One Shaker Life

One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 17931865

Glendyne R. Wergland
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 280
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    One Shaker Life
    Book Description:

    A member of the United Society of Believers, better known as the Shakers, Isaac Newton Youngs spent most of his life in New Lebanon, New York, home of the society’s central Ministry. As both a private diarist and the official village scribe, he kept meticulous records throughout those years of both his own experience and that of the community. All told, more than four thousand pages of Brother Isaac’s journals have survived, documenting the history of the Shakers during the period of their greatest success and providing a revealing view of the daily life of a rankandfile Believer. In this deeply researched biography, Glendyne R. Wergland draws on Youngs’s writings to tell his story and to explore “the tension between desire and discipline” at the center of his life. She follows Youngs from childhood and adolescence to maturity, through years of demanding responsibility into his fatal decline. In each of these stages, he remained a talented and committed yet independent Shaker, one who chose to stay with the community but often struggled to abide by its stringent rules, including the vow of celibacy. Perhaps above all, he was a man who spent most of his waking hours working diligently at a succession of tasks, making clocks, sewing clothes, fixing roofs, writing poetry, chronicling his daily acts and thoughts. In his journals, Brother Isaac writes at length of his efforts to control his lust as a young man, and he complains repeatedly about overwork as he grows older. He defines the rules of his community and identifies transgressors, while enciphering his critical entries (and those chronicling his own sexual desires) to avoid detection and uphold the demand for conformity. At times he admits doubt, but without ever relinquishing the belief that he is on the straight and narrow path to salvation. What emerges in the end is the complex portrait of an ordinary man striving to live up to the imperatives of his faith.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-175-5
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  5. 1 Shaker Society: An Overview
    (pp. 1-17)

    The Shakers, or United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, originated in Manchester, England, in the mid-1700s. They believed in divine revelation, celibacy, confession of sin, equality of the sexes, communal living, and separation from the world’s people. “Shaking Quakers” were remarkable for the physical manifestations of their spiritual inspiration—dancing, shouting, shaking, and speaking in tongues—which attracted harassment. They held noisy services, invaded other denominations’ worship, and clashed with townspeople. In 1772., the Manchester Shakers were arrested and fined for disturbing the Sabbath.¹ In 1774, after years of persecution, they emigrated to New York under the leadership...

  6. 2 Isaac Newton Youngs’s Childhood and Youth, 1793–1807
    (pp. 18-32)

    Isaac Newton Youngs was born to Martha (Farley) and Seth Youngs, Junior, in Johnstown, New York, on July 4, 1793. He was the last of ten children. The family moved from Schenectady to Stone Arabia to Johnstown in the two years before Isaac’s birth. Seth Youngs did not own real estate. His unlanded status and apparent rootlessness suggest economic marginality, the sort of near-poverty that required moving to find a better situation.¹

    Isaac was christened in Johnstown’s Methodist church. But Seth Youngs, Junior, sought a higher level of religious perfection than Methodism had to offer. In this, he may have...

  7. 3 Youth and Lust: “A snare of satan to beguile the soul,” 1818–1823
    (pp. 33-48)

    Sexuality was the cross of celibacy. Controlling sexual behavior was, therefore, one of a Believer’s challenges. Mother Lucy Wright recognized that celibacy was a sacrifice. But she called on her followers not to flinch because the road to perfection was so straight and narrow. Taking an easier path would have meant living by worldly standards, rather than living up to the ideals of utopia. To promote their spiritual travel, therefore, they had to eradicate lust. As Isaac Newton Youngs wrote in his poem “Good Believers’ Character,” Shakers had to “feel it their duty to bear a full cross, and zealously...

  8. 4 Rebellion in Shaker Society: Learning Humility, 1818–1827
    (pp. 49-63)

    Lust of the flesh was not Isaac Newton Youngs’s only problem. Other misdeeds of his youth involved pride, disobedience, “lust of the eye,” and inappropriate initiative, which repeatedly antagonized Mother Lucy Wright and the Elders. And when they criticized him, he rebelled. Rebellious youths were unlikely to remain in a communal society, but Brother Isaac was and did. He tried to adjust his attitude even as he tested the limits of the Elders’ authority. From a historian’s point of view, his rebellion was a benefit to posterity because it illuminates points of conflict between society and individual and shows how...

  9. 5 Clockmaking: The Youngs Family Traditions and Shaker Change, 1800–1840
    (pp. 64-78)

    Isaac Newton Youngs was a mechanic at heart, fascinated by machines of all sorts, and foremost among his mechanical interests, from early childhood, was clockmaking. In his clocks, Brother Isaac aspired to the Shakers’ material ideal, and his personality was well-suited to clockmaking. A perfectionist, he set high standards for his work; he was also analytical and orderly, interested in engineering and applied science. Determined to number, measure, and quantify all endeavors, he treated time and clocks no differently.¹

    Brother Isaac was a third-generation clockmaker. Two of his clockmaking relatives became Believers in adulthood, and their clocks show that the...

  10. 6 Journey to the Western Societies: A Respite from Work, 1834
    (pp. 79-94)

    In 1834, Isaac Newton Youngs, who had never traveled widely, accompanied Elder Rufus Bishop on a tour of the western Shaker communities, a journey of more than two thousand miles. The journal Isaac kept on the trip resembles the published travel journals that were a staple of nineteenth-century literature. He was an excellent observer with a good sense of humor; he collected information, sizing up people and places as naturally as he drew breath. His attention to detail, so evident in his work as clockmaker and scribe, is revealed in his vivid descriptions. The trip journal also reveals new facets...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Intimacy between Men in Shaker Society
    (pp. 95-108)

    Isaac Newton Youngs’s friendships show how nineteenth-century Shaker society fostered attachments between men. As Priscilla Brewer points out, Believers’ closest friendships were with the same sex.¹ Shaker brethren spent most of their time in the company of men. Celibacy, a burden they all shared, drew them together; their letters show that they encouraged one another in bearing the cross. Moreover, Shaker society promoted same-sex relationships by providing mentors who acted almost as parents for youngsters. Isaac Newton Youngs helped raise boys who loved him; several viewed him as a father. Under those conditions, Brother Isaac formed intimate friendships. He loved,...

  13. 8 Shaker Worship, Isaac Newton Youngs, and the Era of Manifestations
    (pp. 109-125)

    Isaac Newton Youngs played several roles in Church Family worship. As early as 1815, he recorded Mother Lucy Wright’s discourses, adding his own comments and thus shedding light on how the rank and file responded to her messages.¹ He composed new songs and transcribed hymnals. In 1819, in an effort to standardize Shaker worship, he began “getting hold of singing,” which included his setting the pitch for the Church Family choir so everyone could start off on the same note. One visitor described it as “an astounding yell … uttered by the strongest voice of the center band [of singers],...

  14. 9 Spiritual Autobiography: The Journey of Life, 1848
    (pp. 126-142)

    Isaac Newton Youngs’s spiritual life neither began nor ended with the Era of Manifestations. His commitment to his faith lasted for the rest of his life, and he showed it by persisting as a Believer, contributing to worship, living and working by Shaker values. But he rarely wrote about his own spiritual experiences. Some of his spiritual gifts, in fact, were preserved only in other Shakers’ writings, such as Sarah Bates’s record of Isaac’s gift of music from the spirit of Garret Lawrence.¹ On only one occasion did Isaac elaborate on his personal progress in faith, and that was in...

  15. 10 Perfectionism and Overwork in Middle Age
    (pp. 143-158)

    When Isaac Newton Youngs noted the passing of time in 1840 with the inscription on his clock, “Behold! how swift the seasons roll! / Time swiftly flies away!”¹ he also noted the effects of age. To cap off the rest, Brother Isaac was losing his hair.² But he did not have time to dwell on baldness or aging. He had too much work to do.

    Work was fundamental to Shaker success. As Suzanne Thurman points out, Believers were industrious because they inherited the eighteenth-century Yankee work ethic. The local population equated work with virtue, and they brought that view into...

  16. 11 Tailoring: A Burden for Six Decades
    (pp. 159-175)

    Isaac Newton Youngs’s complaints about work exposed interrelated tensions within Shaker society, including apostasy and the resulting labor shortage, issues of economics and separation from the world, and the personal ramifications of Shaker virtues such as obedience, humility, and duty. And though Isaac had resigned from roofing by 1855, he had another source of temporal despair: tailoring. Worse yet, the tailors’ shop was often shorthanded.

    Isaac Newton Youngs was apprenticed to master tailor Rufus Bishop when he entered the New Lebanon Church Family.¹ “I worked at it about 16 years (from 1804 to 1820,)” he recalled, “before I began to...

  17. 12 The Final Years, 1853–1865
    (pp. 176-192)

    The last years of Isaac Newton Youngs’s life were not a time of ease and comfort, though age brought relief from some chores. On July 4, 1853, Isaac wrote, “This is my birth day—60 years old. I went to milking for the last time this morning…. I think it is about time to call myself an old man. How many years I shall have yet to live, I know not—but I hope what few I do live, I may spend in doing some good.” Most Americans in the nineteenth century did not live to age sixty, the age...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 193-198)

    Isaac Newton Youngs’s determination to leave a plain trace by his pen was a poignant undertaking for a celibate with no descendants to perpetuate his memory. He consciously preserved information for posterity. His critical view and his position as scribe gave him motive and opportunity to write prolifically for fifty years. More than four thousand manuscript pages were his legacy, adding breadth and depth to today’s understanding of nineteenth-century Shakers. Brother Isaac’s journals provide a detailed account of life in a Shaker village and the daily work of the brethren. They also recount the personal battles of a man who...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 199-241)
  20. Index
    (pp. 242-247)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-249)