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Holy Rollers: PA's strange religious sect

Many of us have heard the term "holy roller". Over the years it has come to mean a term for anyone who is particularly zealous in their religious beliefs. However, this term stems from the dismissive name given to members of a peculiar group of religious practitioners who lived in northwestern Pennsylvania during the late 19th century.

The strange behavior of the "Holy Rollers" was well known throughout the country, as the following article demonstrates. The following article comes from the St. Louis Dispatch on March 29, 1896.

Scattered over Crawford, Erie and Warren Counties, Pennsylvania, and Chautauqua County, New York, is a curious band of religious enthusiasts calling themselves the "Holy Band". They are about two hundred of them. Their headquarters at at Elgin, Pa. There the leaders are stationed and religious services are held. These are so many that one meeting is scarcely dismissed before another is called.

The meetings have been held nightly in the Disciple Church at Elgin, and the curious country people come in throngs to witness the conduct of the "Holy Rollers", as they have profanely dubbed them.

The services are unique. They are opened by the leader, who commences quietly enough. He rapidly becomes animated and is soon going through the wildest contortions. He leaps in the air, shouts, pounds the floor with his fists, runs around the church at frantic speed, and often falls and lies upon the floor for hours. As soon as, through exhaustion, he is unable to continue, another member takes his place, and so this wild work is continued, sometimes until morning.

Often some member of the band will prostrate himself on the floor and hiss like a snake, or do equally unusual things. One of the features of their service is the "holy kiss". It is a common sight to see men and women wildly kissing and embracing each other in public.

Believing the churches to be useless, they have severed their connection with them and have organized themselves into this "Holiness band". Their creed is simple and brief. They believe in complete holiness and look upon and speak of themselves as holy "saints".

They believe the sanctified often go into a trance and visit the abode of departed saints, there to hold sweet communion with the spirits. The term the condition a "burden" or rather that the burden of sinners falls upon them and that while in this condition they represent (by falling prostrate, rolling upon the floor and walking upon hands and feet) the sinner and are able to portray him his besettling sins so that he will overcome and fall prostrate. Moreover, they think that by lying in this condition, sometimes for hours, in agony, the sinner comes out, saved and shouting, a full-fledged Christian.

If the sinner is extremely wicked the person who is bearing the "burden" will bark like a dog, snap and froth at the mouth, hiss like a snake or in some way depict the lowness of his nature until he is prostrated. These queer people receive no one into their band who belongs to any secret order or uses tobacco or intoxicating liquors. It is regarded as a heinous sin. Members are not allowed to wear jewelry, feathers or ornaments or any description upon their persons.

The band was organized at Elgin, Pa., about six years ago by Alvin Cordiner, a religious enthusiast, who lives about three miles from Elgin. The present leader is C.W. Sommers, a man who, outside of his belief, is a benevolent, kind and rational being.

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