Did you know that there were several Shakers who were veterans of the American Revolution?
One of the basic tenets of Shakerism is pacifism, yet warfare continuously touched the lives of Shakers. From the American Revolution to the Civil War, the political climate of “the World” infiltrated the communities that the Shakers tried so carefully to keep separate. They were unable to secure conscientious objector status until after the Civil War, and able-bodied Shaker males of age were put on lists of those eligible for military service.
The American Revolution made the Shakers’ desire for isolation difficult. The Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies were active in Albany by 1778. This group covered the seven counties of Albany, Charlotte, Dutchess, Orange, Tryon, Ulster, and Westchester. The area around Albany was well known for its Tory leanings. The Commissioners existed to test the loyalty of locals to the revolutionary cause. They administered oaths of allegiance and forced non-locals and new arrivals to post bonds to ensure “good behavior.”
The Shakers at Watervliet managed to slip under the radar at first – they mostly kept to themselves and the Commissioners had no reason to notice them – until the summer of 1780. On July 5, David Darrow attempted to drive a flock of sheep to Niskayuna. The Revolutionary authorities, however, believed that Darrow was bringing them to “the Enemy” and that he, among others, were traitors to the American cause. John Hocknell, one of the original settlers, and Joseph Meacham appeared before the Committee on Darrow’s behalf, but two days later the three of them found themselves imprisoned for their refusal to fight and their encouragement of others to do likewise. The Commissioners concluded that the Shakers were “highly pernicious and of destructive tendency to the Freedom & Independence of the United States of America.”  Other Shakers, including Ann and William Lee, were incarcerated for the same later that month. Mother Ann was transferred to Poughkeepsie and was not released until the beginning of December.
There were several Shakers, however, that were also veterans of the War of Independence. Issachar Bates, an early convert from Hingham, Massachusetts, a town about fourteen miles southeast of Boston, enlisted several times over. Issachar was a fifer in the militia who was present at Bunker Hill and the burning of Charlestown. Perhaps one of the most exciting and dramatic events in Issachar’s life was his escape from New York. In 1776 he was in the company of a Captain Gates, which was headed for New York. This company was part of the “flying camps,” which were mobile, strategic reserves of troops created to help cover the huge amount of territory that needed to be defended from the British Army. Issachar was among a group of men that was sent out to keep watch. After waiting for hours without any relief or provisions, they soon discovered that they had been abandoned and were trapped in New York City by the incoming Redcoats without a commander. Issachar, along with 200 other men, made ready to surrender. Some chose to try and swim across the three mile wide river. While they were waiting to surrender, an Irishman suggested that instead of just standing there waiting to be taken, they should do something: “Verry well, replied the Colonel I will make a proposal, we will all march into yon grove and all lie flat on our bellies; there will be nothing come thro there except perhaps a small flanking party, and we will rise up and fire and force our way thro.” Luckily, they were spared even the flanking party. As Issachar lay in the thicket, he could hear the troops marching by only feet away from him. After the British had passed, the men ran for their lives – nine miles in total, until they met some of their own army on the road.  Bates was even present at West Point in 1780, when Benedict Arnold’s plans to give the place to the British were discovered on the person of John André.
After returning home from the war, Issachar found himself dissatisfied and with a troubled soul. From a young age he had witnessed several signs that he believed were sent from God. During the Revolution, he heard Mother Ann Lee speak in Petersham, MA, during her missionary tour through New England, and Issachar wrote: “Now when I saw all this, I was convinced, it was the work of God among these Shakers; but I was not ready yet; for I had married a wife, and therefore I could not come.”  Issachar married Lovina Maynard in 1778. He eventually became a licensed Baptist preacher, though his soul was still not satisfied. Issachar felt lost and confused. In his autobiography, he wrote: “Then, I began to look all around the world: to see if there were any that did good: and I found, that they all lived after the flesh, except the Shakers; and there I hated to go. Here I was, for three years; my faith with the Shakers, and my union with the world; and I a tormented Baptist preacher.”  But in August 1801, Issachar found himself at Mt. Lebanon, confessing his sins, and in 1802 he convinced his wife and family to do the same. Lovina, Issachar, and their nine children moved to Watervliet, where Issachar was an active member of the community and traveled extensively though Ohio and Kentucky. He was also a prolific song writer and talented musician.
The American Revolution provides an interesting example of how Shakers dealt with political and cultural forces outside of their communities. They were imprisoned for declaring an unpopular opinion, yet they maintained their beliefs and did not shy away from their principles. Sometimes it may be difficult to remember that those within Shaker communities were individuals with varying and diverse backgrounds. While it is important to see the Shakers as a collective whole – their contributions to the world are numerous, and many studies on utopian or commune living have been based around Shaker lifestyle – it is also imperative to see the leaves among the tree, so to speak, to study the many faces, ideas, and lives that made the community what was. We may find it surprising to learn that Issachar Bates barely escaped the British in New York City and witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill, but he and his contemporaries would view it as a normal part of life.
 Ed. Victor Hugo Paltsits, “Minutes of the Commissioners for detecting and defeating conspiracies in the state of New York. Albany county sessions, 1778-1781”
 Issachar Bates, “Sketch of the Life and Experience of Issachar Bates”