Sister Charlotte Tann: Strengthened by Faith

Holly Wood, Music Program Specialist

“And I am thankful I was called into the gospel when I was a child, and I am also thankful I can say, that I never turned my back on the way of God although I have had some very trying scenes of trouble and distress to pass through . . .” {1} – Sister Charlotte Tann at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, 1841.

Based off census records, the far right figure is probably Charlotte Tann. c. 1870s

Here are a few examples of those “trying scenes”:

  • Living in the chaos of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake on the Western frontier, where aftershocks disrupted the isolated community for months.
  • The War of 1812 caused thirteen year old Charlotte Tann to flee from West Union Shaker Village with hundreds of pacifist Shakers on a 431 mile journey to safety.
  • Returning home after two years of war to discover her entire village destroyed.
  • Orphaned at age fifteen.
  • The closing of her childhood Shaker community and removal to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

When the Indiana community formally closed, Charlotte Tann was assigned by the Shaker ministry to live as a free person of color in Kentucky, a slave owning state.

How did this woman of faith, this unsung pioneer, face the difficulties of her life?

Tann’s testimony reflects the perseverance of a woman who’s trying life did not break her. She survived loss, disease, war and grappled with societal inequities while staying devoted and strengthened by the faith.

“And now I will give myself up to Mother and her good work, and labor to gather in a substance and treasure up the gospel into my own soul, for it is my unshaken faith and resolution to abide and endure to the end, let what will come.” {2}

Her faith compelled her to heal and to flourish. As believers in gender equality, the Shakers recognized the spiritual gifts of both women and men. Pleasant Hill had a wealth of women who wrote beautiful Shaker hymns and, unlike so many women in the world, the Shaker women were recognized as the composers.

Image of “Give Ear O My Children” from Benjamin Dunlavy’s Song Book, 1844-45.

Sister Charlotte was referred to as an “inspired instrument,” or, led by God to compose. She wrote many songs, including “Give Ear O My Children,” which admonishes all bondage and hails freedom, love and kindness as the tools to gain entry to Mother’s heaven above.

Upon the passing of this resilient woman in 1875, the Pleasant Hill Shakers reflected on her as a tower of faith:

  “And thus has fallen another Veteran that has stood since childhood through many trying scenes . . . She is worthy of much honor, for She has been a faithful and zealous Surporter of the cause.” {3}

Learn more about Sister Charlotte Tann, and the stories of other Shakers from Pleasant Hill, on tours conducted daily at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

{1} Testimony of Charlotte Tann, “Testimonies of the Pleasant Hill Shakers,” WR-VI-B49 pp. 38-40
{2} Ibid
{3} Filson Club:  Bohon Shaker Collection.  Volume 16 of 40 volumes. 
A Ministerial Journal.  October 24, 1868 – September 30, 1880.  March 15, 1875. Page 140.

Mother Ann’s Mission: Calling and Controversy

Rebekah Roberts, Program Specialist

Women in the 1700s were often considered the possessions and servants of men, but Ann Lee violated social norms, becoming one of only ten female preachers identified in the United States before 1800. As leader of the Shaker movement, she proclaimed a dual-natured Father and Mother God as a basis for gender equality.

Manchester, England c. 1750

Born February 29, 1736 in Manchester, England, Ann Lee began working twelve-hour shifts in a textile mill as a child. She never attended school, and remained illiterate her entire life. The second-oldest of eight children, Ann Lee played a vital role in raising her younger siblings and ultimately watched her mother die in childbirth.

An unflattering drawing of Ann Lee from “The Annuals of Phrenology and Physiognomy 1865-1873”

Ann Lee was active in a group called the “Shaking Quakers” when she was forced to marry. She protested this act by never assuming her husband’s surname. She detested the concept of intercourse from a young age, and the inability to avoid the dangers of childbirth. She barely survived the birth of her four children, three of whom died in infancy, and a daughter who passed at age six. Ann Lee believed that these traumatic experiences were God’s judgement and responded with a vow of celibacy, turning away from sex and all other worldly desires.

Ann Lee took her message to the streets, proselytizing in public spaces and interrupting church services, which resulted in her repeated incarceration. While imprisoned, she envisioned God directing an escape from religious persecution in the New World. She rallied eight followers and they settled in New York in 1774 amidst the burgeoning American Revolution.

The Vankleek House in Poughkeepsie, NY, where Ann Lee was lodged for a night prior to being sent to the Poughkeepsie Jail, in 1776. Image from “The Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution” by Benson John Lossing, 1851.

In 1781, Ann Lee left with two disciples on a missionary journey throughout New England. In opposition to the traditional church, she rejected written creeds in favor of reflection and ongoing revelation. Ann Lee was described as direct but nurturing, like a mother, and developed personal relationships with followers, referred to as her children.

Mother Ann was arrested and accused of being an enemy of the patriots. She was thought to be a man in disguise, or a witch, and was dragged from her bed and beaten. Public meetings included converts who confessed their sins to Mother Ann, alongside mobs organized by churches and ruffians alike, who drove the Shakers out of towns. Everywhere she traveled, Mother Ann attracted an audience.

Ann Lee’s grave site, Watervliet, NY.

Mother Ann’s message was simple: Forsake all worldly pleasures and find salvation in the Father and the Mother. This message captivated women of the 18th century. Women had no body autonomy in marriage, nor assured choice in husband. Monetary earnings from a job went to the husband, and women had no legal shelter from abuse, nor right to her children if the husband left. Women could not purchase land.

The radical commune celebrating a dual-natured God embodied independence for 18th century women, who had the opportunity to live as equals in Shaker society.

In 1784, the local newspaper published the death of “Ms. Lee, known by the appellation of the Elect Lady, or Mother Zion, and the head of that people called Shakers.”

“…to be remembered as a chair…”

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“…I almost expect to be remembered as a chair, or a table…”
Shaker Sister Mildred Barker, Sabbathday Lake, Maine

Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill?

These two questions cut directly to the core of the educational mission of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Deceptively simple upon first glance, they open the door to one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the social, cultural and religious milieu of early 19th century America.

To put the matter simply, the Shakers were a dissenting religious group in 19th century England who migrated to America in 1774. With a devotion to physical, experiential worship and a strict adherence to celibacy, more than a few contemporary observers offered admonishment and predicted the group’s demise over the years. All such predictions, it should be noted, have thus far been wrong—as of this publication, the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is still active!

For over 100 years, Shakers lived in union in Mercer County, Kentucky. In that time, over 2,000 individuals were part of this communal, utopian society.

Founded in 1806, Pleasant Hill was one of roughly two dozen intentional communities the Shakers established in the United States throughout the early 1800s. At Pleasant Hill, all covenant members chose to adopt the practice of celibacy, embrace gender and racial equality, live communally, and follow the leadership of community Ministers, Elders, and Eldresses as they advanced in their particular faith.

Reaching a height of nearly 500 members by the early 1820s, the community built impressive structures, established trade networks, and prospered economically due to the success of their agricultural operations. Although they declined in the later decades of the 19th century, Pleasant Hill Shakers lived in Mercer County, Kentucky until 1923.

Throughout the 20th century, however, the historical, religious and cultural aspects of Shakerism came to be overshadowed in broader American culture by the rise of the “Shaker” aesthetic—a focus on the simple, elegant designs of Shaker furniture and architecture. It was in the height of this frenzy that Sister Mildred Barker uttered the famous line in the 1980s that she would probably be remembered as nothing more than a piece of furniture.

Although the Shaker “moment” may not be as intense now as it was then, it is undeniable that the general perception of the Shakers and Pleasant Hill has been predominantly shaped by the Shaker aesthetic and an intense focus on craftsmanship and design.

Simple and efficient, yet elegant, the Shaker aesthetic became so popular during the 20th century that a narrow focus on furniture and architecture could, at times, obscure the astonishing stories of the community of Pleasant Hill and those who called it home.

While the attention to all things Shaker is welcome, the myopic focus on the Shaker aesthetic obscures the complex, varied, and ultimately triumphant human story at the heart of the Shaker legacy that is so incredibly relevant to our modern world.

So, again, we come to those two burning questions: Who are the Shakers? What was Pleasant Hill? These queries deserve more words than this blog post will permit, but it should be enough to note that any true answer would take us into the themes of family, devotion, religion, diversity, equality, creativity, and more—ideas to which everyone of us can relate.

I should be clear: the Shakers did not always live up to the ideals they strove to attain. At Pleasant Hill the community paid for enslaved labor, individual Shakers quarreled with one another, some stole meat from smokehouses, while one even left the community to become an armed bandit after the Civil War!

The last Shaker at Pleasant Hill, Sister Mary Settles, stands alone in a field. Mary’s life as an educator, community leader and proponent of women’s rights hints at the complex personal stories of individual Shakers that extended well beyond the society’s material culture.

So how do we remember the Shakers? What aspects of their lives, choices, and characters are most worthy of emulation? What can we as individuals and communities learn from the quest for perfect union and harmony? What is there for us to discover in their failures? Ultimately, these questions must be answered by everyone in their own time. It would be a shame, however, if all we remembered was a chair.

To take an in-depth look at Shaker history at Pleasant Hill, join us for an Historic Village Tour, running daily throughout the year. Check the Event Schedule for tour times!

Built on Belief

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“A village of Shakers lies a few miles beyond Kentucky river, and it is curious to see the effect of celibacy on barns and fences….I never saw such excessive neatness….The rich apple trees looked sorry they were such sinners as to be beautiful.” – N.P. Willis, “The Shakers,” published in The Flag of our Union in 1852

Although not always expressed with such singular focus, since the 1800s individuals from far and wide have been struck by the distinctive architectural features of the buildings at Pleasant Hill. In fact, from daily conversations with visitors to Shaker Village it is apparent that the beauty and grace of the 34 surviving historic structures remains a principle draw for guests from around the world.

Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill maintains the largest, privately-held collection of 19th century buildings in the United States – 34 original Shaker structures across 3,000 acres.

Indeed, a short walk through the Historic Centre can be awe-inspiring. From the sheer size of the Centre Family Dwelling to the unadorned majesty of the first-floor meeting room in the Meeting House, to the spiral staircases in the Trustees’ Office, the variety of architectural and engineering feats is incredible. Beyond these three iconic structures, guests will also often express an affinity for their favorite buildings—likely one in which they have spent the night or had the opportunity to explore in-depth, on a guided tour.

More than just aesthetics, the architecture at Pleasant Hill also reveals the influence of the Shaker’s theology and faith on the built environment. This sense of purpose and intentionality through building is something that speaks to many visitors, and it often leaves them with even more appreciation for the Shakers’ efforts to construct their version of utopia in rural Mercer County.

The 1st floor meeting room of the 1820 Meeting House at Pleasant Hill.

The Meeting House, with its aforementioned first-floor meeting room, is probably the best example of how the community’s faith inspired their construction efforts. With the need for an open room to practice their distinctive style of worship, Shaker brother Micajah Burnett, inspired by the Shaker Meeting House at Union Village, Ohio, built an ingenious system of trusses in the attic that support the weight of the building without the need for columns or standing beams in the worship space.

The symmetry within Shaker dwelling houses was functional, but also served as a physical representation of the Shaker belief in the duality of God.

Beyond the Meeting House, the communal dwellings with their large bedrooms and ample kitchens and cellars were purpose-built to provide for the community’s social and economic structures, rooted in the teachings of their faith. In regard to celibacy and the physical separation of men and women, the brethren’s and the sisters’ work spaces were positioned accordingly to prevent unnecessary interaction during the workday.

The buildings that surround the East Family Dwelling are positioned intentionally, with workshops for men and women located on each side of the dwelling to correspond with the side each gender inhabited.

All of this barely scratches the surface, of course, for we haven’t even started to mention the small touches and unique trappings that slowly reveal themselves as one explores the buildings and grounds at Shaker Village. Even all of these years later, I guess some things still do pique one’s curiosity!

Come out for a visit, and learn more about how faith and architecture intersect at Pleasant Hill on our Buildings and Beliefs program that runs daily throughout the year! Check our website for seasonal tour times!