On December 31, 1876, a minister of the Shaker village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, penned the final entry into the ministerial journal for that year. The author commented on the passing of the national centennial and the losses the Shakers had suffered because of fire and other misfortunes. In careful script, the elder concluded:
Our adversities the closing year have been severe and Our adversities the closing year have been severe and heavy . . . few more such years would use us up. But the rolling seasons continue to return freighted with the fruits and productions of earth and God's bountiful rains, sunshine and living air, which if thankfully received and wisely improved will prove a blessing and sustain us in adversity and affliction and supply [End Page 3] all our needs, which we should receive and enjoy with gratitude and humility. 1
Indeed, Pleasant Hill had seen better years, but this Shaker author faced the future with the pragmatic optimism of one whose life was tied both to the soil of the Bluegrass and the heavenly vision of Shakerism. Many Shaker scholars have framed the story of the Shakers—the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing—in terms of rise and decline. 2 Admittedly, it is difficult to disagree completely with this characterization. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Shaker villages throughout the United States enjoyed fewer numbers and prospects than they had before the Civil War. Contemporary commentators often noted the decline of Shaker communities in the same breath as their praise or condemnation of the Shakers' way of life.
Yet, many works have failed to read the sources to discern how the Shakers faced this fate. How did the Believers of Pleasant Hill respond to the changing fortunes of their community? Understanding this reaction may provide an important insight into the history of Shakerism as much as quantitative studies that focus on its measurable decline. 3 After all, Shakers believed that they lived in the millennium—the last thousand years before the end of the world. Theirs was a spiritual struggle as much as a temporal one. While the Shakers of Pleasant Hill [End Page 4] worried about the future of their village and their cause, they also met an uncertain future with an attitude rooted in their spirituality. This attitude belies what one scholar called Pleasant Hill's "pathetic end." 4
Far from passively accepting an "unlucky" and "inevitable" end, the Pleasant Hill Shakers struggled to meet the challenges of postwar Kentucky. 5 They actively engaged with economic crises, including debt and legislation which would harm the finances of the village, by selling land, materials, and changing their industries to adapt to changing markets. These responses required them to compromise with their beliefs and further interact with the outside world by participating in local politics. The Shakers also struggled to maintain their membership and religious practices in an era of reduced religious enthusiasm. Clearly, the Shakers' efforts to maintain and promote their temporal community often existed in tension with their ultimate spiritual goal to live apart from the earth, as if in heaven. These compromises, while not always effective, demonstrate that the world did not simply pass the Shakers by and render their beliefs obsolete. More accurately, the Shakers engaged worldly challenges in order to preserve their spiritual mission. At Pleasant Hill, Believers expressed fears about the future and often commented wistfully about the past—but they also expressed hope and continued faith in their spiritual charge to reform mankind.
The Shakers of Pleasant Hill lived in a community nestled within the gently sloping hills of central Kentucky on the road between Lexington and Harrodsburg. Their story, however, began in eighteenth-century England in the town of Manchester. There, a small sect known to many as "Shaking Quakers," or "Shakers," followed the guidance of James and Jane Wardley, two former Quakers. 6 The [End Page 5] name derived from their style of worship—ecstatic dancing and movements that reflected their religious enthusiasm. Beyond their rather dramatic form of worship, this group confessed several beliefs that dissented radically from the doctrine of the Church of England. The Wardleys and their followers...