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Hands to Work, Hearts to God, Slaves to Freedom – Emancipation and the Shakers

American history is no stranger to intentional societies and religious communities. The United Society of Believers, more commonly known as the Shakers, was one of the earliest Anabaptist sects. Remembered mostly for their innovative furniture and complete celibacy, they stood out from typical Christianity, practicing equality of not only the sexes, but of the races as well.

South Union, Kentucky Shaker community, circa 1933
South Union, Kentucky Shaker community, circa 1933

The Shakers’ beliefs and actions concerning slavery evolved quickly during the formative antebellum years. After quickly understanding that none should be slaves, they worked to free those who came to them, integrating them as equals into their society.

As a spinoff of the Quakers, they were led by Ann Lee in the mid 1700s. She, along with eight adherents to the faith, left England for the new world. She first established a community in New York, but before the end of the century, the society had grown all throughout New England. Through the first decade of the 1800s, they began to branch into Ohio and even Kentucky, where two communities began.

Neptune and Betty

In the early church history, there’s little mention of slavery or how the society wished to deal with the institution. In a vision, Ann Lee had “seen the poor negroes, who are so much despised, redeemed from their loss, with crowns on their heads.” 1Testimonies of Life (Weed, Parsons & Co., 1888) 33. It was not until the Shakers moved into Kentucky that this became a true issue. During the Great Revival period in the early 1800s, a handful of native Kentuckians wanted to join the society. With one of the families came Neptune and Betty, two slaves.

The Shakers in South Union, Kentucky divided themselves into four “families,” each with their own elder. Though the society believed in equality, they also believed in divisions. For instance, male and female members kept themselves fully separate, even using different doors to enter the same buildings. Though separate, they made it of paramount importance that equality existed throughout. One of the four families, was the Black Family, consisting of thirty or more former slaves.  2William R. Black “Went off to the Shakers: The First Converts of South Union” (2013). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 1243. 44.

This was done out of worry for how their more hostile non-Shaker neighbors might react. This part of Kentucky was surrounded by slave owners. To keep things as peaceful as possible, it seems that the South Union Shakers segregated the races as they did the sexes. 3Julia Neal The Kentucky Shakers (University Press of Kentucky, 1982) 47.

D.W.Kellogg lithograph of Shakers dancing.
D.W.Kellogg lithograph of Shakers dancing.

Growing into Abolitionists

When a slave owner would join and bring his slaves with him, they remained legally his property. If the slave owner then decided the leave, the Shakers would do whatever they could to purchase his slaves from him. In one case, the society paid $800 for four slaves of a defecting member, freeing them after he was gone. 4Manifesto Vol. XXIV (United Societies, 1894) 27.

For John Rankin, the head of the South Union community, this ambiguity did not set well. There needed to be some kind of policy in place. He wondered if the society could even accept money from enslavers. “Our sugar and coffee come directly from toiling slave thru his master, and is acceptable,” he reasoned. “Should money be equally so?” For a time, it was decided that the slaves should be hired and paid a wage so that they might purchase their own freedom. 5Edward D. Andrews The People Called Shakers (Dover Publications, Inc., 1953) 214-215.

Racial segregation was not practiced in most other Shaker communities. In Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, freed slaves, when they could be bought and immediately liberated by the society, were simply folded into the community’s general membership. The same was the case all throughout the New York and New England communities.

Four Shaker women, probably taken around 1900.
Four Shaker women, probably taken around 1900.

Free and Forever

This soon gave way to regular emancipation. By 1815, Shakers in Kentucky liberated their slaves. For instance, an 1832 statement freeing a slave named Hannah “manumitted, tolerated, and set free and forever hereafter to enjoy her freedom as though she had been born free, and it moreoever discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during her servitude.” 6Julia Neal The Kentucky Shakers (University Press of Kentucky, 1982) 46.

The Shakers understood that the liberated slaves might not want to stay on as Shakers. Though the members lamented their leaving, they understood that such were the fancies of freedom. Through much of 1817, a year after the slaves were legally freed in South Union, many seemed about to leave the society. In some cases, like that of Neptune, the Black Family’s elder, the newly-freed slave would leave only to return. But more left their former homes and former masters behind. As the Black Family dwindled, the other Families took in the black members, and eventually they lived together as equals. 7William R. Black “Went off to the Shakers: The First Converts of South Union” (2013). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 1243. 70-71.

As the 1800s wore on, and debates over slavery and secession increased, the Shakers continued as ever before. Though their views and actions were no more radical than they had been, fellow Kentuckians had grown less tolerant. The Christmas season of 1843 brought gunfire and vandalism upon the South Union community. A band of men fell upon a cabin occupied by several black Shakers in a failed attempt to scare them off. 8Julia Neal By Their Fruits (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) 175.

Shaker East Family Dwelling House, South Union, Kentucky.
Shaker East Family Dwelling House, South Union, Kentucky.

Southern Shakers and the Civil War

By the time of the Civil War, the Shakers in Kentucky were distrusted by both sides. To the United States government, they were pacifists who were against the war. To the Confederacy, they were abolitionists. The Shakers, however, treated both sides equally, nursing and feeding any who came to them.

When a band of Confederate cavalry came upon the South Union community in February of 1862. They were there not just to confiscate horses, but black people as well. Even after the members fed the soldiers, they demanded fabric and money.

“We are not rich,” one of the sisters explained. “We are not laying up treasures on earth. We work for our living, with our own hands. We have no slaves nor servants to work for us.”

“That is the reason we do not like you,” came the reply from the Confederate. “You will not tolerate slavery. You are a set of abolitionists.”

“We are not abolitionists,” the sister insisted echoing President Lincoln, “yet we have nothing to do with slavery. We mind our own business. We do not interfere with any man’s servants.” 9“History of South Union, Ky, No. 12” The Manifesto, October, 1894.

Racial integration depicted in Shaker dancing.
Racial integration depicted in Shaker dancing.

Post-War Mob Violence

Following the war, the violence did not end for the Kentucky Shakers. After the surrender, the South Union community employed a dozen black men to help them around the farms. The white people in the area took issue and sent warnings to the Shaker elders. In August of 1868, a mob attacked the community, setting fire to several buildings, including the cabins housing the black workers. The following day, the Shakers offered a substantial reward for the arrest of the arsons, which led to another attack soon after. In all, they lost $70,000 in damages.

The area whites were, one of the Shakers explained to a friend, “driving off the negroes we have hired, and endeavoring to make them return to their old masters, and telling the negroes they intend to drive our community from the country or reduce our town to ashes. […] We do not vote or take part in politics, but rejoice that the bonds are stricken from the limbs of the negro and that now we can pay him, and not be compelled, as heretofore, to work the dark skin and pay the white skin.” 10George C. Wright Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940 (Louisiana State University Press, 1990) 39-40.

The Shakers were a strictly monastic order, and while they raised orphan children and took in families, they had no way, apart from proselytizing, to grown their membership. This led to a steady decline starting soon after the Civil War. Through the 1900s, community after community closed until the 1900s, when only a half dozen Shakers remained, sequestered in Sabbath Day Lake, Maine. Currently, there are but four remaining, though they still accept converts.

Landing at a dormitory at South Union, Kentucky.
Landing at a dormitory at South Union, Kentucky.

Note: The subject of slavery and the Shakers deserves a much better treatment than this. If one had the time and ambition, they Shaker Library at Sabbath Day Lake contains oodles of manuscripts and journals that would shed much more light on this topic.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.