Shakers  (2008)

Published: 8/19/2016 7:24:04 PM

Shaking Quakers (Nov. 1, 2008)

Soon after coming to this area, I learned  that the Shakers — the religious group I’ve long found fascinating since visiting Hancock Shaker Village — had settled briefly in Ashfield. But it wasn’t until I read a Shaker history did I stumble on references to their time here, including intolerance against them.


Moving back and forth, flailing limbs and singing wildly and loudly, must have been a frightening sight in the late 18th century New England.

"I could hardly believe my senses!" one observer reported after witnessing some 30 worshipers -- separated by sexes on opposite sides of the room -- for a wild, animated, hour-long service in 1782. He described two women whirling together violently in the center of the space, groups with "eyes fixed upwards, continually reaching out and drawing in their arms, and lifting up first one foot and then the other sometimes one would pronounce in a loud voice. "HO, HO," or LOVE, LOVE' -- and then the whole assembly vehemently clapped hands for a minute or two. There was shaking and trembling, some worshipers singing tones, others singing in Tongue."

These were "Shaking Quakers," eight of whom emigrated from England to New England in 1774, at the start of the American revolution. In 1776, they settled north of Albany, N.Y., at Watervliet and Niskayuna.

At a time of religious revival, word quickly spread of this group, led by a woman, that claimed to communicate with spirits and to have mighty powers. Seekers sought them out and returned to spread the sect around Massachusetts.

Northern Ashfield, the Rev. Samuel Shepard warned in 1781, "was infested with a company of vagrant religious fanatics called Tremblers ... (whose) extravagance, disorder and indecency" led selectmen to call a Feb. 7, 1782, special town meeting vote to warn "said straggling Tremblers" to leave town within 24 hours "or expect trouble."

The pace of life being what it was back then, a "committee of safety" wasn't appointed until March 19. It was instructed to warn "the Stragling Quaquars" to depart the town immediately."

But who, asked town leaders, are these "Tremblers" or "Straglin Quaquars?" Within a year, the large meetinghouse they would build in Ashfield would be the first Shaker meetinghouse in this country. The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing -- which would later be called Shakers because of their members' ecstatic movement in worship -- formed in Manchester, England, in 1747. Ann Lee, who turned 11 that year, was an illiterate factory worker who joined the sect in 1758. After a religious awakening in 1770, she became leader of the group that left England four years later because of persecution and imprisonment.

At the tail end of The Great Awakening, a time when religious activity stirred throughout New England, the region came alive with spontaneous, intensely personal religious revelation. With trance-like dances, seances, praying in tongues and being propelled to the spirit with their own outstretched fingers, the Shakers were lively seekers with odd behaviors.

One journal from the era describes "a strange sort of people hearing of in the wilderness and an old woman amongst them that bewitched everyone that went there."

They settled in Niskayuna, west of Troy, N.Y., and made many converts, including religious seekers from frontier settlements like Ashfield and Shelburne.

"I heard of a strange people above Albany who said they served god day and night, and did not commit sin," wrote Hannah Chauncy of Ashfield. "When I arrived, I was led to Mother Ann. As I sat by the side of her, one of my hands touched her arm and I instantly felt the power of God run through my whole body I was afraid it was the way of god and that I would have to embrace it or never find salvation. Many embraced the testimony during that summer, and the more I saw, the more I became convicted that it was the work of God, and I felt a sting of conviction that I cannot well describe."

"Mother Ann" Lee set out with five elders from Watervliet in 1781 for eastern Massachusetts to spread their gospel. After sowing religious seeds in New Lebanon, N.Y., and Hancock and West Stockbridge in Massachusetts, they found both converts and enemies in the towns of Harvard, Shirley and Woburn.

Not only did their lively, gyrating form of worship seem odd to the established Congregationalists and Baptists, but these Shaking Quakers were viewed as treasonous, counterculture threats. As pacifists, with leaders who were English, the Shakers were suspected of being spies. They believed in strict separation of the sexes, including sexual abstinence, which resulted in backlash from some frustrated |non-believer husbands.

Most frightening at the time, perhaps, they were led by an outspoken woman who the suspicious traditionalists labeled a witch.

At Harvard, according to an account retold in Richard Francis' 2000 history, "Ann the Word," Elias Sawyer and his wife had arrived in Harvard from Ashfield on Feb. 22, 1782. Mrs. Sawyer "danced with the Shakers till late in the evening. Then, being hot and sweaty,' she left the meeting and went out in the night air to make her way to another Shaker household, where she was staying. As a result, she catcht a bad cold and was seized by the billows colic.'"

Nevertheless, Mrs. Sawyer also danced the following evening, then became seriously ill and died the next night -- enough to stir the cauldron of "witch's" tales, notes Francis.

Threats of persecution in Harvard sent Ann Lee and her entourage to Enfield, Conn. They were again met by a violent mob and retreated to Petersham, Belchertown and Granby, then to Montague to visit with Shaker Peter Bishop and his family.

The Bishops -- who wove, dyed and pressed cloth -- had become the town's only believers the previous summer. They faced hostility from neighbors who withheld business from them, according to the sect's 1816 testimonies.

After a night in Montague, Lee and her party crossed the river at Sunderland and headed to Ashfield, where they'd been invited to stay with the Shaker family of Asa Bacon, near Baptist Corner.

"Here they found a place of retirement from the clamor of riotous mobs and the retreat seemed like a great blessing of God," according to the testimonies. Perhaps put on notice by the town's "committee of safety," Lee advised followers against visiting her in Ashfield. But before leaving in May, she and several of her elders set off on foot to visit Shaker followers Jonathan and Aaron, five miles away in the tiny hamlet of Shelburne Falls.

The Shaker elders returned to Harvard and were confronted by growing intolerance. Shaker historian David Newell of Ashfield suggests this was stirred by wide circulation of propaganda tracts published in 1781 and 1782 with titles like "Some Brief Hints on a Religious Scheme" and "A Dialogue between George the Third of Great-Britain and his Ministers."

The second pamphlet went beyond merely painting the Shakers as religious heretics and mad people led by a woman. It was a Swift Boat-like fictitious attack, purported to show that King George had sent Ann Lee and her followers to America to quell the colonists by preaching pacifism.

That pacifism, ironically, stirred violent attacks on the Shakers, described by Francis in his book. The members of the religious group were chased from Harvard through Bolton and onto Lancaster by people who were "whipping with horse-whips, pounding, beating and bruising with clubs, collaring, pushing off from bridges, into the water and mud, scaring the sisters' horses, with a view to frighten the riders," Francis writes.

The Shakers retreated once again to Ashfield in early November. This time, they remained for six months and sent notice for fellow Shakers to visit from far and wide.

"Great numbers resorted here during the winter, from all parts where the gospel had to be planted," the testimony reports.

Behind Asa Bacon's house, according to the journal of teenaged Buckland worshipper Angell Matthewson, "all hands took hold and built a sanctuary of logs, with a chimney at one end, built in Dutch fashion. It was about 30 feet by 36 feet, square, all in one room, occupied to worship continually night and day, most of the time in dance."

The Shaker meetings reportedly drew more than 600 followers to worship at a time, driven by 60 sleighs.

Ashfield's central role

Newell is a bibliographer and rare book dealer specializing in Shaker editions and a member of the editorial board of American Communal Societies Series at Hamilton College Library. "If you look at Ashfield, in a way it's central, in the middle of everything" between Shaker settlements northwest of Boston and those northeast of Albany in the Berkshires, he said.

Among the roughly 100 Shakers who lived in and around Ashfied was Shelburne miller Jonathan Wood, whose four-story house stood behind the present site of the Shelburne Falls Supermarket. It was known in town as "the Shaker House" for years.

Wood's brother, Aaron -- known for the curious old Shaker calling of being led by the pointed finger at the end of his own outstretched arm -- led some 100 exorcisms during the winter in Ashfield. Among those was one for Elias Sawyer, whose wife had died in Harvard of the "billows colic."

"Men danced on one side of the meeting-house room, women on the other. Aaron stood in the middle," Matthewson's journal describes: "He would snarl grim(ly) and hollow (holler) You devil!' Then he would grab his subject, and pull and push him. In the case of Elias, he grasped him under his arms and span him around so fast his feet came up about 3 feet from the floor in this form he turned him around 40 times.'"

Matthewson, who notes his fellow Shakers "ware a set of yanky farmers," writes that some exorcisms went on for three hours, accompanied by "yelling, yawing, snarling, pushing, halling, elbowing singing dancing the worst drunken club you ever see could not cut up a higher dash of ill behaviour."

Shelburne mob

As the winter in Ashfield came to a close in early 1783, Mother Ann and her followers fell out with Daniel Bacon, their host's brother.

Daniel Bacon, who had separated himself from the Shakers, delivered his wife and child by sleigh one March day "in a very rough and churlish manner, into the mud, before the house, and immediately drove off and left them," according to the testimonies.

Although Ashfield inhabitants were generally friendly, an 1816 account says, "In the neighboring towns there were many calumniators and busybodies, who were industrious in circulating slanderous reports."

Stirred by DanielBacon, a mob of 50 to 60 men, headed by Col. David Wells, gathered "in Shelburne and its vicinity" and headed down Bray and March roads toward Ashfield, where a "committee of safety," headed by militia Capt. Thomas Stocking, met them about a half-mile from where Lee was staying, at Chileab Smith's tavern.

Wells told Stocking the mob wanted to clear rumors they had heard about her -- in particular, that she was a British spy dressed as woman.

The Ashfield group went to summon her to the tavern. But another contingent had broken off from the mob and went from the opposite direction down Baptist Corner Road to find Mother Ann.

"Where is that woman you call Mother?" they asked, according to the testimonies. "We hear that she ran away from her own country, that she has been cropped, and branded, and had her tongue bored through for blastphemy, and we want to see for ourselves."

"Will you believe your own eyes?" asked Lee, turning up her cap to reveal her ears and forehead and displaying her tongue.

The Ashfield committee arrived and urged her to come to the tavern to be inspected by two women. There, when it was decided she was not a man in disguise, the mob shifted attacks and accused the Shakers of buying up so much hay "that the poor were left destitute."

"That's what makes this so delicious," observes Newell, recalling that only a year earlier, town meeting had voted to run the Shakers out of town. Yet, the pilgrimage of faithful they had attracted "was the biggest economic stimulus package Ashfield had ever had. For six months, hundreds of Shakers were coming to town. They were buying hay, coming in on horses and sleighs, with probably 100, 150 animals to feed. It was a tremendous economic jolt for Ashfield," coming at a time of economic hardship otherwise.

Ashfield committee members defended the Shakers, responding that there was a surplus of hay in town, that by buying it, they had paid cash, allowing townspeople to buy salt. And if anyone needed hay, the Shakers said they would provide it.

Daniel Bacon, accompanied by a dozen or so friends, returned a couple of weeks later to threaten the Shakers, striking one of the elders on the shoulders with the butt end of a whip.

The Shaker elders left town in April 1783 for Petersham and then Harvard, where they were again subjected to violence.

Ann Lee died on Sept. 8, 1784, at Niskayuna, N.Y., where the Shakers had returned to establish a community of about 1,000 thanks to missionary visits to 36 towns and villages

The Ashfield meeting house continued to be used for worship, said Newell, but surviving church leaders began calling worshippers into ordered, segregated communities between 1787 and 1790, first at New Lebanon, N.Y., then at Hancock.

By 1840, there were more than 6,000 Shakers living at 19 settlements around New England, eastern New York, the Appalachian south and the Midwest. Most of the Franklin County Shakers resettled at New Lebanon and Hancock, said Newell, and curiously, there is no historical marker or road designation in the immediate area to recognize what was the first Shaker meetinghouse in America, or the presence of Shakers in town

In fact, the early history of Shakerism has been largely forgotten, he adds, because it's so different from what people associate with this sect, which historian Stephen J. Stein called "the darlings of American folk culture."

"Why are people not aware of this so much?" asks Newell. "When we think of Shaker,' we thinking of the chairs. We're thinking of simplicity, we're thinking peaceful, beautiful symmetry, clean, honest, living in united order. We're thinking of Hancock Shaker Village and pegboards and the whole culture that goes with it. Early Shakerism wasn't that symmetrical. It wasn't that peaceful, it wasn't that orderly, it wasn't developed at all. It was rather a very messy affair.”



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