Skip to main content

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Mount Carmel's Mysterious Suicide Cell

Tucked away at the head of North Oak Street in Mount Carmel is a quaint shop housed in a tiny historic brick building. The Shop at Oak & Avenue is a must-see destination for visitors, offering an impressive variety of gifts and handmade jewelry. It is a gem in an otherwise drab coal town whose glory days faded away with the demise of the steam locomotive and the trolley.

While this quaint small town gift shop gives off a pleasant appearance, the history of the building-- one of the oldest in the borough-- is tinged with horror and death. For this tiny building, erected in the 1880s, served as Mount Carmel's first city hall and jail, and this jail had a rather dark distinction of being the site of the cursed and mysterious "suicide cell".

History records six suicides taking place in the basement cell, along with scores of other attempted suicides. For a reason that has defied explanation, this tiny jail in this tiny town seems to bring out the darkest demons lurking wi…

The True Story of Shamokin's Famous "Mystery Head"

Hardly a week goes by that I don't receive an email from a Pennsylvania Oddities reader asking me to write about the Shamokin "mystery head"-- yes, the very same human head, complete with curly hair and mustache, that was put on display in the window of the Farrow Funeral Home (presumably to show off the establishment's embalming abilities) and later displayed at a local mining museum. The head belonged to an unidentified murder victim whose headless body was found in the woods near the Hickory Ridge colliery in 1904, and the head has been a source of local pride and urban legend ever since.

I've resisted the urge to write about the "mystery head" for a few reasons. Having grown up in the area, I heard about it so many times that the story has worn thin. Secondly, the erroneous local legends and false claims are probably a lot more entertaining than the actual truth about the "mystery head". These local legends run the gamut from plausible to …

Mount Carmel's Night of Terror: The Strantz & Yorkavage Crime Spree of 1937

On the evening of April 9, 1937, two bandits with their guns blazing left a trail of carnage through the sooty streets of Mount Carmel and Shamokin. For one of the gunmen, the trail came to a bloody end in Diamondtown after a shootout with police. For the other gunman, the trail led to the electric chair at Rockview State Penitentiary, with 2,000 volts of electricity coursing through his body.



The Ballad of Joe Cabbage and Wild Wally

A reunion of sorts took place in January of 1937, after Joseph Yorkavage was paroled from the Northumberland County Prison in Sunbury. Known to his friends as "Joe Cabbage", the notorious ruffian was released on the 25th and, oddly enough, this was the very same day Yorkavage's best friend, Walter Strantz, was paroled from the infamous Eastern State penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Back in 1919, "Joe Cabbage" was one of three men who staged a failed train robbery in Centralia. The three men dynamited the tracks and then hid in the bus…