All kinds of manias have gripped the public mind, from time to time. And that definitely includes religious manias. Luckily, some of the most intense, and intensely scary, religious movements were also some of the most short-lived. Here are eight religious movements that were flashes in the pan.
It's not that Savonarola didn't have a point. He lived at a time when the Catholic church had become a con, a way for those in power to extort money from the poor to buy political influence and luxury — not always in that order. Many people had gotten the idea that you were doing some service for God by building yourself a pretty house and filling it with pretty art of even prettier half-naked women. Savonarola preached about turning away from the frippery of the world and turning to faith. (He also got a following by being a proud Florentine. His sermons always contained a hint that, after a purge, Florence as a godly city would rise over a corrupt Rome.)
Then things got scary. People would go to his speeches and, seized with a kind of hysteria, and run home to destroy everything pretty in their house. Painters, including Botticelli, burned their own work. Some painters were simply too afraid to do any new work. Once people were done ridding themselves of their beautiful possessions, they turned their eye on their neighbors. We think of the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, as an event at which people hurled their own fine clothes and artworks (and even pets) into the fire, but in truth, many were throwing in the property of their immoral neighbors — which had been collected by gangs of children that went around pounding on doors and searching houses.
A fire was Savonarola's greatest achievement, but it also brought him down. As time went on, people got tired of the neverending condemnation and the growing fear. Everyone knew that, by setting himself up against the "extravagant" church Savonarola had made powerful enemies, but they needed a way to break the man's mystique before they could bring him down. A rival Florentine preacher provided them with a way. He challenged Savonarola to a "trial by fire." Either unable to see his way out, or so delusional that he thought he wouldn't actually burn, Savonarola accepted. He failed. Within a few short weeks he was jailed, tortured, and executed.
The Convent of St Ambrose, in Rome, was founded by a nun named Agnese Firrao. She was known to be strenuously pious, mortifying her flesh in a way that was, by the mid-1800s, a little old-fashioned. She would do things like wear a metal mask with inward-facing nails, or keep a heavy stone on her tongue. Then she took the stone off her tongue, and things really got bad. Prophesying and healing the sick, she became more and more popular — and more and more scandalous. The church fathers had her transferred and that was that.
Except it wasn't. If anything, it encouraged the Cult of Saint Agnese. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and covers up the flaws. Through her letters to Sister Maria Luisa, Agnese convinced everyone at her old convent she was a saint. She convinced them of a few other things as well. The nuns were a contemplative order, and had very little contact with the outside world. This is a shame, because contact with the outside world might have helped new novices realize that initiation into a convent shouldn't involve large amounts of oral sex with the mistress of novices. Perhaps a more open atmosphere would have given the first three nuns Maria Luisa turned on a chance to get away before they were poisoned to death. It was only when Maria Luisa tried to kill a German princess, who had come to the convent to live the quiet life but still had powerful friends, that things stopped. The church investigated, scattered the surviving nuns, and knocked the convent to the ground.
The Great Disappointment was a dangerous idea that got more dangerous after it was disproved. William Miller believed two things - that the faithful would ascend to God in 1844 and that anyone who didn't believe his teachings by 1844 would be locked out of Heaven forever. It was called shut-door theology and it cut no one any slack.
For some followers, knowing the year the world would end just wasn't enough. They needed an exact date, and a Millerite preacher named Samuel Snow gave it to them. He decided that the door would shut on October 22, 1844. People like specificity, and soon everyone in the Millerite movement came around to Snow's way of thinking. They eagerly awaited October 22nd. One man actually climbed up onto a barn roof and jumped at midnight. He literally hit the ground. The other followers metaphorically did.
The event, called The Great Disappointment, was dangerous enough. Even more dangerous days followed it. The Millerites found out that their fellow Americans did not care for being told they were going to Hell — and that they felt free to express their anger as soon as they were sure they wouldn't go to Hell for it. People shouted at Millerites, threw rocks and garbage at them, and sometimes chased after them in mobs. The group, heartbroken and afraid, split up into different movements.
There isn't much detail in this story, but that only means it needs to be fleshed out more — perhaps in a fantastic horror movie. Most religious manias tend to be instigated by people who think they are doing God's work. This one seems to come from people who believe they're not on God's side. In the 15th century, a nun in a convent in Germany started biting her fellows. Soon, her fellows were also biting. The behavior spread across Germany, into Holland, and down into Italy. Some considered it simply foolish, but others thought it was demonic.
During the same time period, in Italy, nuns at a convent starting meowing. This was not considered acceptable behavior, because cats, though necessary to control rats populations, were associated with the devil. People did not want cats as pets, and likening yourself to a cat meant you were in league with someone who definitely wasn't on the side of the angels. So throughout Europe, convents were apparently stalked by yowling, biting nuns. The mania wound itself up and then died back down, apparently forever.
The Millerites weren't playing it smart when they predicted the apocalypse, but they played it smarter than the Morrisites did. In 1857, Joseph Morris joined the Mormons. He started his own sect — a sect that built up a following, went out to Utah in 1861, and believed Morris's prediction that the world would end by 1862. They believed it so much that they didn't plant any crops. Some actually trampled their crops, to show how much they believed.
In early 1862, most of them were done believing and done being Morrisites. They were leaving. The ones that stayed were, perhaps, also rethinking their Morrisite stance. Instead of trampling things underfoot, they were very interested in retaining their best cattle and supplies. They refused to let the apostates walk away with them. Three departing men "stole" a wagon of wheat. The remaining Morrisites rode out and grabbed the men, holding them on the Morrisite property to be judged by God, who would be coming any day now.
The three captives had wives, and the wives, though still in the Utah Territory, went to the United States for help. Soon large posses of territorial citizens and actual U. S. Marshals rode up to a makeshift fort in the Morrisite community. What followed was an ugly series of confrontations during which "warning shots," killed people and deadly violence erupted without either side agreeing on who made the first move. Morris himself was killed. Meanwhile, the United States came out of it looking so bad that, while over seventy Morrisites were convicted of crimes, seven of them of murder, they were all pardoned days after their convictions. The community scattered.
In the 1980s, claims of ritual abuse by satanic cults cropped up across America. This muddled moral scare was the result of a confluence of events. Psychiatry across the country were searching for "repressed memories" of abuse — the more bizarre, the better. Hazy anxiety turned into memories of abuse. Memories of abuse became memories of horrific tortures. And horrific tortures acquired a stylish kick when it was said to be perpetrated by underground Satanic cults. As the panic spread, the rumors got wilder. The head of Proctor & Gamble, people claimed, confidently announced that he was a Satanist on national television. (He didn't.) Satanists were sacrificing children. (They weren't.) There were a million Satanic cults in the United States - not a million Satanists, a million Satanic cults. (Of course there weren't.)
Some people thought of it as a social phenomenon, since they could believe in Satanists without believing in Satan. For many, though, it was a spiritual war. God and the Devil were actually fighting over the people of America. The author of the memoir Michelle Remembers described her childhood, supposedly spent as an unwilling member of a cult. The book ends with a full-on battle between the devil and angels in a suburban cemetery at midnight.
The line between public record and religious hysteria was constantly blurred. The author of the memoir visited the parents of children who had supposedly been abused by the adults at their preschool. The children soon alleged that they had seen people fly, and been led through dark tunnels under the preschool. The case was supposedly about abuse, but the public was watching a battle against childcare-running Satanists. The against the adults took nearly an entire decade to conclude. The first accusations were made in 1983. It ended in 1990, with all charges dropped.
In Milan, in 1630, people were on edge. There was an ancient poem that claimed that, in 1630, the Devil would come to Milan and poison everyone. On a morning in April, the citizens awoke to odd splashes of color on their doors. The idea that they had been marked promptly drove everyone insane. They were on the look-out for poisoners, which meant a lot of cooks and pharmacists got beaten, mobbed, or sent to the authorities to be tortured. All fruits and standing water were assumed to be poisoned. But people knew that poison could also be absorbed through touch. One old man, wiping his seat with his cloak before he sat on it, was said to be smearing poison on the chair, and was attacked by a mob of women. They wanted to turn him over to the police, but were denied justice because they beat him to death on the way there.
The Milanese didn't do anything by half-measures. They stopped accusing each other, and starting accusing themselves. Many people came forward and confessed that they were in league with the Devil, and were poisoning the city. One man wove a fantastical tale of being invited into a fine coach drawn by white horses and taken to the Devil's house. From then on, others claimed that yes, they'd done that too. If they weren't confessing to being in league with the devil themselves, they at least claimed to have seen the demonic coach. Eventually, 1630 drew to a close, and, although some people had fallen to the plague or to the fists of their neighbors, the majority of the city remained unpoisoned. People decided, for the time being, not to let rhyming couplets govern their lives.
Salem is remembered for two things: the events that actually happened and their metaphorical usefulness. Salem went crazy over a supposed witch infestation — that much is evident to everyone. But everyone sees it in a different way because Salem didn't just have one break down. It went crazy in many different ways, each one representing how a society can fail when it is in the grip of some terrible passion. Committees to ensure public safety instead increased public paranoia. Innocent people confessed under torture. Innocent people were tortured to death. Every social strata went to war with every other social strata — with the poor accusing the rich and the rich accusing the poor. Ordinary people achieved great power and went mad with it. Accusers fell out of favor and became the accused. Any social, political, or economic problem that could befall a society worked its way into the insanity.
What's most insane about the entire saga is that Salem learned a lesson — and it was the wrong lesson. Throughout the trial, "spectral evidence" was admissible in court. Spectral evidence included events like dreams, personal revelations, and ecstatic visions. This was regarded as ridiculous everywhere except Salem. After the mania was over Increase Mather, a Puritan Minister, wrote a book about spectral evidence. Cases of Conscience states emphatically that spectral evidence should never be used to condemn a witch not because it was unprovable hogwash but because it was associated with Devil, and the Devil likes to deceive. By all means, Mather said, take a bad dream as evidence that your neighbor is in league with Satan and start a moral panic about it. Just don't introduce the dream in court when there is so much other bullshit evidence you can use. In the postscript, Mather says that the prosecutors and judges of Salem did a great, great job.
[Sources: The Sword in the Sky, The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Prophetic Belief in the United States, The Satanic Panic, Increase Mather, Epidemics of the Middle Ages]