Today we think of the Shakers as serene, spiritual people, lifting heart and hands to God with music and exquisitely simple cabinetmaking. Yet the Shakers began as a celibate religious cult, founded by a woman with an apparent hatred of sex, who had apocalyptic visions, shook, shouted, and prophesied. The more colorful accounts of Mother Ann make one wonder if she had a neurological condition, such as Tourette’s.
Her followers gathered to dance and shake to songs dictated by angels. And a decade before the Rochester rappings, the Shakers were channeling books of revelations, going into trance, seeing the dead, doing “the jerks,” and being visited by the spirits of Jesus, Anne Lee, various angels, George Washington, and the interesting assortment of “Bonaparte’s Army, Indians, Laplanders, etc. etc.” One would give much to know about those “etc. etc.” Much later, embarrassed Shaker leaders drew a veil over the “excesses” and “excitements.” But for the ten years that the movement lasted, the “gifts” or “Mother’s Work,” [for Mother Ann Lee] were a matter of thrilling spiritual urgency, even as they became more bizarre: with seers lying in trance for hours, feeling compelled to turn cartwheels, knock over fences, or eat off the floor.
The Shaker community in Union Village, Ohio was the site of some of the strangest manifestations. The records are incomplete—much was destroyed or suppressed by the Elders—but it seems as though many of the visionaries were children.
“The first manifestation at Union Village was through Amittie Ann Miller, then five years of age. She came into a room where some of the sisters were at work, and looking up she exclaimed, “Oh, how pretty! Oh, how pretty!” and at once commenced to spin around, which was continued for an hour, repeating all the time the above exclamation. This influence did not leave her until two days after.
[This is very like the false visionaries at Lourdes (1858) who spun around, seeming to defy gravity. It was considered a symptom of hysteria.]
“On January 13, 1839, a number of boys, 6, 8, 10 and 12 year old, were carried out of time, and many times be in the company of departed friends who were well known to us; they would bring and take love from and to the spiritual world, and learn songs from good spirits and angels, and sing them unconsciously (to all appearance) until those of us in time would learn them and unite in the strain. They would sometimes see beautiful spacious mansions, and see the angelic hosts in their beautiful worship.” The spirit of Pocahontas came to visit at Union Village May 9, 1839. She “touched an inspired one (among the sisters) on the head, who forthwith began to speak in the Indian tongue; and could then, and for some time afterwards, speak only in the Indian tongue.”
So far, these are all the “normal” phenomena we are familiar with from post-Rochester Spiritualism. But here we come to something stranger. This story of telepathy and what seems to be either bi-location or an out-of-body experience was told by the woman to whom it happened: Susannah Cole Liddell, [1824-1914] a Shaker schoolteacher, who joined the Society in 1835, just before the outbreak of the “gifts.”
There were phenomena difficult to account for. Miss Liddell informs me of a strange gift possessed by herself. In due course of time the spirits would write letters in an unknown tongue. One of these letters was communicated at Mount Lebanon [New York], where it was translated, and the interpretation written out in full. The spirit letter was sent to Freegift Wells [head of the Union Village community], who placed it within his vest pocket, buttoned his coat over it and then went to the school-room. Arriving there he said, “What do you see?” Miss Liddell, still in her teens [probably 15 or 16], replied, “I see a letter in your vest pocket.” “Read it,” commanded the elder. She read it and wrote it out in full. This was forwarded to Mount Lebanon, and on comparing it with the translation there, both agreed exactly in every particular. It was then that Elder Wells determined on a quick method of communicating with Mount Lebanon. He wrote a letter, pinned it near the left shoulder of Miss Liddell’s dress, and commanded her to take it to Mount Lebanon. She was not only nonplussed, but greatly grieved, and bursting into tears, went to her eldress, and stated the case. The eldress kindly told her to go to her room and remain quiet. She obeyed, threw herself on her cot and after having composed herself, she felt her body lifted up and then passed out of the window, and rapidly glided over the earth, passing rivers, cities and forests, until she came to the community at Mount Lebanon. When she arrived there no one noticed her. She passed on until she came to a very large house and entered the doorway. Here she saw two young Sisters who recognized and spoke to her. One of them unpinned the message, when Miss Liddell immediately glided back to Union Village. In due course of mail Elder Wells received an answer to the message. So delighted was he with the success of his enterprise that he sent Miss Liddell on a second errand. On her way back she became greatly frightened by being pursued by an immense animal in shape like a hog. She then absolutely refused ever to go on a similar errand…
Possibly the image of the hog was inspired by the story of the demon-possessed Gadarene swine, although hogs have long been a symbol of evil and uncleanness. I know that I have read accounts of other out-of-body or astral projection experiences where the person felt menaced by terrifying entities or evil spirits, but cannot put my hand on them. (If you can cite some, please share at chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.)
As predicted by the Shaker brethren in New York, the revelations and “gifts” ceased among the Shakers in 1847 and, instead, spread throughout the world with the advent of the Rochester rappings. Several of the child mediums, including young Amittie Miller, left the Society when they were old enough to choose. Susannah Liddell died as a faithful Shaker.
One wonders if Miss Liddell ever thanked Holy Wisdom that she’d glided safely back to Union Village in one piece, as she sang,”Simple Gifts.”
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…
Source: Shakers of Ohio: Fugitive Papers Concerning the Shakers of Ohio, John Patterson MacLean, 1907, pp. 388-422
For historical background on Shakers and their spiritualism: