For a true depiction of the social nature of the Shakers, it is helpful to examine the accounts of the very diverse people who visited Shaker communities. Countless documents were written about the Shakers; it is astounding to note how both the Shakers and their visitors interacted so frequently, and how each embellished the others’ lives through these encounters.
An early account was by Francisco de Miranda in 1783, during the lifetime of Ann Lee. Miranda, a Venezuelan, served in the American Revolution from 1783-1784. He made only brief remarks about his general impressions, observing that the Shakers considered themselves as the sons of God. Miranda was later known for his roles as a liberator in South America.
The Marquis de Barbé-Marbois was Secretary of the French Legation during his years of US residence between 1779-1785. He kept a journal of his travels. Barbé-Marbois wrote about attending a Sunday meeting at Watervliet on September 26, 1784. This visit occurred only weeks after Ann Lee’s death on September 8, 1784. Circumstantially, both he and the Marquis de Lafayette attended the meeting out of curiosity.
In Laura Auricchio’s book, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered (2014), we learn of the surrounding situation concerning this visit: “On September 28, 1784, they left Mt. Vernon to witness at Ft. Stanwix, Rome, NY (formerly Ft. Schuyler) 400 miles north, the signing of a treaty between the US and the Six Nations at the Iroquois Confederacy.” Barbé-Marbois, as a scribe, follows the journey from Albany to Fort Stanwix while stopping at Watervliet for a Sunday meeting. Lafayette’s interest in mesmerism provoked his wish to examine a Shaker meeting as to any resemblance to this phenomenon. Lafayette was not disappointed and described the Shakers as “enthusiasts who go through incredible contortions and who claim to perform miracles, in which I have found some of the methods of magnetism.”
In sections of his three volume book, America: Historical and Descriptive, British author James Silk Buckingham attends a noon worship service on July 15, 1838 at Watervliet. He comments that the Shaker dance is comparable to dervishes in the Middle East.
While on a three year visit during the years 1838-1840, Scotsman George Combe attended a Sunday meeting. While not uncomplimentary in his comments on Shaker tunes and dancing, he was not so generous with his phrenological observations. Phrenology was a pseudomedicine based on the concept that mental faculties and character traits were indicated by the configuration of the skull.
British naval officer Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) attended a Shaker meeting in 1839. London born, he entered the naval service at age 14. Eventually becoming a captain, he was awarded by the Royal Humane Society for saving many lives at sea. He also authored such works as Mr. Midshipman Easy (1839) and Masterman Ready (1841). In his Diary in America, he expresses a distaste for Shaker singing and dancing.
The Ann Buckingham journal entry for September 12, 1865 states: “A man brought three Sisters of Charity, dressed in their usual way, from Troy. We gave them dinner and they enjoyed the visit well.”
According to DA Buckingham’s journal on Sunday, October 13, 1867, “General Sheridan attends public meeting and after the meeting stopped at the office for 30-40 minutes. He was very friendly, pleasant, and sociable.” Also, on September 15, 1874, Buckingham writes: “An Indian medicine man, Charles Keokuk and an interpreter visit for several days. Prepares powders, treats lame horse, lectures on his tribe.”
In January 1872, Robert Watt, known as the “Danish Pamphleteer,” visited the Watervliet community. His normal upbeat manner depicts his encounter in a lively style.
Though just a brief glimpse into the lives of the Believers and their encounter with the world’s people, we most certainly can see hearts open to all.
— Jim Maczek, volunteer