Irrational Natures Tamed

Hervey Elkins, Fifteen Years in the Senior Order of Shakers: A Narration of Facts, Concerning That Singular People.  Hanover, NH: Dartmouth Press, 1853:72-74.

By the time he wrote this, Hervey Elkins had left the Shakers and, in the outside world, professed being a spiritualist.  This section of his account describes the beginning of “Mother Ann’s Work” in the Shaker community in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1837.—JB

In the autumn of the same season, the singular spirit manifestation began, alluded to so frequently in the suit before the Legislature of New Hampshire concerning the Shakers.  Shrieks of some one, apparently in great distress, first announced a phenomenon which caused the excitement.  The screeching proceeded from a girl of but thirteen years of age, who had, previously, among the Shakers been a clairvoyant, and who has since been a powerful medium for spiritual manifestation, elsewhere.  She soon fell upon the floor, uttering awful cries, similar to those we had often heard emanating from instruments groaning under the pressure of some hidden abomination in the assembly.  She plucked out entire handfuls of her hair, and wailed and shrieked, like one subjected to al the conceived agonies of hell.  The ministry and elders remarked that they believed that something was wrong; something extremely heinous was covered from God’s witnesses, somewhere in the assembly.  All were exhorted to search themselves and see if they had nothing about them that God disowns.  The meeting was soon dismissed, but the medium continued in her abnormal and deplorable condition.

Near the middle of the succeeding night we were all awakened by the ringing of the alarm, and summoned quickly to repair to the girls’ apartments.  We obeyed.  The same medium lay upon a bed, uttering, in the name of an apostate from the Shaker faith, and who was still living in New England, tremendous imprecations against himself, warning all to beware of what use they make of their privilege in Zion, telling us of his awful torments in hell, how his flesh (or the substance of his spiritual body) was all to strings and ringlets torn, how he was roasted in flames of brimstone and tar, and finally, that all these calamities were caused by his doleful corruptions and pollutions while a member, and professedly a brother to us.  This, it was supposed by many, was by true revelation, the anticipation of the future state, of this victim of apostacy and sin.

Two or three more girls were soon taken in the same manner, and became uncontrollable.  They were all instruments for reprobated spirits, and breathed nothing but hatred and blasphemy to God.  They railed, they cursed, they swore, they heaped the vilest epithets upon the heads of the leaders and most faithful of the members, they pulled each other’s and their own hair, threw knives, forks, and the most dangerous of missiles.  When the instruments were rational, the elders entreated them to keep off such vile spirits.  They would weep in anguish, and reply, that unless they spoke and acted for the spirits, they would choke them to death.  They would then suddenly swoon away, and in struggling to resist them, would choke and gasp, until they had the appearance of a victim strangled by a rope tightly drawn around the neck.  If they would then speak, the strangulation would cease.

In the mean time, two females of adult age, and two male youth were seized in the same manner.  Unless confined, they would elope and appear to all intents the victims of insanity.  One of the young women eloped, fled to the lake, which was covered with ice, was pursued by some of the ox teamsters and carried back to the infirmary.  Two men could with difficulty hold a woman or a child when thus influenced.  To prevent mischief and elopement, we were obliged to envelope their bodies and their arms tightly in sheets, and thus sow them up, and confine them until the spell was over.  Such delirium generally lasted but a few hours.  It would seize them at any time and at any place.

By some, these doings were jested, without a satisfactory source of explanation; by others they were regarded as matters of unaccountable curiosity; by others yet, they were considered as solemn demonstrations of hidden abominations, entertained by some of the members.  They were a source of great grief to the leaders, inasmuch as the instruments were uncontrollable and irresponsible for any of their acts.  It is a singular fact that every one of them have since left the society.

The most of the Shakers now suppose that they were impelled in their delirium by their own irrational natures; that reason was for a time suspended, to show to us the abyss into which the irrational principles of nature, if followed, would eventually precipitate the soul.  They believe there are two principles of which we are capable of obeying; and the free agency of man consists, and extends no farther than, to embrace the power to choose the way which leads to either life or death—by which act we choose the veritable reward of our doings.  After rejecting for awhile the light of conscience, man becomes bewildered, and though he may subsequently yield to most conscientious impulses, yet, being astray in the wilds of nature, without polarity and without guide, he may conceive he is going, or doing right—and is morally, yet abstractly may be doing or going wrong: that is, the act considered apart from the honest motive which produced or pervaded it, is absolutely wrong, for it produces evil results.

By this theory they account for all the conscientious deviations from truth practised by heathens, barbarians, and even the majority of professed christians.  The man who believes he is travelling the right road may at the same moment be travelling wrong; for “Sincerity is no security against error.”  But “God winks at the sin of ignorance.”  On the other hand those, who have ever obeyed the lovely shepherd’s voice from early youth, have a light, an intelligence, a guide to direct them.  Christ is that light, that intelligence, that infallible guide who is found guiding in the narrow way.  But those who wander from this, will grope in darkness until they again seek to find it.  Then, by obeying the best light they have, though it may lead them through almost impenetrable thickets and thorns, they shall eventually find again the path from which they once strayed.  There is, however, they believe, a rebellious path, which leads in preknowledge from the way of life, into regions so remote from God that the rebel shall never return therefrom.

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