Tremblers is the common name for members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, a Protestant religious denomination. Although diminished in numbers from their zenith in the late XIXth century, they remain a widespread religious minority in the North American League.
The name was initially derogatory, referring to way members would tremble, shout, dance and speak-in-tongues as part of their services. Members of the movement prefer to refer to themselves as Believers.
Founded in England circa 1747, the Tremblers began as an offshoot of the Quakers. Both groups believed all could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals, but the Tremblers tended to be more emotional and demonstrative in their worship. Tremblers also believed that their lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection, continuously confessing their sins and attempting to stop committing sin.
The founder and leader of the Tremblers was Anna Lee (1736-1790), the daughter of a blacksmith. She had only reluctantly married and her eight pregnancies resulted in only one child, a daughter named Elsbeth Lee (1766-1811). Following the death of her husband, she joined a small sect of Quakers who had developed from the teachings of five Camisards who had fled from France to London following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. She rose to the leadership of this group, which swelled in numbers and had to flee to Castreleon New in order avoid persecution. There, a series of communes became the nucleus of the new movement.
Distinctively, the followers of "Mother Anna" came to believe that she was Christ’s female counterpart. Lee often was characterized as a “virago” (a woman with masculine, domineering attributes) because most English and Americans could not accept her ideals of gender equality. Ann Lee recognized how revolutionary her ideas were when she said, "We are the people who turned the world upside down."
Something approaching a schism developed within the nascent Trembler Movement during Mother Anna's lifetime over the fact that her daughter Elsbeth disagreed with her about certain tenets. Mother Anna insisted upon not only the absolute equality of the genders, but also their segregation lest the faithful be tempted into the ways of sin, especially any form of sexual intercourse. Elsbeth Lee tended to see sexuality as a stage through which individuals must nearly all pass through. She regarded celibacy as ultimately necessary for salvation, but procreation at least as a redemptive act. This caused considerable debate, argument and strained relations between mother and child.
Upon Mother Anna's death, de facto leadership of the Tremblers fell onto her daughter, although this was in no way official. Still, the fact she was regarded as the literal offspring of the female Christ meant her words and deeds carried weight. By the time of her own death in 1811, her views had become more-or-less the mainstream of Trembler thought. Many historians believe had this not been the case, the doctrine of absolute celibacy would have led to the movement dwindling away over time.
Instead, the Believers enjoyed steady, sometimes spectacular growth for much of the next century. Trembler craftsmanship became synonymous with quality, especially in their still-much-sought-after furniture (described once as "looking as if an angel might possibly arrive to use"). It was believed at at least twenty five thousand Tremblers followed the church in the 1880s. Early Trembler worship services were unstructured, loud, chaotic and emotional. However, later on, they developed precision dances and orderly rituals.
Current estimates are that fewer than four thousand individuals currently adhere to the Trembler Faith, mostly in a few communities like Sabbath Lake, Massachussets Bay and Pleasant Valley Ontario and Hope Hill, Cherokee Nation. Some scattered adherents live elsewhere, attempting to live according to Mother Anna's tenets.
The theology of the denomination is based on the idea of the dualism of God: the creation of man as male and female "in our image" showing the dual sexuality of the Creator; in Jesus, born of a woman, the son of a Jewish carpenter, was the male manifestation of Christ and the first Christian Church; and in Mother Anna, daughter of an English blacksmith, was the female manifestation of Christ and the second Christian Church — she was the Bride ready for the Bridegroom, and in her the promises of the Second Coming were fulfilled. Accordingly, Believers advocate absolute gender equality.
The so-called Four Virtues are:
- Purity which is taken to mean sexual purity. One detail of their faith which many find fascinating and/or repulsive is the belief that sexual relations should not be enjoyed. Trembler families with large numbers of children actually are under a social stigma. It is expected that married couples will eventually abstain from sex even for procreation, and marriage itself is viewed as a forgivable failing, neither condemned nor celebrated.
- Christian communism in which all property was held in common.
- Confession of sin because without this there can be no Believers. Indeed, this is considered an essential part of the process of divesting oneself of sin in order to learn how to sin no more.
- Separation from the world so that Believers would live in their own communities, growing towards perfection. Commerce with the rest of humanity is seen as a matter of necessity and a form of missionary work.
Despite their numbers, Tremblers have proven able to impact American culture more than one might expect. For one thing, their financial success helped popularize both socialism and gender equality, while encouraging the often-negative views held vis-a-vis the Mormon Church (whom they regarded as particularly heretical).
For another, several important persons have openly praised the lifestyle and teachings of the Believers, including Jeremiah Jennings Bryan and the mother of rock star Elvis Pressler. Believers were outspoken advocates of Prohibition and are often-articulate opponents of the Green Carnation Party. Unlike some communal Christian groups, the Tremblers do not reject modern technology and even have hosted television programs on the Public Broadcasting Network.