Winter’s Missionaries: The Shakers Go West

A Little Band of the Faithful Leaving the Shaker Meeting HouseA Little Band of the Faithful Leaving the Shaker Meeting House on the Sabbath in 1916. (Photo: Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals, Internet Archive Book Images flickr)

It has been an unpleasantly cold and snowy winter across much of the eastern United States. Hardly great weather for taking a long walk. Yet 110 years ago, three men set out on a similarly bitter cold January 1 to walk from upstate New York to Virginia, and then over the Appalachians to Kentucky and Ohio. These were Shaker missionaries. Their goal was to spread the Shaker faith to the western United States.

The Shakers are an unusual Christian group. Because lust was the original sin, they require members to be celibate. They also practice the communal sharing of goods, as did the primitive Christians. To facilitate this, they live apart in their villages, which also strengthens their faith and keeps them from the sins of “the World.”

While Shakerism originally began in Manchester, England, it was here in the United States that it flourished. From 1780, the faith spread across New York and New England until by 1800 there were eleven Shaker villages, with anywhere from 50 to 400 adherents in each.

As the nineteenth century began, the Shaker leadership heard of a religious revival that had begun in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1800. Along the frontier, people were flocking to camp meetings. They strained to hear preachers offering a gospel that rejected the predestination of the Calvinist denominations and promised a restoration of Christ’s church in time for the rapidly approaching Second Coming. It was said that many people were overcome by the Spirit and experienced involuntary movements called the “jerks.” To the Shaker leaders, this sounded similar to the ecstatic dancing that had given their faith its popular name. So they decided to send out missionaries to see if they could make converts in the remote lands of Kentucky and Ohio.

Three men with a horse set out on that New Year’s Day in 1805. They were a strange lot. One, Issachar Bates, was a hardy Revolutionary War veteran and father of nine children who had embraced the Shaker beliefs in pacifism and celibacy, a man noted for his musical talents and his tendency to use vulgar language. Another was a man who was so short and young-looking that people mistook him for a child, who bore the appropriate name of Benjamin Seth Youngs. Their official leader was John Meacham, the son of the Shaker elder who had gathered the faithful into their villages, and who was already an elder himself.

They walked into one of the more severe winters of their era, with many cold and snowy days. Still they made progress, sometimes as much as thirty miles in a day, helped by the hard-frozen roads. Finding lodging was also a challenge. There were few inns, so they usually stayed with families willing to accept the Shakers as guests. As the Shakers had been maligned in the press as Papists and wild fanatics, they were not welcome everywhere. Nor were they happy to stay with some families, whether because of their hosts’ manners, faith, or ownership of slaves. (The Shakers did not believe in slavery and freed their slaves.) So the missionaries had to share in what circumstances their hosts offered in way of food and bedding. It was a chancy life. All three men fell ill along the trip. Still, they traversed the Cumberland Gap on February 25, and came into Kentucky. And on March 13, they reached Cane Ridge, the center of revival activity and their destination.

There in Cane Ridge the three missionaries met with Barton Stone, one of the leading “New Light” ministers of the revivals. Stone was not inclined to join the Shakers, but he was sufficiently impressed to suggest they visit one of his fellow revivalists, Richard McNemar, who lived across the Ohio River in the new state of Ohio. Weary but hopeful, the three men set once again on their travels. This time their efforts would be crowned with success. On March 22, having traveled by their own estimation 1233 miles over 81 days, they stopped at the farm of Malcolm Worley on Turtle Creek. Malcolm was one of Richard McNemar’s parishioners. He was also newly remarried, and his wife was visibly pregnant, hardly a likely candidate for a sect which preached celibacy. Still, he engaged the Shakers in deep earnest discussions, and on the 27th, he and his wife converted to the Shaker faith. Richard McNemar would convert a month later and become a leading figure among western Shakers.

It was the start of a new world for the Shakers. They spent the next several years preaching across Ohio and Kentucky, making new converts and stirring up opposition by other religious leaders, sadly including Barton Stone. The Shakers would eventually found seven villages in the West, including Union Village, which was established on Malcolm Worley’s farm. The Western expansion roughly doubled the number of Shakers over the next two decades. The first Shaker printing press would be erected in the West. With so few of the “old” Shakers from the East to help educate the new Shakers in the West, Benjamin Seth Youngs worked with other western Shakers to develop an extensive written theological statement to explain their faith. For more than a century, there would be Shakers in Ohio and Kentucky.

The Cane Ridge revivals led to increased religious fervor in the West, and to religious diversity as well. New groups such as the Christian Churches and Disciples of Christ would emerge in their wake. The Shakers contributed to this diversity, not so much by numbers, but by successfully bringing their distinctive communal societies to the West.

Moreover, their expansion to the West made the Shakers a national success story as a communal movement. Other American reformers, whether Transcendentalists or followers of Charles Fourier, and even someone such as Friedrich Engels, would cite the Shaker success as evidence that communal living could be made to work.

As for the three missionaries who set out in 1805, all would go on to leadership positions among the western Shakers, though none would die in the West. John Meacham became the elder of the large Pleasant Hill village in Kentucky, but was recalled to the East in 1818, where he lived peacefully until his death in 1855, never again holding a leadership position. Issachar Bates traveled the West for several years as a roving missionary, before being asked to serve as an elder, first at the short-lived community at Busro, Indiana, and then at the Watervliet, Ohio community in 1824. He was already 66 when he accepted the latter position, but led the community for a decade before being allowed to retire back east, where he died a few years later in 1837. And Benjamin Seth Youngs became the elder of South Union, Kentucky, until he was asked to return east in 1836, the last of the original missionaries to go home. Like John Meacham, he would die in 1855, marking the end of an era for the Shakers. Although they did not know it, the Shakers would never again enjoy such success.

About the Author

Brian Bixby

Brian Bixby grew up in New England and never quite managed to leave. He studies nineteenth century American culture, particularly tourism and religion. But he frequently takes time out to impersonate a nineteenth century statesman, teach courses outside of his specialty, and write fiction. Because history should be fun as well as educational.

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