Devotional somnium: this was the proposed medical diagnosis of one Rachel Baker, nineteen years old in 1813, who was seized with the affliction—or blessing, depending on one’s perspective—of preaching in her sleep.
“The fit invades her at nine o’clock in the evening or about ordinary bed time,” wrote Charles Mais, a stenographer charged with recording her somniloquies. Agitated, breathing heavily, she slips out of consciousness. Then she begins to speak. As Mais observed, “Her sentimentals are biblical and conformable to the orthodox protestantism of her sect. Her opinions delivered during the paroxysm… are as sensible, intelligent, and indicative of thought as you generally hear.”
Opium, bloodletting, and fresh ocean air were tried to no avail; her physicians could not stem the tide of the sermons. At the same time, word spread of her strange affliction. As Mais recounts,
[E]very evening her fit was renewed…This might possibly be caused by the multitudes who crowded into her chamber to learn for themselves. Curiosity was so strong, that…many persons followed her out of town to the place of resting until the morn, that they might witness the spectacle, not of a waking preacher and a drowsy audience, but of a preacher abstracted from outward things, holding forth to a wondering and staring company.
Indeed, the young Rachel Baker had become something of a public spectacle. One magazine reported that even the doctors started to set her bed in a room where audiences could gather to witness her reverential fits.
As odd as her condition seems, Baker’s case was far from unprecedented. In 1605, one Richard Haydocke made a splash with his Puritanical sleep-sermons until uncomfortable scrutiny from King James obliged him to declare himself a fraud. A letter sent from Geneva in 1689 recounts a strange story of a shepherdess and a gaggle of young children all seized with sleep-prophecy—or, as the writer puts it, “two or three hundred young Prophets, like Mushromes, spring up all in a Night.” The Finnish sleep-preacher Anna Rogel drew far-flung admirers to her sleepy village in the 1700s, and the American sleep-preacher Betsy Merrill seems to have come very close to starting a minor cult in the early 1800s. “[I]n modern times,” one magazine proclaimed, “a SLEEPING PREACHER is no longer a novelty.”
There’s a theme in many of these cases: sleep-preachers were often, though not exclusively, female, rural, poor, and uneducated. They were the exact people who, by the orthodoxy of the day, shouldn’t have been holding forth in the pulpit. Was sleep-preaching simply an ingenious way around these social restrictions?
You could see it that way, but the women who practiced it probably wouldn’t have agreed with you. As Mais writes of Baker, “her waking belief is, that it is not apostolical for a woman to be a public teacher of holy things.”
We can see this dynamic at play in the case of the Finnish sleep-preacher Helena Kontinnen, a descendent of Anna Rogel’s, who began to gather followers a few decades after Baker’s case had faded from the headlines. After a powerful religious experience, Kontinnen spent six tormented months attempting to resist the call to preach, convinced that, as a woman, it was not her place—but she couldn’t hold back; the words simply began to pour out of her in her sleep.
As Kirsi Stjerna writes in her insightful study of the phenomenon, “Finnish Sleep-Preachers: An Example of Women’s Spiritual Power,”
It must be more than coincidence that so many Christian mystics and prophets have been women who relied on spiritual empowerment…as opposed to formal education or official church training. But can we explain this mainly from oppressive circumstances, that some sort of “deprivation” or “social stress” triggers women’s apparently emancipatory ecstatic experiences as a way to assert themselves…?
Stjerna argues that the phenomenon may be viewed from a “more positive perspective,” suggesting that the spiritual “gifts, inclinations or privileges” need not stem from social oppression or an inner struggle.
These cases seem to have fallen to an odd middle ground, somewhere between the medical and the miraculous. The doctors of the day tended to diagnose these women as hysterics. As for the crowds, some probably saw these women as saints, others as sideshows.
Today, we might make a different diagnosis, pinning the pathology on a society that had no place for a woman who was talented, ambitious, and poor. But to the people who actually experienced sleep-preaching, it seems that something more mysterious was happening— something numinous, and powerful, and beyond their conscious control.