- Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey by Carol Medlicott
Shakers, Issachar Bates, Old Northwest
Once either overshadowed by their handicrafts or simplistically idealized as orderly communalists, the Shakers have in recent decades been revealed by Priscilla Brewer, Stephen Stein, and others as a contentious people struggling to keep their movement vigorous as they sought unity among their far-flung communities and contended with ongoing crises of leadership and apostasy. Still more recently, a wave of biographical analysis featuring work by Jean Humez, Richard Williams, Elizabeth De Wolfe, and Glendyne Wergland has further demythologized the Shakers by exploring their inner lives. Carol Medlicott’s biography of western Shaker leader Issachar Bates reflects and advances this historiographical trajectory. A historical geographer by training, Medlicott initially approached Shakerism with the aim of understanding its cultural dynamics and gauging its cohesiveness and stability as it expanded westward across the early republic. Her research interests led her to Bates, whose life ‘‘reveals the ways in which the Shaker movement remained coherent across vast distances’’ (xiii). In Bates she found a colorful and outsized figure who in many respects defies the Shaker stereotype: He was a gregarious man who came to Shakerism through a ‘‘long and rocky spiritual conversion process’’ during a midlife crisis (49). His early life was marked by instability in his father’s household, drinking, coarse speech, service as a Revolutionary War fifer, a mobile and hardscrabble existence in rural Massachusetts and New York trying to provide for a large family, and a tendency toward depression.
It is precisely such characteristics, Medlicott argues, that make Bates so revealing of the dynamics of Shaker expansion. On the one hand, his [End Page 497] sociability, bawdiness, gift for singing, history of mobility, experience in newly opening areas of settlement, and personal sacrifice of biological family ties made him particularly well suited to carrying the Shaker message from its early centers in New York and Massachusetts to a trans-Appalachian West being religiously galvanized by such charismatic preachers as Barton Stone, James McGready, and Peter Cartwright. His personal magnetism attracted and retained many converts, including Kentucky Revival leader Richard McNemar and his entire congregation, which became the basis of Ohio’s Union Village Shaker community; won him the support of Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison; and helped Indiana Shakers maintain peaceful relations with rebellious Shawnee leaders Prophet and Tecumseh. Bates helped early western Shakers cope with the sometimes daunting challenges of life in the Old Northwest, including malaria epidemics, the New Madrid earthquakes, and the tensions leading up to the War of 1812. His experience settling in new places as a young man served him well as he and other Shaker pioneers worked to build new communities. His singing and his hymns— many of which appeared in Millennial Praises (1812), the Shakers’ first printed hymn book—introduced western converts to Shaker doctrine, which was only beginning to assume written form, generated community among them, and linked them to the Shaker East. His importance to Shakerism’s western expansion propelled him to the position of elder at what became the West Union community in Indiana and, later, at Ohio’s Watervliet community.
On the other hand, many of Bates’s personal qualities ran counter to the Shakers’ emphasis on order and, especially in the West, their need for structures of authority. A peripatetic man who headed west to proselytize before the Shaker ‘‘gospel order’’ had been fully established in the East, he chafed at order himself and moved frequently among budding communities in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, sometimes generating resentment and restiveness among more settled believers. Nor did he impose order effectively as an elder at Watervliet. Furthermore, the same personality that drew converts made many of them uncomfortable with the leadership of anyone else and made many leaders—such as Archibald Meacham, his co-elder at West Union—resentful of Bates’s popularity. These problems made Bates a divisive figure and left him ill-equipped to address growing rates of...