The Theosophical Society in America

The Believers

By Roderick Bradford

Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2005 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bradford, Roderick. "The Believers." Quest  93.3 (MAY-JUNE 2005):91-95, 105

They [Shakers] are industrious, frugal and honest people, and so far as religion is concerned they probably have an article that is as practical, as useful and as sincere as any in the world.

—D. M. Bennett

The Truth Seeker, November 18, 1882

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"Mr. Bennett was a deeply religious man," a close friend declared at the dedication of the monument erected to honor the founder of The Truth Seeker. This sounds preposterous, considering that D. M. Bennett was nineteenth-century America's most outspoken, relentless, and notorious critic of Christianity and all organized religions. The woman went on to explain her provocative statement by quoting Thomas Paine's motto: "To do good is my religion." If that was Paine's highest work, she argued, this made it his religion. "It is in this sense that Mr. Bennett was a religious man; and if we measure his religion by the measure of his devotion to his work, he was a deeply religious man."

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818—1882) was the most revered and reviled publisher-editor of the Gilded Age. In 1873, at the beginning of the antireligion campaign in America, Bennett and his wife, Mary Wicks Bennett founded The Truth Seeker and devoted it to "Science, Morals, Freethought, and Human Happiness." The Bennetts, like many of their fellow freethinkers, were former devout Christians who retained a good deal of Christianity's moral spirit. Bennett opposed dogmatic religion and took great pride in debunking the Bible, exposing hypocritical clergymen, and reminding Americans that the government of the United States was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." He argued that Abraham Lincoln and many of the founding fathers were, like his hero Thomas Paine, deists or infidels, the most noteworthy of them being Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

The Bennetts were involved with controversial movements throughout their lives. As spiritualists and theosophists, the couple met while they were members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers. The Shakers were a celibate communitarian sect that originated in England as an offshoot of the Quakers. Due to the spiritualistic sect's ecstatic and often violent shaking contortions during their religious services, they were derided as Shaking Quakers. Eventually they were called Shakers, although some of the founders preferred the name Alethians, as they considered themselves "children of the truth."

The Shakers, who would become known more for their furniture craftsmanship than their religious beliefs, came to America in 1774. When Ann Lee (1736—1784), an English religious visionary, and her followers arrived from England. Although Ann Lee believed in celibacy, she had married in England at her parents' insistence and had four children; all died in infancy. Ann Lee joined the Wardleys, a group of former Quakers who encouraged their followers to attack sin and preach publicly of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was subsequently believed that in Ann Lee the promise of the Second Coming was fulfilled. She became the religious sect's charismatic leader and was imprisoned for dancing, shouting, and blasphemy of the Sabbath. She reportedly "miraculously" escaped death on several occasions and claimed to be able to speak in tongues. Her followers referred to her as "Mother in spiritual things," and she called herself "Ann, the Word." In 1774 Ann Lee received a "revelation" instructing her to take a select group of Shakers to America.

The Shakers first settled in an isolated area outside of Albany, New York. Their pacifism drew scorn and persecution during the American Revolution, and Ann Lee was imprisoned for a few months in 1780. She died on September 8, 1784, but her followers continued to grow in number and Shaker communities flourished. The Shakers erected a meetinghouse for worship at New Lebanon, New York, in 1785.

When fourteen year-old, DeRobigne Bennett arrived on September 12, 1833, the Society of Believers at New Lebanon numbered nearly five hundred men, women, and children. The New Lebanon community was the largest of the sixteen villages that were located in eight states and the "Jerusalem" of Shakerism.

A few years before Bennett arrived at New Lebanon, James Fenimore Cooper visited the community and wrote that he had never seen any "villages as neat, and so perfectly beautiful, as to order and arrangement, without, however, being picturesque or ornamented, as those of the Shakers." Cooper also declared the Believers "deluded fanatics," albeit clean and orderly. Another distinguished visitor was Charles Dickens, who was critical of the manner in which the Shakers gained members: "they take proselytes persons so young that they cannot know their own minds, and cannot possess much strength of resolution in this or any other respect." The four Shaker virtues were Christian communism, virgin purity, separation from the world, and confession of sin, which one had to perform to become a member. The teenage Bennett might well have been one of the proselytes that Dickens thought too young to know his own mind. Nevertheless, considering the young man's impoverished background, it is understandable that his first impression of New Lebanon was favorable: "I was most kindly received in a family of some 75 genial kindhearted Brethren and Sisters who lived happily on the community plan with plenty around them on every side."

Since the Shakers were celibate, they depended on converts (sometimes orphans) from "the world." The Society had something to offer almost everybody, at least temporarily. Newcomers joined for different reasons and were Believers of varying degrees of commitment. Some "bread and butter" or "winter Shakers" arrived only to take advantage of the food and shelter for brief periods. Some joined only to depart soon, while others stayed longer but did not participate wholeheartedly and eventually apostatized. Others arrived with their whole families. One such family was the Wickses from Reading, New York. Mary Wicks joined the Shakers when she was five years old and became a beloved caretaker and teacher.

After a visit of ten days, Bennett, who came from a poverty-stricken home, decided to join the Shakers. He fulfilled the first requirement and confessed his sins, which he later described as "not a very black list at the time." A Shaker journal entry recorded the event: "DeRobigne Bennett opened his mind and set out with Believers." Soon after joining, he wrote to his mother and sister to invite them to join him at New Lebanon. (Mrs. Bennett's commitment to the Society was not as firm as her children's, and she would periodically leave and return.) For the next thirteen years he would be a Shaker "acknowledging the correctness of their faith and believing they were living more acceptable to God than any others of the children of men."

Relationships and intimate contact with the opposite sex were forbidden, and male and female Believers nearly always remained separated. They never shook hands or touched, and they spent their days and nights in a communal social order. Some interaction and a few wholesome persions were permitted but always limited and closely monitored. Evenings were spent at worship meetings or family meetings where elders read aloud excerpts from periodicals, books, and even newspapers. Some evenings were spent learning new hymns and singing. The busy Shaker schedule left no time for contemplation or loneliness, and church elders strongly believed that an idle mind was the devil's workshop.

At least once a week "union meetings" were held in which both male and female members were afforded the opportunity to be together, in a group and under close scrutiny. Half a dozen or more sisters would enter the brethren's quarters and sit across the room, and engaging in light conversation mostly confined to Society matters. Any instances of a "special liking" or "sparking" between inpidual members of the opposite sex were monitored and likely reported to an elder.

Bennett spent his first winter at New Lebanon attending school and working in the seed gardens. "He was possessed of marked inpiduality and more than average intellectual ability," a journal entry noted. Bennett also worked as a furniture maker and herbalist. The Shakers were the first group in America to grow herbs for the burgeoning pharmaceutical market. From spending several years in the Shaker medical environment, he grew familiar with the sciences of botany and chemistry and became the community physician. Bennett was also a ministry-appointed journalist during the most intense spiritualistic period in Shaker history, the Era of Manifestations. "I have understood from those who knew him intimately," a prominent Shaker spokeswoman wrote, "that he was thoroughly upright, of apparently strong religious convictions and sensitive to spiritual influences."

In the late 1830s a revival of spiritualistic activity occurred among the Shakers. The Shakers were spiritualists before the modern spiritualism movement began in 1848. In a sense, the Shakers were the forerunners of the spiritualism movement that became popular in America and later Europe. Ann Lee and the other founding members believed in spirits apart from the human body and that they could and did communicate with them and receive "revelations."

The Era of Manifestations, or "Mother Ann's Work," as it was known, was a period filled with messages and visions from the spirit world. The spiritualistic outburst preoccupied the Shakers for nearly a decade and both revitalized and weakened the Society. With a declining membership and a growing number of apostasies, mostly young Shakers, the Society's elders welcomed the restoration of the charismatic spirit gifts. Although numerous accounts of spiritual manifestations occurred during the 1830s, including inspired dreams, prophetic visions, and speaking in tongues, it was not until 1837 that the church elders proclaimed a new Era of Manifestations. During a worship service, a group of ten- to fourteen-year-old girls exhibited unusual trancelike behavior. Some spoke in tongues, while others saw visions and communicated with angels in heavenly places. Others, as if possessed by spirits, shook, jerked, and twirled about. Some talked to Mother Ann and other first-generation leading Shakers and were given gift songs, dances, and rituals to share with their fellow Believers. Those inpidual Shakers who received these gifts were called "visionists" or "instruments" and because of their unique abilities became influential and slightly controversial. In some ways Mother Ann's work helped revitalize the Society; in other ways it widened the generation gap that already existed.

Shaker instruments played an important role during the Era of Manifestations and believed themselves called and chosen. The ministry designated as "official" some instruments whom they felt were pinely inspired. Because of their sacred calling and personal sacrifices, instruments were separated from the other Believers. The instruments were thought by the Shakers to be their connection to the "celestial sphere" where inhabitants like Ann Lee and other founding members existed. During this spiritualistic period, the inspired gifts included songs, drawings, and revelations carefully recorded by journal keepers or scribes. The same meticulous attention to detail that the Shakers had paid to their family, furniture making, and business records was given to these important documents. These manuscripts were of immense importance and were believed to be pinely inspired.

The first year of the Era of Manifestations was the same year that Bennett became an official journal keeper, recording, collecting and transcribing the Society's most important communications and revelations. Bennett was mindful of the importance of his status as a journalist. In a self-effacing statement made on January 1, 1840, he promised to be "more brief" in the journal that he had been keeping for three years, which he "kept considerable of a full & minute account of the work of God & the movings of the spirit among us." But, he added, "when there is particular inspiration or revelation or anything that will be considered most worthy to be recorded, I shall endeavor to give as comprehensive a description as my feeble abilities will allow."

During the Era of Manifestations, every year seemed to present new and more mysterious developments. In 1841, Holy Mother Wisdom spoke through a chosen instrument. Bennett recorded that the feminine deity's visit lasted over a week, examining members and speaking "love and blessing." The most delightful and discernible spiritualistic gifts were the drawings and paintings rendered by Shaker artists while under the inspiration of the spirits. These inspired instruments, or "image makers," as they were known, produced unworldly religious pictures that became important to the Believers, a community that in the past forbade any type of "superfluous" pictures, portraits, images, engravings, or likeness of any kind, especially "art." One of the revered image makers was Mary Wicks. The visionary art works were presents for older members for their devoted service to the Society.

In 1842, at the height of the Era of Manifestations, the lead ministry instructed each village to prepare a sacred site for an outdoor feast and ritual activity. These sites, chosen by instruments under inspiration, were believed by Shakers to be the holiest of places on earth. The sacred feast ground at New Lebanon was at the top of a mountain, within walking distance of the community. Beginning in May 1842, this "Holy Mount" would be the site of the Society's most sacred and important celebrations. Bennett, the twenty-three-year-old community scribe, chronicled the seminal first meeting on the mount. On May 1, 1842, at 5 A.M, he wrote, the members of the Church Order gathered together "in the meeting room to receive the blessing of the Ancients [oldest Shakers] who were not going upon the Mount." The day's historical significance was expressed by one of his fellow journalists, who wrote:

This is a memorable day & long to be remembered, being a day lately in instituted by pine authority to be observed a feast or Passover, to be kept yearly, sacred to Holy & Eternal Wisdom. The Church, (Except some of the aged & those unable to go), all marched up the mountain, to the Holy consecrated ground, & assembled there to perform religious devotion.

Bennett's written account of the esoteric religious rituals that May is a fascinating document filled with descriptions of peculiar phenomena and inspirational messages. The day began with the members singing the song "Feast of Lord," followed by the Believers kneeling and being blessed by the Ancients. Most of the activity that day consisted of elaborate mime and playful worship. One of the "messages," however, revealed a subconscious discontent among some instruments and would prove to be a presage. While under inspiration John Allen came forward and stated:

Who has doubts? What doubts? saith the Prophet (Isaiah) Many answered & said they had none. Well said the Prophet I have doubts.

The Instrument was then taken under violent operations, thrown on the ground & rolled over. he was then raised up, & the P' [Prophet] said I guess I shall get rid of them now.

Due to his responsibilities as a physician and herbalist, Bennett was occasionally required to leave the New Lebanon community for business. These local day trips afforded him an opportunity to interact with fellow Shakers, some of whom decided to leave the society. Journal entries for the period show an increased number of departures and the reproachful attitude of Shaker journalists. As the apostasy rate increased, the journal entries included more pointed remarks regarding the apostates. Bennett gave a ride to two departing Shakers who, a journalist wrote, "chose rather to live among the world than with us." One entry noted that two sisters made their choice "to go away into the wide world of sin." Another Shaker, "loving his own way much better than the gospel," was determined "to have a swing in the world of pleasure & sin. . ."

In the mid-1840s, Believers began to lose interest in spiritual gifts and communications. Messages from deceased Shaker founders or leaders were replaced by "revelations" from historical figures Washington, Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus. Some instruments claimed to have received spiritual communications from American Indians. Shaker leaders were finding it increasingly difficult to determine the authenticity of spiritual "gifts" that were beginning to border on the absurd. Other messages were scolding and admonished against the ways of the flesh. A sister brazenly informed elder Frederick Evans of her revelation from Ann Lee that the Society should discontinue celibacy! An atmosphere of cynicism bordering on anarchism developed among many of the younger members and several of the important official instruments. The relations between the sexes became troublesome for the church elders. The Shakers were after all human, and occasionally a "sparking" would occur within the community. These taboo relationships might begin during a union meeting or while brethren and sisters were working in close proximity.

The New Lebanon Society began losing members, including some instruments from the Church Family—the most devout Shakers in the community. In 1846, the rate of apostasy in the Church Family was nearly 15 percent. "In the summer of 1846 a spirit of dissatisfaction and discontent overspread the minds of many of the young folks in the society," Bennett recalled, "and the faith in the Shaker religion had lessened."

On September 12, 1846—thirteen years to the day of his arrival—Bennett and three other Shakers, including his sister, eloped. It was the most shocking apostasy in the history of the Shakers. A contemporary journal entry remarks on this terrible event:

An astonishing & awful event this day occurs, by the sudden & unsuspected absconding of four our members, viz —John Allen, Derobigne M. Bennett, Mary Wicks & Letsey Ann Bennett!!!!— They had very privately concerted the plan, agree with a man at the pool to come with a carriage & take them, which he did, coming up the round by the gristmill, as far as the house below and burying ground. The 4 walked off not far distant from each other pretending to be going on some common business, no one suspected them, tho they were seen, excepting in one or two cases, when too late. They all went to the pool where some of our Deacons afterward went to settle with them--

It is unknown when DeRobigne Bennett and Mary Wicks began their relationship. Shaker leaders suspected that the apostates planned their departure during a union meeting. A church elder announced that the marriages were the first to be contracted at the New Lebanon church family, home of the most devoted Believers. One month following their apostasy, the Elder declared, "the time had come for particular union to be abolished, and a general union to be substituted in its place... it went into effect last sabbath."

The Allen-Bennett apostasy was a traumatic event that had perse and lasting effects on the participants and the remaining members of the Society. All four of them had been Shakers since childhood, and later Bennett recalled: "The parting from the home and friends of so many years was a severe trial. It seemed almost like ‘pulling the heartstrings.'" In spite of this, however, the Bennetts stayed on very friendly terms with the Shakers for the rest of their lives. At the time that Bennett began publishing The Truth Seeker, free speech came under attack by Anthony Comstock, America's self-appointed arbiter of morals. Comstock was a special agent of the U.S. Post Office and secretary and chief vice hunter for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization that was part of the social purity crusade. Comstock, self described "weeder in God's garden," who bragged of driving fifteen people to suicide, waged war on "obscene" books and freethinking writers and publishers. Bennett challenged the puritanical Comstock laws and was arrested three times and convicted in 1879 for mailing Cupid's Yokes, a free-love pamphlet critical of the marriage institution and Anthony Comstock. "The charge is ostensibly ‘obscenity,'" Bennett wrote. "But the real offense is that I presume to utter sentiments and opinions in opposition to the views entertained by the Christian church." The elderly editor's conviction and imprisonment became a cause célèbre for freethinkers and free speech proponents. At this time, however, the Shakers came to his defense. Shaker elders visited him in jail, defended him in print, and petitioned President Rutherford B. Hayes to pardon the "illustrious martyr, suffering from acts of the most devilish bigotry of our day." (Although Hayes pardoned Ezra Heywood, the author of Cupid's Yokes, and admitted in his diary that the pamphlet was not "obscene," he refused to pardon D. M. Bennett.)

The Shakers were known for their simplicity, humility, order, peace, and simple goodness. And while their strict rules of celibacy, strange modes of worship, and separatism eventually caused their demise, they certainly attracted men and women with integrity, personality, and virtue. In studying their lives and reading their words, it is difficult to believe that such intelligent inpiduals were only "deluded fanatics." During an age of seeking, a Shaker historian wrote, "Shakerism was a clear answer to the question: What shall I do to be saved? It offered a discipline and a means of service. And in the end it bore fruit of abundance . . . And as the world slowly absorbs another dissident faith, much remains to record the seeking, and in some measures the finding, of truth, and beauty, and light."


References

Andrews, Edward Deming. The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. New York: Dover Publications, 1963.

Bennett, DeRobigne M. The Truth Seeker, 1873-1911. Microfilm. Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress.

———. A Statement of The First Meeting held on the Holy Mount when The Whole Church assembled there. May 1st 1842. Collected and Transcribed by Derobigne M. Bennett. Old Chatham, N.Y.: Shaker Museum and Library.

Brewer, Patricia J. Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.

Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Morse, Flo. The Shakers and the World's People. Hanover, N.H.: University of New England Press, 1987.

Nordhoff, Charles. Communist Societies of the United States: From Personal Visit and Observations. New York: Hillary House, 1960.

Paterson, Daniel W. Gift Drawing and Gift Song: A Study of Two Forms of Shaker Inspiration.Sabbathday Lake, Maine: United Society of Shakers, 1983.

Promey, Salley M. Spiritual Spectacles: Vision and Image in Mid-Nineteenth CenturyShakerism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Stein, Stephen J.The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.


Roderick Bradford is the author of The Truth Seeker: D.M. Bennet, The Nineteenth Century's Most Controversial Publisher and American Free-Speech Martyr, from which this article is excerpted.