Vermont cult of the 19th century: Pilgrims, prophets and pestilence

The route of the Vermont Pilgrims.

They were known as the Vermont Pilgrims and their quest for deliverance began in Woodstock in 1817.

As they followed a charismatic leader, Isaac Bullard, on his erratic pilgrimage to the “Promised Land,” the ragtag assemblage attracted considerable attention for its curious communal habits and contempt for social convention. All wealth and property was held in common by the members of the sect and traditional marriage pacts were scorned, with members co-habitating with other members to suit the whim of their leader. In "The Prophet and the Mummyjums,” writer F. Gerald Ham describes the back-to-basics lifestyle their culture instilled:

"The most distinguishing feature of the Pilgrims' faith was the extreme primitivism that pervaded every facet of their daily lives. As an apostle of Pentecostal simplicity, the Prophet was without a peer. He commanded his disciples to dispense with everything superfluous, 'avoiding all sinful inventions of men and devils in dress and luxurious food.' In addition to their bear skin girdles, on special occasions they wore sack cloth and ashes."

They subsisted on a meager diet of thin gruel as Bullard intended to have his followers “constantly fasting.” Forsaking dining utensils as a form of modern decadence, they sucked their nourishment through hollow reeds from a communal trough while standing. Ham elaborated on a further tenet of the bizarre sect:

"Not satisfied with these atavistic innovations, the red-bearded patriarch added an even more nauseating dimension to the apostolic faith — that of filth. In his Biblical researches Bullard found no injunction to wash, so he forbade his followers to bathe or to cut or comb their hair. Again Bullard set the example. The saints alleged that their leader had not changed his skins for seven years. 'They are made to believe,' declared one astounded onlooker, 'that their filthy and ragged dress, their frugal, dirty and badly cooked food are meritorious; and to crown the whole, their eating it amidst & mingled, with the most nauseous stench.'"

This self-denial was, their leader asserted, the clear and undeniable path to everlasting glory in the afterlife, a premise not unique to Bullard’s sect. In addition to their unusual communal habits the acolytes recited unintelligible chants, one of which was noted by the Shakers of New Lebanon, New York, when the cult visited their enclave: "My God, my God, my God, my God, What wouldst thou have me do? — Mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum, mummyjum."

Christianity had mutated in the fertile soil of America, and Vermonters would see several variations in the succeeding decades. There were the Dorrelites, a vegetarian sect in Windham County; the New Lights in Hardwick, who vexed Montpelier parson Chester Wright; and the Millerites, in Calais, who unsuccessfully predicted the end of the world with some regularity. According to Ham, few states in the union assayed higher in fanaticism than Vermont.

When Alex de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, he wrote of the “fanatical spiritualism” that was unlike anything he had witnessed in Europe.

"Here and there in the midst of American society you meet with men full of a fanatical and almost wild spiritualism, which hardly exists in Europe. From time to time strange sects arise which en-deavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States," he wrote.

Noted Ham, “It was from this religiously infectious atmosphere of evangelical revivalism tinged with the radical doctrines of millenarianism and perfectionism that the Vermont Pilgrims and their charismatic leader, the minor prophet Isaac Bullard, emerged.”

Bullard was a Canadian who came of age in the town of Ascot, Quebec, some 35 miles from the Vermont border. According to Zadock Thompson’s "History," Bullard suffered a long illness that “rendered him a visionary. He assumed the character of a Prophet, wore a leather girdle and rough garments” and began collecting disciples. Heading south with his troupe of believers, Bullard arrived in Woodstock, with just eight followers in tow, including his wife and son. Somehow, he recruited a Woodstock minister and his family to his cause and acquired their farm for his converts, ensuring sustainability for his movement.

While at the Peter Ball farm in South Woodstock he was able to recruit more believers for his religious cult. Thompson accused Bullard of “beguiling weak and unstable souls” from Woodstock and neighboring towns until the number of faithful reached 40, including a Methodist minister from Sherburne named Holmes. Woodstock, at the time, was in the throes of an evangelical revival in response to the horrific experiences of 1816, the year without summer.

Bullard believed he received divine instruction directly from almighty God and his acolytes followed every dictate that emanated from his lips. The property belonging to those who joined was forfeited to the order (worth approximately $10,000, according to Ham) and redistributed according to the prophet’s wishes. Thompson described other decisions affecting the congregants:

"The Prophet controlled at his will all their most intimate domestic relations, marrying and unmarrying, rewarding and punishing according to his sovereign pleasure; and none dared resist his authority or lisp a murmur of complaint. Filthiness they seemed to regard as a virtue; and they were frequently seen, even the adult females, rolling in the dirt of the highway, and presenting a spectacle as indecent and loathsome as can well be imagined."

Bullard called his throng to attention with a tap of the staff he carried, a gesture that was “well understood and instantly obeyed by his deluded followers.” When divine providence called the group to leave Woodstock, the residents of the town were understandably relieved.

By midsummer of 1817, the prophet announced that God had told him to lead his faithful disciples to the Promised Land. Their spontaneous leader plotted their journey by tossing his staff on the ground each morning and following the direction it pointed. Ham notes, “unerringly, the staff always pointed to the southwest.” From Woodstock, they slowly made their way through Rutland and Bennington counties where, reported a Brattleboro newspaper, they made more converts.

Seeking rest and refreshment at the Shaker enclave in New Lebanon, New York, they felt slighted when the celibate Shakers refused to allow Bullard and his men to lodge "promiscuously with their women." The Pilgrims contemptuously refused the Shakers' kind offer of food and lodging, and cursed and "prophesied judgments" against their would-be benefactors. The Shakers recorded the remarkable visit and also noted, “Some of the company, particularly the females were by travelling & fasting, reduced to great weakness ... and the whole company were very dirty & filthy; and by travelling in this manner they became very lousy."

To better proselytize their redeeming message, the Pilgrims divided into two groups, one to proceed down the Hudson River valley and the other to find a more western route through the Finger Lakes region. The Budget, a newspaper in Troy, New York, described their procession:

"Bringing up the rear, the women and children followed in Indian file, with five horse-drawn wagons loaded with a limited supply of bedding, food, cooking utensils, and other household goods. Along the route the rag-tail saints could be heard exhorting the Yankee inhabitants to repentance and a life of poverty, pronouncing anathemas upon the scattered villages and their unregenerate citizens, or dolefully chanting, 'Oh-a, Ho-a, Oh-a, Ho-a, Oh-a, Ho-a, My God, My God, My God.'"

While near Lake Cayuga the Pilgrims were visited by the Rev. Ira Chase and William Powers, two Baptist ministers. Chase wrote an account of their visit for the Essex Patriot in the spring of 1818. Powers had previously met the Rev. Ball, the Woodstock minister who joined the sect, and was curious to see how he fared with the cult.

"I requested him to give us an account of the rise and progress of their society. He was proceeding to tell when a man distinguished from the rest by an aspect peculiarly hideous and a thick red beard of superior length raised his voice. 'Joseph! I would rather that you ask that man why we are commanded not to be conformed to the world. I am terribly distressed!'

It was the Prophet! He rules the whole company as absolute monarch in all things secular and spiritual. He speaks and his word is with them, the word of the Lord."

Bullard then unleashed a torrent of abuse toward the two men, while writhing and twisting his body in agonizing contortions.

“Hell and damnation, hell and damnation is your portion if you don’t repent.” With this outcry the other pilgrims literally gnashed their teeth at the two Baptist preachers who began fearing for their safety. They were eventually rescued by the farmer who owned the land where the Pilgrims made their camp, according to Chase's account.

"We perceived it was in vain to attempt to reason with him or his followers; for whenever we began to speak our voice was drowned by the clamor which they raised. Mr. Ball seemed to be forced to acquiesce in the abuse of us."

They pleaded with their former colleague to take leave of the group but he refused. "I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord,” he replied.

The two groups reunited in Ohio in March of 1818 and, according to Ham, their numbers had grown to 55. Continuing south to Cincinnati, they began to suffer the predations of smallpox and traded their oxcarts for a flatboat to take them down the Mississippi.

Near New Madrid, Missouri, they landed on what became known as Pilgrim Island to settle in their Promised Land. Instead of finding milk and honey, they languished in pestilence and disease. Ham noted a vision from Bullard:

"In a macabre revelation Bullard was commanded to leave the dead unburied on the beach; a year later Flint observed their bones bleaching on the island. With worsening conditions, the Prophet's autocratic rule became intolerable, and during the summer of 1818 some of his most valued members deserted."

One deserter was from Woodstock. William Drew’s wife, Dolly, had made the arduous journey south and then thought better of it. According to Dana’s "History of Woodstock," she left the sect and “found her way back at last, afoot and alone. Her husband told her she was welcome to a place in the house, if she wished, but he could not receive her again as his wife.”

Woodstock parson Peter Ball and his wife, Fanny, became similarly disenchanted with their delusional leader. They left Bullard and joined the Shaker community at Union Village, Ohio, where they lived out their remaining days.

In a last ditch effort for salvation, Bullard boarded the remaining pilgrims on their barge and continued down the Mississippi until the flat-bottomed boat became lodged on a sand bar where the remaining 15 faithful waded to shore. After misadventures at Port Arkansas, 60 miles west of the river, they returned to the site where they had left their boat. An 1820 report cited by Ham has Bullard seized by the crew of a river boat and “forcibly shaved, washed, and dressed.” Ham closes his account:

"The last recorded contact with the Pilgrims was in 1824. On a trip to New Orleans, Colonel John Hunt of Warren County, Ohio, stopped to see the last remnants of the sect. He found two young, intelligent, and interesting women (presumably one was the Prophet's wife) dressed in rags and sitting in a hut made of cane reed, bark, and boards. The visitor offered to pay their passage to Cincinnati if they desired to return to their native New England, but the women were steadfast in their faith in the Prophet's revelations. Having at long last found the Promised Land, they told Hunt 'nothing on earth would induce them to leave it.'"

From the perspective of the 21st century, it is easy to dismiss the excesses of our Christian forbears as so much naïve foolishness. But the more recent examples of the Moonies, the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult, and the bizarre pronouncements of the Westboro Baptist Church remind us that religious insanity is still part of our cultural inheritance.

'From Barre to Montpelier' debuts

Paul Heller’s latest book, "From Barre to Montpelier," is now on sale.  Most of the pieces were first published in The Times Argus and cover early 20th century happenings in central Vermont.

A former Barre innkeeper and retired librarian, Heller enjoys tracking down unusual and decidedly odd moments in local history and credits the librarians at the Vermont Historical Society with steering him toward some of the more remarkable local events. The book is now on sale at Next Chapter Books, Bear Pond Books, and at the Vermont Historical Society. Kindle and paperback editions are also available via amazon.com.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.