On this date in 1840, Shaker journal keeper Phoebe Ann Buckingham wrote:
Jesse H. comes home. Something terrible to relate. Little Tomy has sealed his fate and to the world he goes. Elder Brother and Frederick W. went to Albany with him.
This entry discusses a common part of Shaker life: watching individuals leave the community. The phrase “to the world” refers to anything outside the realm of Shaker Society. People left for a variety of reasons. Some left because they were curious about life outside the Shaker community. Others went back to their families and villages. Sometimes, individuals changed their mind about living in a very controlled, religious society. In a few documented cases, couples who had met within the community left to marry and start their own families.
There is little we can do to discover “Little Tomy’s” reasons for leaving. While records are available about some of those who lived in the community for many years, the stories of those that stayed for only a few months or years are more difficult to find. Thousands of people tried the Shaker lifestyle throughout the nineteenth century and only small percentage stayed. Yet it is important to remember that they often left with Shaker knowledge, ideas and values. Some remained on good terms with their former Brethren and Sisters, occasionally visiting the communities.
Frequently, the Shakers watched people leave with great sadness. Converts were truly an investment of time, resources, money and effort. Many had been trained in trades such as furniture building or herb processing. When one decided to leave, the Shakers had to accept the loss of not only the individual, but also their talents and their potential.
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