Review of Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey, by Carol Medlicott

Read more entries by UMass History alum Brian Bixby on his blog Sillyverse.

By Brian Bixby, Alumnus, Department of History

The Shakers are best known now for the chairs they produced, a fact which obscures their history as a celibate communal religious movement. Similarly the interest in the Shaker founder, Ann Lee (1736-1784), has obscured interest in other Shakers who played a prominent role in the movement. Recently, historians have turned to documenting the lives of these other leaders. UMass’s own Glendyne Wergland (Ph.D. 2001) wrote One Shaker Life: A Biography of Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865 (2006), about a lifelong Shaker who lived at the center of Shaker society in New York. Now Carol Medlicott, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Northern Kentucky, brings us Issachar Bates: A Shaker’s Journey (2013), about a man who only joined the Shakers in his forties, and spent most of his life with them traveling about the upper Midwest.

This biography of Issachar Bates (1758-1837) is a good read. Bates was a paradox, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a husband with many children, a sometimes alcoholic, and a cantankerous individual, yet he became one of the most important missionaries for the Shakers, a sect which prized pacifism, abstinence from both sex and alcohol, and submission of the individual to communal guidance. His travels took him through the Revolutionary battlefields, out to the frontiers from New York to Indiana, and to the heartland of the Second Great Awakening around Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Along with two other Shakers, Bates was responsible for bringing Shakerism to Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. And while it is often forgotten there were Black Shakers, their second convert in Ohio was an ex-slave named Anna Middleton.

Apart from Issachar’s colorful life, Medlicott also expands our understanding of how Shaker leadership functioned during their early years of expansion to the West. And her treatment of the short-lived settlement of West Union/Busro in Indiana is an eye-opener, standing the standard account on its head. Far from being an insignificant failure, Busro was agriculturally prosperous, and its closing would affect the entire Shaker world.

For the historian, there are three lessons to take away from this book.
First, your questions determine what you need to know, not disciplinary boundaries. Medlicott was trained as a geographer and historian, but her interest in Shaker music led her to Issachar Bates, one of their most prolific writers of music and poetry. To understand the range and meaning of his music, she had to understand him; hence this biography. Naturally, the text includes several of his poems and songs, integrated into the story of his life.

Second, get on the ground. See where the history took place. Not only will it improve your understanding and your ability to describe what happened, but it can be a boost to your enthusiasm. While talking about her book, Medlicott has mentioned how fortunate she felt to be able to track down and visit the very house where Issachar Bates and Ann Lee met in Petersham, Massachusetts, an event covered in chapter three.

Third, Medlicott does a good job of tackling two common problems in historical writing: bringing in context outside of her areas of expertise using secondary sources, and filling in the gaps when there is little direct evidence of Bates’s specific movements or thoughts. Read through the book, keeping an eye on the end notes to see how she seamlessly transitions from discussing what is specifically known about Bates to what he is likely to have done, from discussing Bates and the Shakers to discussing broader topics such as the Second Great Awakening. Thanks to her weaving of all these threads together, Issachar Bates can be read as a biography of an eccentric individual, a history of the early Shaker movement, or an episode in the westward expansion of the United States.

Besides the books mentioned in the review, the following are also worthy of note:

Edward Deming Andrews. The People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society (rev. ed., 1963) and Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (1994) are both good overall histories of the Shakers.

Carol Medlicott and Christian Goodwillie, Richard McNemar, Music, and the Western Shaker Communities (2013) is a deeper exploration of Shaker music.

Jean McMahon Humez, Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress (1981) covers the unusual woman who led a mixed racial Shaker community in Philadelphia.

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