March 14, 2010

The Rod Men of Vermont


A man using a dowsing rod, from Wikipedia.

Back in the 1ate 1700s, a man named Nathaniel Wood applied to be the minister of the new Congregational church in Middletown, Vermont. He didn't get the job, but was instead made an unofficial elder of the church. Nathaniel was not satisfied, became contentious, and was excommunicated from the church in 1789.

Nathaniel made lemonade from the lemons the Congregationalists had given him: he started his own church. Although at first it was only composed of family members, it soon grew quite large. Nathaniel (who became known as Priest Wood) preached that the church members were the new Israelites. A day of reckoning was coming, and God would destroy all the Gentiles (i.e. everyone who was not in Wood's church). I'm sure the Congregationalists were on the top of his list.

Around this same time a man named Winchell arrived in Middletown. Winchell was a fugitive from a neighboring county, where he was wanted on counterfeiting charges. He also was adept at using a dowsing rod made of witch hazel, which he said could detect buried treasure. Many Americans in the 18th and 19th century century believed the landscape was full of buried gold and silver, and digging for treasure was a popular activity. See my post about Dungeon Rock for an example of how treasure digging could become an obsession.

Priest Wood believed Winchell's story about the dowsing rod, and incorporated dowsing into his church rituals. Jabez Perry, a Middletown citizen who died in 1862, said it succinctly and humorously: "They (the Woods) swallowed Winchell, rod and all."

The men of the church became known as the Rod Men, and using the twitching witch hazel branches to do the following:

  • Determine how long someone might live
  • Locate plants to cure disease
  • Find treasure. The new Israelites once dug 70 feet into the ground following a dowsing rod's twitches, but every time they got near the treasure chest it moved. Their explanation? It was guarded by a magic spell.
  • Tell young women their clothes had the Devil in them, and should be removed
  • Receive messages from God

Using his dowsing rod, Priest Wood was told by God to build a temple in Middletown, and to prepare for two apocalyptic events. First, a destroyer would come to kill half the Gentiles. Next, a giant earthquake would strike Middletown on January 14, 1801, and kill the other half.

Panic struck Middletown when people learned of Wood's prophecy. They weren't worried about God sending a destroying angel or earthquake - they were scared Wood and his followers would take matters into their own hands and kill everyone outside their church. The townspeople called up their militia, and January 14 passed uneventfully. No destoyer, no earthquake, and no violence.

Wood's failed prophecy spelled the end of his church in Middletown. His temple remained half built, and he and his family moved to Ellisburg, New York. Their church may have failed, but it had a lasting influence on American history. Many historians feel Joseph Smith, a native Vermonter and the founder of Mormonism, was influenced by Wood, Winchell and other members of the Rod Men.

A lot of Mormon history sites have information about the Rod Men, but I had the pleasure of reading the original source: Barnes Frisbie's The history of Middletown, Vermont, in three discourses: delivered before the citizens of that town, February 7 and 21, and March 30, 1867. I recently joined the Boston Athenaeum, which has a huge collection of New England town histories.

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