Academic journal article Communal Societies

"Let Down Your Buckets": Declension and the Debate on Shaker Marginality

Academic journal article Communal Societies

"Let Down Your Buckets": Declension and the Debate on Shaker Marginality

Article excerpt

The post--Civil War era in Shaker history is often viewed as one of the quiet declension of a society that had always existed on the perimeters of America. However, the years following the Civil War were an era of struggle between two factions within the Shakers. This battle, deeply rooted in the broader debate over theological integrity, manifested itself in the question over how Shaker involvement in reform movements popular in this era would affect Shaker beliefs and traditions. For a group of progressive Shakers, involvement meant survival and the attraction of new members, a goal that was making changes to certain theological aspects of the Shaker doctrine including the reinstatement of the controversial divine communication practice that had long been abolished by the Central Ministry. More conservative members were not opposed to involvement in various reform efforts but vehemently objected to any change in Shaker theological beliefs and feared the consequences change would bring. The progressives' effort to overcome Shaker marginality by involvement in the women's movement and the creation of a unique women's rights discourse that adapted traditional doctrine to the needs of women led to a greater debate over theology. In the process, new conversations about the viability of the Shaker way of life, its belief system, and its survival were opened.

Frederick Evans of Mount Lebanon, New York, led the progressives. This group questioned the continued marginality of the sect and advocated involving the Shakers in various reform movements, most notably the Women's Rights Movement, that permeated the social and political conversations of nineteenth-century America in an effort to perpetuate the future of the Shakers. Their efforts were met with strong opposition from a group of conservative Shakers determined to maintain and protect the traditions, social and theological, of the society. The conservatives, under the tutelage of Harvey Eads of South Union, Kentucky, were determined that the society should maintain the theological integrity of Shakerism at all costs even it meant that the Shakers had to move farther to the margins of American society.

The progressive Frederick Evans led the charge to change Shakerism into a more modem and viable social solution. In his efforts, he relied on his words. He attempted to express his exasperation in an article submitted to The Shaker Manifesto in 1879. He told a story of a group of stranded sailors on a ship who sent out a distress signal to another vessel. They wailed they were dying of thirst and needed help. When help came, the rescuers laughed at the sailors and told them they only needed to "let their buckets overboard" to obtain all the water they needed. The lesson, Evans pointed out, was that the sailors were too busy moaning about their discomfort to notice they were sailing in a river full of fresh water. Evans compared the Shakers to the sailors. He accused the Shakers of being too busy complaining about the lack of members and spiritual decline of the sect to notice that a vast wealth of resources (potential members) was within their reach. All the Shakers needed to do, he pleaded, was to "let their buckets down." If renewal and survival were the goals, the Shakers must work for it. The only way to do this was to tear down the walls of isolation and reach out to the outside world. (1)

The world that Evans wanted to connect with was in transition. The era following the Civil War was a time of profound social and economic change in America. The same was true for the Shakers. It was, according to Sisters Anna White and Leila Taylor, a "time of transformation." Everything was changing. Large cities appeared almost overnight littered with factories under the control of a new breed of capitalists. The pursuit of wealth and success dominated the thoughts of most Americans as they hustled to and fro on America's busy streets. Added to these changes was the flurry of multiple reform efforts within American society desperately trying to cope and solve the problems caused by the changing social, political, and economic landscape. …

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