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.”

THE MARGINS THAT DEFINE US

Brandon Wilson, Program Specialist

Over the course of its history, the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill was the spiritual home to 28 people who identified as African American. But the story proves more complex, exciting and sometimes tragic than what that simple number, 28, can represent. Pleasant Hill’s location on a major thoroughfare, within the boundaries of a slave state, meant that hundreds more African American people were enmeshed into the Shakers’ rich history in Mercer County, Kentucky. Take a close look at some of Shaker Village’s archival images, and see just how complex the Village’s racial history really was.

An African American woman stands in the shadows. Circa 1910.

A great place to start is the photograph below, of a group of Pleasant Hill Shakers in the doorway of the Broom Shop circa 1886-1891. The African American man stands in the rear of the group, in the shadow of the doorway, with his head tilted downward. Then there is the image of the Children’s Order, with an African American Shaker woman standing off to the far-right side, markedly distanced from the others. 

An image of Shakers beside the Broom Shop in the late nineteenth century. An African American man stands in the rear.
This image, taken in the late nineteenth century, depicts Shakers beside the East Family Brethren’s Shop. Notice the African American woman standing at the far right.

In many of our nineteenth century images, African Americans can be found at the margins and outer edges. This trend changes over time, until the twentieth century when African Americans begin to occupy center stage in many archival documents. If visual evidence can offer any clues about life as a black Shaker, it is that the Shaker approach to race was full of both hope and hypocrisy; while the Village was a rare example of inclusivity, a certain level of prejudice percolated the community, leaving African Americans sometimes standing in the shadows and edges of social life.

A Sketch of Shaker’s worshiping from New Lebanon, NY, with African American Shakers depicted on the far right.

We may use this history as an opportunity to look closer at our own lives. Whether it is in our office spaces, shopping spaces, or at community gatherings, who do you see standing in the margins? Who might you notice is present, but not fully included? What does this say about our own communities, and what can we do to change for the better?

To learn more visit Shaker Village and attend one of our daily educational tours featuring our seasonal program African American Experiences at Pleasant Hill Fridays and Saturdays through February 29th.

The Shaker Guest House

Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager

“It was something out of a Faulkner novel, going there for dinner.” – Dick DeCamp, late 1950s

The Trustees’ Office is one of the most well-known buildings at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. In fact, it’s the building guests most often ask for when they first arrive at our property—and for good reason, our restaurant, The Trustees’ Table, is located inside!

Alongside the restaurant, visitors are also often amazed by the twin spiral staircases that run from the first to the third floor. Constructed by Shaker brother Micajah Burnett, the stairs are so iconic that they are likely some of the most photographed elements of Shaker architecture in America.

Looking down from the third floor of the Trustees’ Office. The mesmerizing effect of the spiral stairs have amazed guests for over 180 years!

These highlights, despite their importance, are only a fraction of the story of the Trustees’ Office itself. For in the story of the Trustees’ Office we can see the rise and fall of Pleasant Hill – and the emergence of Shaker Village…

Built in 1839, the Trustees’ Office today is used in a similar way to how the Shakers would have used the space. It’s a place where food can be acquired, lodging obtained and business conducted. In other words, it was meant to be a building where designated members of the Shaker community (the Trustees) interacted with people from the outside world.

Because it was meant to be a public building, the Trustees’ Office looks quite different from all other structures at Shaker Village. Instead of relying on traditional Shaker designs, Micajah Burnett modeled the Trustees’ Office after public buildings in Lexington and Frankfort. Indeed, with its Flemish bond brickwork and tidy cupola it is a great example of Federal style architecture from the early 1800s!

The 1839 Trustees’ Office today.

As Pleasant Hill prospered in the mid-19th century, the Trustees’ Office remained a hub that attracted visitors and other folks with business connections to the Shaker community. By the 1890s, however, Pleasant Hill’s decline was made manifest when they were forced to sell the Trustees’ Office and an additional 766 acres to John B. Castleman of Louisville to settle a particularly large debt.

The Trustees’ Office was operated as the Shaker Village Guest House (by non-Shakers) for a while. Although the last Shaker passed away at Pleasant Hill in 1923, by the mid-20th century the Trustees’ Office then served as a restaurant owned and operated by Bettye and Robert Renfrew. Dick DeCamp, whose quote opens this blog, remembered the restaurant as a place where guests would “kill a bottle of whiskey” on the steps before going inside to eat.

Circa 1960s. The Trustees’ Office served as the Shaker Guest House with various proprietors from the 1920s to the 1950s. When restoration efforts began in the 1960s, the building was operating as a restaurant. Many rooms were left open for guests to explore, and as you can see, some did more than that!

The Trustees’ Office is also indelibly linked with the beginnings of the non-profit Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill that still preserves the property today—it was the first building purchased in the early 1960s and a crucial step in the restoration that took place throughout nearly two decades!

Today, the Trustees’ Office has modern amenities: electricity, forced air (heating and cooling), and indoor bathrooms. The building did not have these things in the 19th century, but if the Shakers had lasted any longer at this community than what they did, they definitely would have adapted with the times and had those ‘necessities’ installed.

Visit Shaker Village throughout the year to explore the intricacies of the Trustees’ Office, or join a special Behind Closed Door program on Fridays and Saturdays in January and February to learn more about the unique history of this building. Check the daily schedule for exact tour time!

Stargazing Poets and Humbug Farmers

Lithograph of the Lick Observatory and telescope mentioned in a sermon printed in The Manifesto in 1891. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Shakers were no strangers to celestial phenomena like the solar eclipse that will cast fleeting darkness over portions of states from South Carolina to Oregon—including Kentucky—on August 21. Their journals recount star patterns, moon phases, comet sightings, and solar and lunar eclipses. To some Shakers, the spectacles of space exemplified core principles of Shaker theology and culture like order, union and harmony; to others it was seen as nonsensical and foolish. Nonetheless, regardless of whether the majority of Shakers were supporters or skeptics of astronomy, records in the archives show cosmological rhetoric made its way into their schools, journals, eulogies, poetry and farming practices.

SHAKER STARGAZERS

Unable to ignore the many astronomical wonders of the night sky, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded sightings of cosmic marvels ranging from eclipses and comets to moon irregularities. In each instance, they noted specific details about the time of day, duration, totality and any remarkable characteristics of the astronomical occurrences they observed:

  • March 19, 1843 At this time there is a comet to be seen which appeared about a week ago. It has an extraordinary long tail stretching nearly halfway across the hemisphere toward the south though not very brilliant (sic). It appears to be a stranger to astronomers.
  • March 25, 1857 The sun was eclipsed this eve. visable only for 8 or 10 minutes.
  • December 6, 1862 Last night we had a total eclipse of the moon.
  • August 7, 1869 At ½ past five o’clock in the evening the sun was total eclipsed.
  • June 24, 1881 There is a large comet now to be seen in the N.E. [non periodic comet] We see it best at 3 in the morning than any other time.
  • October 4, 1882 A Comet is to be Seen at this time in an easterly direction. East South East. between 4 & 5 oclock A.M. among the longest & most brilliant ever Yet Seen  A beautiful Sight!
  • February 24, 1897 The moons of Feb & March have laid on their backs and it has rained nearly the whole time in these two months.
  • May 28, 1900 Sun in eclipse from 6:30 to 8:30 A.M. about 9/10 totality. 

In 1866 and 1867, the Pleasant Hill Shakers recorded seeing a “big circle” and “bright circle” around the moon—an optical phenomenon called a lunar halo in which light cast onto the moon’s surface by the sun refracts through ice crystals in Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in an eerie ring.

ASTRONOMY + SHAKER AGRICULTURE

The Shakers were very much in-tune with natural and celestial cycles and used their knowledge of astronomy—and, in some cases, astrology—to inform their agricultural practices. In a report written on behalf of the Mount Lebanon Shakers in July 1898, Calvin G. Reed tells how, at the recommendation of astronomers, the community had taken up a “free journey on the earth’s stupendous railway,” during which they observed six signs of the zodiac, including Leo. While they found “the Lion’s breath rather too hot for unalloyed comfort” in July, by September, the Shakers record a change in the seasons and agricultural schedule in a direct correlation to the stars, explaining, “this is the harvest season of the year as the constellation Libra or the Scales denotes, the season of gathering in the fruits of the earth.”[i]

Though not always pleased with the results, the Pleasant Hill Shakers placed a degree of confidence in the authority of almanacs, from which they gleaned weather forecasts, planting charts, tide tables and astronomical informational upon which to base their agricultural decisions. In August 1857, one journal keeper reflected upon the Almanac’s predictions of rain during the last quarter of the moon, troubled that if it rained as much as the publication claimed it would, based upon the moon phase, it would be “almost impossible” for them to thrash their grain.[ii]

ASTRONOMY + SHAKER SKEPTICS

While many Shakers found astronomy relevant in the realms of education, creative writing and farm work, not everyone was persuaded. Maintaining the belief that astral bodies had no effect on what happened on the earth below, some Pleasant Hill Shakers—particularly farmers—were adamant critics, filling journal pages with ridicule at any notion suggesting agriculturalists should put their trust in astronomical or astrological events. Particularly skeptical, farmer and journal keeper James Levi Ballance sized-up the influences of the moon on the Earth in these ways:

“…it is very inconsistent to imagine the moon has any influence over the weather….The moon must be very smart to make it rain or snow here and at the same time not suffer it to rain or snow there. The tides are also partial and local and of course they are not under the influence of the moon.”[i]

“Common sense and stubborn facts should have done away with the moon making it rain many years ago.”[ii]

“It did not rain at our farm 4 miles above us, there was a little sprinkle and here we were thoroughly saturated with water, they must have had a different moon from ours or else there is no truth in the moon making it rain (all a humbug).”[iii]

ASTRONOMY + SHAKER VILLAGE TODAY

The archival records at Shaker Village indicate the Shakers were just as intrigued by the wonders of space as modern spectators are today. Join us this winter at Shaker Village for a guided stargazing experience as part of our special $5 after 5pm series in January and February!

Plan you astronomical adventures in 2020 at Shaker Village with special programs led by the Bluegrass Amateur Astronomy Club, guided night hikes led by Shaker Village staff, and moonlight paddles along the Kentucky River!”


[i] “Notes about Home,” Calvin G. Reed, The Manifesto, Vol. 28, No. 11, November 1898
[ii] Journal, April 1, 1854-March 31, 1860, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 11, Filson Historical Society
[i] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society
[ii] Journal, November 23, 1871-July 31, 1880, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 14, Filson Historical Society
[iii] Journal, April 1, 1860-December 31, 1866, Bohon Shaker Collection, Volume 12, Filson Historical Society

Historical content originally researched and written by Emalee Krulish in 2017.