The American History Podcast

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Holy Ghosts


D. W. Kellogg Lithograph entitled "Shakers: Their Mode of Worship," c. 1840. New York State Museum.

D. W. Kellogg Lithograph entitled “Shakers: Their Mode of Worship,” c. 1840. New York State Museum.

In October of 1842, a Shaker woman named Ruth Green was visited by the spirit of Mariah Wantay, a deceased Native American. Wantay spoke through Green at a church meeting in the Shaker community of Watervliet, New York. She was 175 years old, she said. She had been “killed by the white man” at the age of 93, in 1760, and two of her six children—Eliza and Mary—had died by the same hand.

Within days, other women in the community had begun to report similar visitations. Mary Gillet spoke for Margaret Wondo, murdered by two white men who “came to her in the woods and broke both of her wrists” before killing her. Eliza Wantay appeared to a woman named Betsy Harrison. “There came a white man and shoot me and my sister,” said Eliza, “and then he make a hole in the ground and put us in and cover us with leaves and brush.”

The Shakers—who referred to themselves officially as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or, more simply, as “Believers”—had settled in the area in 1776, after breaking off from the Quaker church in England. By 1840, the sect had grown to include some 6,000 members in communities scattered throughout New England. They were known for their commitment to celibacy and pacifism, and for their ecstatic worship, which often included dancing and “shaking.”

A View of the Church Family, Watervliet, March 1838. New York State Museum.

A View of the Church Family, Watervliet, March 1838. New York State Museum.

Native American spirits visited hundreds of Shakers during the 1840s, and many of the visitations shared common features. Most of the spirits were women—as were most of the Shaker visionists—and many of them recounted similar tales of suffering or death at the hands of white men. Some of the spirits also appeared to embrace the Shaker faith: Mariah Wantay reported that she had confessed her sins to “Shiny Mother” Ann Lee, the Shakers’ spiritual founder, and that she “felt very thankful for her privilege among Mother’s children.”

The presence of the Holy Spirit was at the center of Shaker worship, so spiritual visitations were not unusual. In 1837, during a widespread revival known as the “Era of Manifestations,” many Shaker women had been visited by spirits. But Native American spirits dropped in on Shaker communities with unusual frequency between September 1842 and March 1843. This “season” of visitation—foretold by the spirit of Mother Ann—came in the wake of a key event: the federal government’s forced removal of upwards of 50,000 Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians from their ancestral homelands to west of the Mississippi River. Thousands of native people died en route, most infamously some 4,000 Cherokees during the “Trail of Tears.”

It would be easy to dismiss the actions of Shaker visionists as simply “playing Indian,” especially in the context of the 19th century, when the notion of the “disappearing Indian” was so popular. And, indeed, some of the visitations did take a stereotypical form. When the spirit of an Indian chief took over the body of a Shaker woman named Miranda B., for example, she “stuck a pipe in her mouth,” “put on a brother’s hat,” and “talked Indian a long time.”

The Whirling Gift, by David Lamson, 1848. New York State Museum.

The Whirling Gift, by David Lamson, 1848. New York State Museum.

But as historian Erik Seeman has pointed out, many Shaker visionists were doing something more complicated: joining other American women in critiquing the actions of violent men. The antebellum era saw thousands of American women denounce forms of patriarchal violence, including domestic abuse, rape, and the murder of native women. Where others used petitions, politics, or literature to criticize the violence, Shaker women employed a spiritual language that made sense to them. Their visions allowed them to recognize the injustices committed against native peoples, while promising to rectify those injustices by bringing Christian doctrine to the native spirits who visited them.

Listen to BackStory’s full episode on uniquely American religions, here on the website.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Erik Seeman, “Native Spirits, Shaker Visions: Speaking with the Dead in the Early Republic.” The Journal of the Early Republic, Fall 2015.

Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.)

Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny: The Making of Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.)

Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.)

Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle Against Indian Removal in the 1830s.” Journal of American History, June 1999.

Jean M. Humez, ed., Mother’s First-Born Daughters: Early Shaker Writings on Women and Religion. (Indiana University Press, 1993).

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