Free and Freed Shakers and Affiliates of African Descent at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
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Free and Freed Shakers and Affiliates of African Descent at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

Many Kentuckians of African descent sojourned at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County for prayer in song and dance, for work and common life. From the origin of the village in 1806 through the 1880s, at least nineteen of these were Shakers. They were not many among the more than five hundred inhabitants during this period. However, the lives of these Believers, in addition to those of hired workers, neighbors, and other affiliates, are documented, often in significant detail, in records in the collections of the museum of the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, the Harrodsburg Historical Society, and the Bohon Shaker Collection of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky. Because of these persons, Pleasant Hill was one of the earliest and most enduring interracial residential communities in the United States. These free and freed Shakers and hired workers contributed towards the worship and the work, while their self-determination added to the corporate witness of Pleasant Hill to human rights in Kentucky. [End Page 489]

Background

How did it happen that such a diverse group became Shakers? In 1747, a small religious group in Manchester, England, gathered at the home of the Wardley family who were Quakers. Ann Lee Stanley emerged as the leader. Her husband, Abraham Stanley, or Standerlin, stayed with the society for a short time after its arrival in New York in 1774. Celibacy was a key practice from its beginning. She resumed the name “Ann Lee” following her separation from her husband. Her unauthorized preaching on personal conversion as well as the charismatic forms of prayer developed at a time when England was at a threshold of religious and social upheaval. Crosscurrents from France affected religion and politics, leading to revivalist religious expression and reexamination of human rights on both sides of the Atlantic. French Protestant exiles known as Camisards were in Manchester, England, during that time. Mother Ann’s early followers, like the Camisards, experienced “visions, miracles, ‘agitations’ in a style akin to dance.”1 Quakers, Camisards, and Shakers believed in the possibility of unmediated manifestations of the spirit. These perennial modes of religious experience and expression characterized the worship of the original eight Shakers who migrated from Manchester to New York in 1774. This kind of prayer, song, and body movement may or may not have been among the features of Shaker life that attracted early converts of African descent. These included Prime, Hannah, Betsy, and Phebe Lane at the early Shaker village in Watervliet near Albany, New York.2 George and David Gennings, Mary [End Page 490] Taylor, and Melinda Welch were at Mount Lebanon, New York, and Sarah Mason was at Shirley, Massachusetts.3 Lively prayer, singing, and dance in worship were among the reasons why many converts came. Just as attractive would have been the successful agricultural, domestic-production-based economy that developed within Shaker villages in the early nineteenth century which accommodated people with a variety of skills and gifts.

Growing antislavery feelings in England may have been part of the social context that prepared the first Shakers to sympathize with or even identify with enslaved and ill-treated persons of African descent when Lee’s small group settled near Albany, New York. However, egalitarianism as early Shakers practiced it was based on their reading of Scripture, not on the secular or deist ideals of the French and American Revolutions.4

The “opening of the gospel” of Mother Ann in the West occurred on March 22, 1805. Villages were established in Ohio, Kentucky, and the Indiana territory. Issachar Bates, John Meacham, and Benjamin Seth Youngs, Shaker evangelists from New York, were welcomed by Malcolm Worley at Beedle Station in Warren County, Ohio. Anna Middleton (May 15, 1786–April 10, 1861), an African American, was the second Shaker convert in this region. According to early Shaker historian and commentator J. P. McLean, Middleton was received “just as cordially as though she had been white and free” on March 29, 1805. Middleton had been enslaved in Virginia, and became free in Ohio. At age nineteen she converted at Turtle Creek in...