“Man has an incurable habit of not fulfilling the prophecies of his fellow men” – Alistair Cooke
Did you know that “sleeping preachers” were a thing? I kid you not. They have a Wikipedia page. Not that such a distinction is a true measure of reality, but obviously somebody has taken enough interest in the phenomena to waste precious time documenting it. Or maybe not precious time – for all I know it’s a hobby between online rounds of Apex Legends. How do I know that reference? I have a ten-year-old video-gamer haunting my domicile, and to show the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, he loves writing monster stories. On the other hand, I don’t know who finds it essential to author Wikipedia pages on strange phenomena, but bless their souls for fighting the good fight. Or the weird fight, at least. You go girl.
When it comes to sleeping preachers, certainly Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) hogged the spotlight, but he was all caught up with those miraculous diagnoses and commentary on Atlantis, and the tradition of preaching and prophecy while catatonic predates Cayce, emerging if not in the mists of time among local, tribal shaman, then at least as a meme by the 16th Century in Germany, and by 1685 there was a rash of sleeping preachers among the persecuted French Protestants of the Cevennes in Southern France. Personally, I recommend sleeping through persecution. It takes the edge off. Historically, the sleeping preachers would deliver sermons or prophecy from what we call a “trance state” these days.
My personal favorite among sleeping preachers is one Constantine Blackmon Sanders (1831-1887), a Presbyterian preacher from Madison County, Alabama. You don’t have a favorite sleeping preacher? Get on the ball. I have a favorite physical constant, too – The Chandrasekhar Limit. Look it up, I’m busy. Frankly, any occupation that can be proceeded approvingly with “sleeping” sounds like a good gig to me, as long as it doesn’t involve operating heavy machinery, but it would seem that Constantine Sanders had it a little rougher, although technically he was more of a sleeping prophet than a sleeping preacher.
Constantine was the 7th of 10 children (seventh son of a seventh son? We must investigate), and youngest boy, born to War of 1812 veteran James Sanders and Rebecca Sanders nee Coleman, who was sadly widowed when Constantine was six. The family was poor, so he worked his mother’s farm until he was an adult, but manifested an interest in preaching from an early age. “He was dutiful to his mother, kind to his sisters, moral in his habits, and avoided association with the vicious. His temperament was cheerful; and he had considerable fondness for music. From his early childhood his mind was much interested on the subject of preaching the gospel. And he was in the habit of preaching juvenile funeral sermons over dead chickens, pigs, etc., and baptizing the boys, both black and white; and, on this account, was often familiarly called ‘The Preacher’”(Mitchell, 1876, p21).
In 1851, he attended a local revival meeting and was so moved as to immediately join the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, was licensed to preach by 1855, and ordained a reverend in 1862. At the time he joined the Church, he was barely literate, but made rapid progress when in 1854 he enrolled in a school in Giles County, Tennessee to prepare himself for the ministry. Three months into his studies, he contracted typhoid fever. During fever induced paroxysms, Constantine would be heard to exclaim “My head feels like it has opened!” Ms. Barbour, wife of his teacher with whom he boarded made a rather curious observation.
Taking my hand with his, he placed it on his head, when, to my astonishment, I found what appeared to be a separation of the bone, nearly wide enough to bury my little finger, ranging from above his eyes near the center of his forehead to the top of his head, and from the top down towards, and near to each ear. The opening increased in width as it reached the top of the head. This condition of his head I saw frequently. When the paroxysms would subside, the openings would nearly close up. The attending physician told me that he gave him as much quinine as would have been sufficient for nine men, with but little if any effect” (Mitchell, 1876, p24-25).
And it was at this time, that Constantine’s prophetic gifts first emerged. Sadly, they came at the price of a lot of pain. Usually preceded by agonizing spasms or seizures, Reverend Sanders began to manifest odd, apparently clairvoyant abilities. Sanders, often confined to his bed, would scrawl notes and describe events about which he could have no knowledge – accidents occurring in real time to friends, deaths happening at distant locations, fires, disasters, precise locations of lost objects, and even medical diagnoses (manifesting a familiarity with medical terminology that he did not possess in a waking state. Sometimes he would just undertake complex theological musings. It was also noted that, “Although an uneducated man, while in this abnormal condition he readily writes in Latin, Greek, French, and other languages, showing that he is either under spiritual control, or that the spirit, when freed from the shackles of matter, possesses wonderful powers of which we can have little conception in our present state” (Dohoney 1886, p301).
On returning to a normal state of awareness, he reported complete ignorance of what had transpired during his trances. His friend and confidant Reverend G.W. Mitchell collected letters and testimonies of 69 living witnesses to Sanders strange episodes, and the accuracy of his predictions in an 1876 book entitled X + Y = Z; Or, The Sleeping Preacher of North Alabama. Containing an Account of Most Wonderful, Mysterious Mental Phenomena, Fully Authenticated by Living Witnesses.
The reason for this somewhat puzzling title was that when in his trance state, he signed his notes and referred to himself as “X + Y = Z”, a moniker that was never explained. When in the course of his prognostications and sleeping sermons, he found it necessary to refer to himself, it was invariably and rather creepily as “my casket”, which implies to me that “X + Y = Z” was a corpse somewhere. Otherwise that’s just rude. On May 5, 1876, “X + Y = Z” announced that he was done with Sanders, leaving him a note. Kind of like breaking up by email.
After twenty-two years of labor and suffering in and through the person of my Casket, and for many years of that time both a mystery and reproach to others, I now come to the end of my first engagement; and will here leave off, in part, the work until my second and last coming, at which time I will reappear to finish up the great work for which I was intended (D.V.). My Casket, I now come to address you, personally, before I depart. You have been to me greatly a submissive servant, in suffering, in contempt, in wonder, in reproach, by night and by day, from year to year past. You can never fully see all you have passed in this life until you see the life to come, when then you stand ready to fall back to dust, whence you came; and I leave you forever. I have given you many valuable lessons, and prevented you from many difficulties and sorrows. I have shown you many friends, and many foes; what their strength and how to treat them. Together we have dwelt in peace and safety; but at your request, I leave you for a time. Till I come your head will remain the seat of great pain; and at times to you almost unbearable. But be humble, and also patient. And amid the sympathy of friends, may God help you to be submissive. “Your entire body will be, of necessity, the dwelling place of powerful electric force; but this will help to keep you up, and make you useful in many ways to others. “My books and papers I leave in your charge: but these you are, on no account, to exhibit till I come. In this be faithful. Give earnest heed. Examine the sick of body, and by reference to my books, give relief when you can. Examine the sick of soul, and, by aid of the truth, give relief to them if possible. You will often and sadly miss me, when I am gone, but you cannot realize it now. My former ‘charge’ I leave with you; and would say; Fill up the measure thereof that I may return to you the sooner. With Heaven’s benediction I will now bid you adieu. Signed, “X + Y = Z” (Mitchell, 1876, p194-196).
As “X + Y = Z” specified, Sanders did periodically experience severe headaches, but no longer demonstrated the trance-like spells or clairvoyance. After 22 years of strange prophetic ability, he resumed a life attending to the normal duties of his ministry. Witnesses did remark that he seemed somewhat lonely after the departure of “X + Y = Z”. Although approached by numerous spiritualists as to whether he might be interested in acting as a medium, Sanders politely declined and carried on as a country preacher.
“X + Y = Z” seems a rather presumptuous preternatural critter, assuming he could just borrow Reverend Sanders body for 22 years, but that’s the supernatural world for you. No respect. Then again, perhaps the relative similarity of death and sleep allow for some crossover. Frankly, I’m rather surprised we don’t see more of these borrowings of consciousness by creatures unknown, for as Lord Byron once said, “Death, so called, is a thing which makes men weep, and yet a third of life is passed in sleep”.
Barrett, William, Sir, 1844-1925. Psychical Research. London: Williams and Norgate, 1911.
Craig, Katherine Taylor, 1877-. The Fabric of Dreams: Dream Lore and Dream Interpretation, Ancient and Modern. New York: E. P. Dutton & company, 1918.
Dohoney, Ebenezer Lafayette, 1832-1919. Man: His Origin, Nature, and Destiny. St. Louis: J. Burns publishing co, 1886.
Mitchell, G. W, and Constantine Blackmon Sanders. X + Y = Z; Or, The Sleeping Preacher of North Alabama. Containing an Account of Most Wonderful, Mysterious Mental Phenomena, Fully Authenticated by Living Witnesses. [2d ed.] New York: W.C. Smith, 1876.
Myers, F. W. H. (Frederic William Henry), 1843-1901, Silvia Myers Blennerhassett, and L. H. (Leopold Hamilton) Myers. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1919.
Podmore, Frank, 1856-1910. The Newer Spiritualism. N. Y.: Holt, 1911.
Stanton, Horace Coffin. Telepathy of the Celestial World: Psychic Phenomena Here but Foreshadowings of Our Transcendent Faculties Hereafter. Evidences From Psychology And Scripture That the Celestials Can Instantaneously And Freely Communicate Across Distance Indefinitely Great. New York: F. H. Revell, 1913.
I admire the honesty of a preacher who acknowledge s that his tap is too boring to stay awake through.
Fascinating post, Esoterx. The sleeping preacher phenomenon sounds like shamanism in the context of a culture that doesn’t really recognize the existence of shamans. The case of Constantine “my casket” Sanders seems to have the hallmarks of shamanism. He starts out as an odd kid (conducting funerals services for animals and baptizing other children) which is fairly typical for those destined for the role. Then he suffers an illness after which he becomes a medium for messages from some other realm. What’s missing though is some ritual mechanism for voluntarily inducing the altered state of consciousness. There’s no mention in your post of any action that Sanders took to initiate the arrival of X+Y=Z, so it sounds like Sanders was commandeered. Bit of bad luck being chosen by X+Y=Z, who seems not to have heard of analgesics.
By the way, I share your admiration for the Chandrasekhar limit if only because of the history surrounding it is a nice demonstration of the politics of science.