if you will believe you will see the Glory of God.And she starts hearing that repeated in her mind. And then she starts to involuntarily, as shedescribed it, shake, and she starts to feel a kind of warmth of power that’s coursing throughher body.

She starts to feel her joints tightening up, and then sure enough she is able to stand up andstart walking around the room. And everybody is just totally stunned.

ED: Everybody, including the guest preacher who didn’t see it coming at all.

THOMAS KIDD: Yeah, he tells her to sit down. He says that she’s in a frenzy– that’s the termthat he uses. And he says, what are you doing? You need to sit down. This is dangerous. Youcan’t walk.

ED: But Mercy could walk. And she continued to walk up until she died in 1796 at the age of90.

PETER: Now, you might think that those clergyman who had prayed for the renewal of NewEnglanders’ faith would celebrate such an amazing story. But when, with the help of her parishminister, Mercy Wheeler published her story and it’s circulated in print, it encountered a bit of adifferent response.

And that’s because Protestants in the modern age believed that God’s work now manifesteditself in natural ways, and spontaneous healing didn’t fit that mold. Again, Thomas Kidd.

ED: There’s a tension about how much we should reasonably expect the revivals to be full ofwonders and amazing things happening and unexpected developments, up to and includingthings the seem miraculous.

PETER: Visions of Jesus, leading icons, these were the sorts of things that conservativeProtestants scorned. They saw them as Catholic trickery. But radical revivalists celebratedMercy’s story, and debates about its legitimacy swirled in Boston newspapers for decades.

ED: Miracle or not, Mercy’s story got attention, which when you think about it is notable in itsown right. Here is a woman with no religious authority who had interpreted the Bible, publisheda testimony, and inside it, a theological debate.

Thomas Kidd says that Mercy’s story illuminates a shift in religious authority that took placeduring the First Great Awakening. It was a revival movement that democratized religion, givingpowerful voice to all kinds of individuals.

THOMAS KIDD: Where in 18th century America can women and African Americans, and slavesand Native Americans and children voice their most strongly felt opinions and testify about theirexperiences and be taken seriously in public. There is no other venue but revivalist Christianitythat they can do that.

ED: It’s Easter season, a time for renewal, reflection and rebirth. While eggs, bunnies and othersymbols of spring time fill the shopping aisles, for Christians this is the season when Christ’sResurrection is celebrated. It’s a time for recommitment to the founding principles of theChristian faith.

Cycles of renewal, in fact, define much of American religious history. Throughout our past wecan identify periodic upswings of religious energy. And today on the show, we’re going toexplore these seasons of revival.

BRIAN: We’ll consider a few of the most prominent leaders of revival movements, like BillyGraham who has provided counsel to half a century’s worth of American presidents. AndAimee Semple McPherson, a master of modern media in the pre-television age. We’ll also hearstories of charismatic leaders from earlier eras.


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Born Again Lesson Set

Note to teachers:

The lesson materials that follow focus on helping students become discriminating readers of text material, learning the value of reading widely and critically in order to frame questions and evidence-based perspectives. The materials are designed to help students learn to write concisely and persuasively. They also give students an opportunity to discover how things change and how they remain the same, often differing more in the words and media used than in the purpose and message.

The materials and activities in this lesson ask students to look critically at the words chosen to convey the message, the context in which information is presented, and the effect these choices have on their understanding and feelings about individuals and their times. As students read critically to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful questions, they will engage in reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation. The materials provided include primary sources from the 1920s and 1930s as well as history and biography from 1931 to 2015. Students are asked to consider how these accounts differ in regard to word choice, descriptions of the time period, and the impressions created by the writings. Change over time can be observed in evolving narratives constructed from available sources, cogent inferences, and changing interpretation.