Long before Howard Dean howled in Iowa, Quakers in East Jersey were “tainted with the Ranting Spirit.” They “howled” their members into a dissident clique of flailing shouters and whooping wailers, whose religious power was located not in any particular doctrine but in the hard, almost maniacal edge of their voices. Among their buttoned-up neighbors, the Puritans, these folks were considered possessed in 1675.

But what’s interesting, observes Richard Rath in this fascinating study, How Early America Sounded, is that all sounds in those days indicated possession. Just as the noises we make when talking are considered the articulations of intelligence, so the sounds of thunder or church bells were understood by early Americans to be the products of spiritual, not mechanical, forces. They were active, not passive emanations.

“Sounds did things in the world,” Rath writes. “They moved people about, struck them, and in the case of thunder, actually killed.”

Yes, according to early Americans, thunder struck, not lightning, a conclusion Rath attributes to their heightened social sensitivity to sound. Until the 18th century, he writes, thunder was the terrible noise of God. When Increase Mather described the death by “thunderbolt” of an unfortunate Captain Davenport, his judgment was echoed by a Quaker, who celebrated Davenport’s demise as the “sounding of God’s Voice from heaven.”

Rath connects the myriad ways in which sounds exerted social influence. He writes of how church bells were sometimes baptized. Even when the practice fell from favor, bells remained the focus of early communities, the sound of their peals marking a settlement’s boundaries. Bells were rung to call citizens to meetings or to warn of attacks. To live outside earshot was to live dangerously outside the control and protection of the government.


How Early America Sounded by Richard Rath (Cornell University, 227 pages)
Christian Science Monitor, March 2004