In January 1886, a most extraordinary story appeared in the London Times. A parish Rector wrote about a strange occurrence that happened for several months, the previous year, in San Salvador, Bahamas. Young girls were being entranced by some unseen force. They were frothing at mouth, barking like dogs and seeing visions. News of the religious hysteria swept across England and to America. It made San Salvador internationally famous for while, for something other than, Columbus’s landing.
It would appear that girls were negroes belonging to the Baptist religion, which in 1885-1886 was considered a minor sect. Every minor religious denomination, in the islands, at that time, were considered sects, as the Anglican faith, was the official religion of Britain and their West Indian colonies.
The visions started with one girl, soon there were twenty, and then hundreds started believing…
STRANGE VISIONS OF YOUNG GIRLS.
Remarkable Outbreak of religious enthusiasm in the Bahamas.
San Salvador, Bahamas, November 3, — A remarkable outbreak of religious hallucinations occurred on this Island this year . About January last a report was out that a young girl had seen visions and was under influence not belonging to this world. Her excitement soon communicated itself to others, and in the course of a few weeks some twenty young girls were affected. They then organised religious meetings, and much excitement was caused.
I went once to see what took place at these meetings. About fifty people sat around in a room singing, clapping hands, and stamping the feet, keeping time to a kind of a monotonic chat. The girls who saw visions were standing in the centre, sometimes walking up and down. They had a vacant kind of stare. Gradually the singing quickened, until at last it became fast and furious. Then the girls would dance, shout, and bark like dogs.
After twenty minutes of this they would fall down with shriek. Their struggles, cries, and foaming at the mouth were dreadful to see, and in many cases it took four or five men to hold them still. After the fit was over they would lie exhausted for about one hour; then, when they came to, they gave very detailed accounts of the visions they had seen.
A great deal of these provisions was, of course, nonsense, but one thing was remarkable they spoke of people doing things many miles away from the place. Upon enquiry it was found that in some cases what they had seen corresponded exactly with the events.
One most remarkable feature in this outbreak was that it was not confined to one spot. Almost simultaneously in every settlement on the island (the island is forty-five miles long and twelve miles broad in places) similar outbreaks occurred. Girls living at distances of five or ten miles from the scene of the “shouting meetings,” as they were called, would be seized with the kind of frenzy, they would run, as if by inspiration, to the spot where the rest were assembled, no matter how far.
Most of those attacked with the fits were people who belong to the Baptist society. Consequently their visions were not of the Madonna, but of the distinctive predestination doctrines of their sect. Very glowing accounts were given of the various punishment and tortures reserved for the wicked in hell, and they were most liberal in dispensing these punishments among their friends.
Up and down the island about 400 or 500 people were seized, and it was at first thought it was a kind of epidemic of hysteria. In a few cases girls of highly respectable character were seized, and, although they did not see visions, yet for weeks they would have fits daily, and such was there superhuman strength that I have seen a young girl of 16 struggle out of the grasp of four strong men. The outbreak lasted from January to July, and at one time it was feared that it would lead to serious consequences, for all the people who gave credence to the visions neglected work and abandon themselves to holding meetings day and night for singing, shouting, barking, and listening to accounts of the visions seen.
In the daytime, and especially on Sundays, they had processions with banners. This led to some bad feeling, and in a few cases the law had to be appealed to in the interests of peace. It was a singular thing that, although they organise themselves into a sect, and all who displayed in the visions were “heretics,” yet they showed the upmost courtesy and goodwill towards the church, but towards their own particular denomination and the various other sects they displayed animosity. The excitement has died down now, and they have ceased to exist as a sect.
P. Barrow Matthews,
Rector, San Salvador, Nassau Diocese.