Convulsed States

Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America

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Jonathan Todd Hancock
  • Chapel Hill: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     204 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The years 1811 and 1812 featured some of the most violence that earthquakes experienced around the Missouri Bootheel, along the New Madrid Fault, ever recorded in American history. In addition to these earthquakes, other natural disasters affected the lives of the peoples living in these regions, ranging from flooding to crop shortages, as well as droughts and a menacing comet in the sky. In the wake of these frightful displays of nature’s power, white, black, and indigenous inhabitants of the Trans-Appalachian West sought to make sense of these events and in the process transformed their lives and worldviews. Jonathan Todd Hancock’s Convulsed States: Earthquakes, Prophecy, and the Remaking of Early America seeks to understand how these historical actors responded to the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812 and how their reactions shaped the future of the young American republic.

While earlier scholarship on the religiosity of the Trans-Appalachian frontier has often noted the outbreak of revivals sparked by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812, Hancock’s work is the most comprehensive study produced to date. Among the most praiseworthy elements of Convulsed States is Hancock’s comparative approach, bringing together white, black, and indigenous reactions in concert with one another and seeing the various religious responses in conjunction with each other and a part of a larger singular phenomenon. As Hancock explains, despite their unique qualities and traditions, both white and indigenous populations drew deeply religious meanings stemming from the New Madrid earthquakes--meanings that would inevitably clash with one another during the War of 1812. Much like how Linford D. Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening (Oxford University Press, 2012) argued for a reassessment of the First Great Awakening, Hancock’s Convulsed States suggests a reexamination of the Second Great Awakening, perhaps even a renaming to the more appropriate and pluralistic Second Great Awakenings.

In telling this multidimensional story of rival religious awakenings, the sheer amount of archival material Hancock utilized is truly impressive. Some of the archives range from large public state archives to smaller holdings at regional liberal arts colleges, as well as private collections and oral traditions. Students of American religious history in the early republic will benefit greatly from closely examining his endnotes and following some of the trails he has paved into underutilized regional and smaller archives, neglected church collections, and indigenous materials often overlooked by previous generations of scholars. Yet, Hancock’s most impressive discovery relates to the often-told story concerning Tecumseh’s foot stomping as the source of the earthquakes to display his superhuman power and form a Pan-Indian alliance under his command. As Hancock explains, despite the story’s legendary status, scholars have long wrestled with figuring out its origin and relatability. But in a letter discovered in the Peabody Essex Museum, four years prior to the earthquakes, Tecumseh’s brother, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, proclaimed the ability to “change the course of nature” and that “all the unbelievers shall be utterly destroyed (pg. 1).” Given the renewed interest in Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, and their Pan-Indian resistance movement, this remarkable find will undoubtedly have major consequences for future research.

Hancock’s study also provides incredibly exciting opportunities for future scholars of religion and war to investigate the role religion played in the War of 1812. Within the wider scope of military history, the War of 1812 has always been an understudied topic, and religion’s role in shaping and characterizing the war remains an overlooked component. As Convulsed States chronicles, just as membership in the Methodist and Baptist churches were booming, so too was the nation preparing for war with Britain, a point Hancock teases out to great effect. Despite the scores of monographs and journals that examine how religion shaped the terms of the American Revolution and the Civil War, Hancock joins William Gribbin’s The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion (Yale University Press, 1968) and Adam Jortner’s The Gods of Prophetstown (Oxford University Press, 2012) as one of few texts to treat the War of 1812. Even so, Hancock’s work is squarely focused on the New Madrid earthquakes, which makes one hope he might help inspire a religious history of the War of 1812.

One of the most refreshing and interesting aspects of Hancock’s study is his challenge to the simplistic binaries that have emerged in recent years when studying conflict between white and indigenous Americans. Hancock stresses that much like there was a diversity of responses to the New Madrid earthquakes, there was also a diversity in how white settlers and indigenous peoples interacted with one another, and, more importantly, a multitude of ways Native peoples could resist white encroachment on their land. Because the Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, have so dominated narratives concerning indigenous resistance, Hancock pushes back against the characterization that those who refused to join their movement were simply “accommodationist.” Just as they resisted domination by white settlers, indigenous communities also defied the demands made on them by the Shawnee resistance movement, desiring to assert their own national, cultural, and religious autonomy as Cherokee, Creek, and Shawnee communities. Because of this, Convulsed States helpfully demonstrates the external and internal dilemmas facing Native peoples in the Early Republican era and offers a much more complex narrative than is often told.

Convulsed States is an incredibly impressive debut monograph, one that will benefit greatly the religious historians of the early American republic. Hancock should be applauded for his exhaustive archival research and careful examination of the varieties and nuances of Christian and Native religiosity. By using the New Madrid earthquakes as a window into the world of early Americans, Hancock demonstrates how religion remained a powerful vehicle in the struggle for the North American continent.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel N. Gullotta is a PhD candidate in American religious history at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
August 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan Todd Hancock is associate professor of history at Hendrix College.


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