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Sisters in the Faith

Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes

Glendyne R. Wergland
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Sisters in the Faith
    Book Description:

    In 1788, following the death of charismatic founder Mother Ann Lee, the celibate religious group known as the Shakers set out to institutionalize equality of the sexes in their theology, government, and daily practice. In this book, Glendyne Wergland evaluates how well they succeeded in that mission by examining the experiences of women within Shaker communities over more than a century. Drawing on an extensive archive of primary documents, Wergland discusses topics ranging from girlhood, health, and dress to why women joined the Shakers and how they were viewed by those outside their community. She analyzes the division of labor between men and women, showing that there was considerable cooperation and reciprocity in carrying out most tasksfrom food production to laundering to gathering firewoodeven as gendered conflicts remained. In her conclusion, Wergland draws together all of these threads to show that Shaker communities achieved a remarkable degree of gender equality at a time when women elsewhere still suffered under the legal and social strictures of the traditional patriarchal order. In so doing, she argues, the experience of Shaker women served as a model for promoting women's rights in American political culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-053-6
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Through most of the nineteenth century, Shaker sisters outnumbered Shaker brothers. To better understand why women chose to join the society, consider the status of non-Shaker women in Anglo-American society. Wives were disadvantaged under Anglo-American law. For women of the world’s people, or non-Shakers, marriage brought subordination and no guarantee of comfort, safety, or support. Nonetheless, most women married. The principle of coverture meant that a wife’s legal identity merged with her husband’s at marriage and essentially disappeared. Legally, married women were classed with children and others incapable of managing their own affairs. A married woman could divorce only with...

  7. Part 1: Joining the Shakers

    • 1 Ann Lee
      (pp. 13-28)

      Ann Lee was a strong and determined evangelist. In the late eighteenth century, when women rarely spoke before public groups, much less founded churches, she defied the Anglo-American mainstream’s expectation of a religious leader.¹ She proselytized by publicly denouncing men and women whose sins caught her attention, and she gave her followers latitude in religious expression, far beyond what conventional churches tolerated. She addressed them as a mother would, and they recognized her concern for their welfare. Unlike the typical itinerant preacher who came to town, spread the word, exhorted, issued the altar call, and went on to the next...

    • 2 The Short Marriage of Mother Lucy Wright
      (pp. 29-41)

      The separation of the newlyweds Lucy Wright and Elizur Goodrich is a case study in Shaker history. Their matrimonial union was among many that crumbled under Shaker celibacy.¹ Because Lucy Wright subsequently became the Shakers’ leader, however, her marriage and its dissolution are documented better than others. Furthermore, Wright’s choices highlight Shakerism’s benefits to women. Lucy Wright gave up her marriage (a civil contract that kept women in legal dependency) in favor of a Shaker covenant, which allowed her to rise to leadership with the kind of power that, among the world’s people, was usually held by men.

      In the...

    • 3 Why Women Joined the Shakers, 1780–1840
      (pp. 42-55)

      Lucy Wright joined the Shakers for the same reasons most other women did. According to D’Ann Campbell, these women sought a path to salvation and economic security. Some feared marriage or sexual intimacy or both.¹ Additional factors mattered, as well, and this chapter enlarges on Campbell’s findings, drawing on my survey of forty-four New Lebanon Shaker sisters’ testimonies.² Women were pulled into Shakerism by such factors as Ann Lee’s charismatic personality, their sense of sin and disappointment in traditional denominations, their need for financial security, and the Shaker teachings about celibacy and the equality of the sexes. Other issues, including...

    • 4 Shaker Girlhood
      (pp. 56-72)

      A Shaker girl’s life was built on a foundation of conformity—generally safe, peaceful, and predictable. Children were expected to conform to adults’ expectations in work, school, and worship. But sometimes parents who were not Believers tried to take their daughters away from the Shakers. Forced to decide where they would be better treated, some girls chose to stay with the Shakers. Among them were Betty and Phebe Lane. After their father, Prime Lane, a free African American, indentured the girls to the Shakers at Watervliet, New York, he had second thoughts and sued to void their indentures in 1811....

    • 5 Chastity and the Shaker Cap
      (pp. 73-84)

      In April 1851, John Irving returned to the Hancock, Massachusetts, Shaker village to remove his daughters with the help of a sympathetic sheriff. But the effort deteriorated when fourteen-year-old Justina and ten-year-old Elizabeth resisted. As Irving and the sheriff carried them away, one observer wrote, “Their bitter cries was enough to melt the hardest heart.” The Shakers took immediate legal action, and the sheriff brought the girls back that afternoon. When they returned, Justina’s Shaker cap was in her hands, not on her head. Her father had torn it off.¹

      Justina had tried to protect her cap. It was more...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  8. Part 2: Work and Worship

    • 6 The World’s Views of Shaker Sisters, 1782–1865
      (pp. 87-101)

      Shakers depended on the outside world for new members, so they welcomed visitors, despite the inconveniences of hosting the world’s people. During the tourist season, from July into October, a visit to the Shakers made a nice excursion from Lebanon Springs. In August 1836, Eldress Asenath Clark noted, “A great crowd of spectators attended the public meeting to day—perhaps as many as ever came at any one time.”¹ Sometimes rumors boosted attendance. In 1837, a Ministry sister wrote, “In consequence of a flying report that Mother Ann was to appear in our Meetinghouse to day and introduce matrimony into...

    • 7 Work, Reciprocity, Equality, and Union
      (pp. 102-113)

      Scholars’ understanding of men and women living as Shakers includes the “fact” that the sexes were separated. They draw that conclusion from two sources: the society’s Millennial Laws and visitors’ reports. The Millennial Laws were designed to maintain physical distance between men and women. Brothers and sisters were not supposed to be alone together, work together without the Elders’ permission, or visit each other’s rooms and shops unnecessarily.¹ In addition, many visitor accounts mention Shaker separation of the sexes. Visitors, however, often overstated the facts. In 1792, for instance, an outsider wrote, “They do not speak nor look at each...

    • 8 Gendered Conflict among the Shakers
      (pp. 114-127)

      Most of the time, Shaker men and women worked together amicably enough to maintain union and reciprocity. Both sexes knew their responsibilities. A note written by Philemon Stewart shows one aspect of their division of labor in 1834.

      Our good Sisters have rallied forth from their shops this afternoon to clean the road and dooryard. And it is a fact they have caused the street and matters around our buildings to wear a very different aspect. They seem now to smile in good order, instead of groaning in confusion, that is as far as the Sisters have been able to...

    • 9 Abuse by Spirit Messages during the Era of Manifestations
      (pp. 128-147)

      Spiritual revelation is the foundation of western religion. The Old Testament story of Moses, who alone heard the word of God and brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, had something in common with the New Testament account of Mary, mother of Jesus, who related that an angel told her she would give birth while still a virgin. Both contributed to enduring religious traditions based on unseen beings’ uncorroborated messages to chosen instruments. Though skeptics may challenge such revelations, the tradition persists.

      Christianity’s offshoot, Shakerism, is also based on spiritual messages. Mother Ann Lee’s revelations were the foundation of...

    • 10 The New Lebanon Deaconesses’ Bonnet Business, 1835–1850
      (pp. 148-160)

      Some scholars assert that Shaker deaconesses were “little concerned” with financial matters until late in the nineteenth century.¹ Shaker records, however, tell a different story. In a 1794 list of New Lebanon’s first male and female Office Trustees, for instance, Rhoda Hammond was labeled the “Principal” trustee.² This is not to suggest that the sisters held financial power in every Shaker enclave. At the North Family, Antoinette Doolittle received the Ministry’s permission for the sisters to retain control of their own earnings in 1850—and the sisters “acquired a competence” by thrift and careful management.³ As we have already seen,...

  9. Conclusions on Shaker Equality of the Sexes
    (pp. 161-174)

    When I began researching Shaker sisters’ lives, I was dubious about the Shaker tenet of equality of the sexes. Judging from other scholars’ assessments, I was not alone in being unable to imagine how it might have worked. After several years of research, however, I found enough evidence to see how the Shakers constructed and maintained equality of the sexes within their communal society.

    Scholars assess equality in several ways: authority (in managing members, dealing with the outside world, or controlling money), religion or spirituality (whose voice predominates), and social relations (who defers to whom). Unlike academics, however, Believers did...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 175-216)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 217-228)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-229)