They [Shakers] are industrious and honest
and so far as religion is concerned
probably have an article that is as
as useful and as sincere as any
~D. M. Bennett
"Mr. Bennett was a deeply religious man," a close friend
declared at the dedication of the monument erected to honor the founder of The Truth Seeker. This sounds preposterous
considering that D. M. Bennett was nineteenth-century America's most outspoken, relentless and notorious critic of Christianity
(and all organized religions). The woman went on to explain her provocative statement by quoting Thomas Paine's motto:
"To do good is my religion." If that was Paine's highest work she argued, it made it his religion. "It is in this sense
that Mr. Bennett was a religious man; and if we measure his religion by the measure of his devotion to his work, he was a
deeply religious man."
The Bennetts, like many of their
fellow freethinkers, were former devout Christians who retained a good deal of its moral spirit. Bennett opposed dogmatic
religion. The Bennetts were involved with controversial movements throughout their lives. The couple were spiritualists
and met while they were members of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, more commonly known as the
Shakers. The Shakers were a communitarian and celibate sect that originated in England and was an offshoot of the Quakers.
Due to the spiritualistic sect's ecstatic and often violent shaking contortions during their religious services, they were
derided as Shaking Quakers. Eventually they were called Shakers, although some of the founders preferred the name "Alethians"
– as they considered themselves children of the truth.
Shakers, who would become known more for their furniture craftsmanship than their religious beliefs, arrived in American in
1774. That year Ann Lee (1736-1784), an English religious visionary, and her followers arrived from England. Although
Ann Lee believed in celibacy, she married in England at her parent's insistance and had four children; all died in infancy.
Ann Lee joined the Wardleys, a group of former Quakers who encouraged their followers to attack sin and preach publicly of
the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was subsequently believed – that in Ann Lee – the promise of
the Second Coming was fulfilled. Ann Lee became the religious sect's charismatic leader and was imprisoned for dancing,
shouting and blasphemy of the Sabbath. She reportedly "miraculously" escaped death on several occasions and claimed to be
able to speak in tongues. Her followers referred to her as "Mother in spiritual things," and she called herself "Ann,
the Word." In 1774 Ann Lee received a "revelation" instructing her to take a select group of Shakers to America.
Shakers first settled in an isolated area outside of Albany, New York. Their pacifism drew scorn and persecution during
the American Revolution, and Ann Lee was imprisoned for a few months in 1780. Ann Lee died on September 8, 1784, but her followers
continued to grow in number and Shaker communities flourished. The Shakers erected a meeting-house for worship at New
Lebanon, New York in 1785. The New Lebanon community became the hub of Shakerdom because of its access to New England, where
most of the other communities would be located. The Shakers became the most successful communitarian society in America.
Bennett arrived at the New Lebanon Shaker community September 12, 1833. The Society of Believers at New Lebanon numbered
nearly 500 men, women and children. The New Lebanon community was the largest of the sixteen villages that were located
in eight states and the "Jerusalem" of Shakerism.
years before Bennett arrived at New Lebanon, James Fenimore Cooper visited the community and wrote that he had never seen
any "villages as neat, and so perfectly beautiful, as to order and arrangement, without, however, being picturesque or ornamented,
as those of the Shakers. Cooper also declared the Believers as "deluded fanatics" albeit clean and orderly. Another
distinguished visitor was Charles Dickens, who was critical of the manner in which the Shakers gained members: "... they take
proselytes persons so young that they cannot know their own minds, and cannot possess much strength of resolution in this
or any other respect." The four Shaker virtures were Christian communism; virgin purity; separation from the world; and confession
of sin, which one had to perform to become a member. At only fourteen years old, DeRobigne might well have been one
of the proselytes that Dickens thought was too young to know his own mind. Nevertheless, considering the young man's
impoverished background, it is understandable that his first impression of New Lebanon was: "I was most kindly received in
a family of some 75 genial kindhearted Brethren and Sisters who lived happily on the community plan with plenty around them
on every side."
the Shakers were celibate, they depended on converts (sometimes orphans) from "the world." The Society had something
to offer almost anybody, at least temporarily. Newcomers joined for different reasons and were Believers of varying
degrees of commitment. Some "bread and butter" or "winter Shakers" arrived only to take advantage of the food and shelter
for brief periods. Some joined only to depart soon, while others stayed longer but did not participate whole-heartedly
and eventually apostatized. Others arrived bringing their whole families. One such family was the Wickses from Reading,
New York. Mary Wicks joined the Shakers when she was five years old and became a beloved caretake and teacher.
a visit of ten days, Bennett, who came from a broken home, decided to join the Shakers. He fulfilled the first requirement
and confessed his sins, which he later described as "not a very black list at the time." A Shaker journal entry recorded
the event: "DeRobigne Bennett opened his mind and set out with Believers." Soon after joining, he wrote to his mother
Betsey and sister Letsey Ann and invited them to join him at New Lebanon. (Betsey Bennett's commitment to the Society
was not as firm as her children's and she would periodically leave and return.) For the next thirteen years he would
be a Shaker "acknowledging the correctness of their faith and believing they were living more acceptable to God than any others
of the children of men."
and intimate contact with the opposite sex were forbidden and both male and female Believers nearly always remained separated.
The never shook hands or touched, and they spent their entire day and night in a communal social order. There was some interaction
and a few wholesome diversions permitted but always limited and closely monitored. Evenings were spent at worship meetings
or family meetings where elders read aloud excerpts from periodicals, books and even newspapers. Some evenings were
spent learning new hymns and joining together in singing. The busy Shaker schedule left no time for contemplation or loneliness,
and church elders strongly believed that an idle mind was the devil's workshop.
least once a week "union meetings" were held where both male and female were afforded the opportunity to be together, in a
group and under close scrutiny. These social gatherings occurred at an appointed time, where a half dozen or more sisters
would enter the brethren's quarters and sit opposite and across the room and engage in light conversation and discussions
mostly confined to Society matters. Any instances of a "special liking" or "sparking" between individual members of
the opposite sex were monitored likely reported to an elder or elderess. A Shaker described a union meeting as follows: "In
fact to say 'agreeable things about nothing,' when conversant with the other sex, is as common here as elsewhere... Nevertheless,
an hour passes away very agreeable and ever rapturously with those who there have a chance to meet an especial favorite; succeeded
soon however, when soft words and kind, concentrated looks become obvious to the jealous eye of a female espionage, by the
agonies of a separation. For the tidings of such reciprocity, whether true or surmised, is sure before th elapse of
many hours, to reach the ears of the elders; in which case the one or the other party would be subsequently summoned to another
circle of colloquy and union..."
spent his first winter at New Lebanon attending school and working in the seed gardens. "He was possessed of marked individuality
and more than average intellectual ability," a journal entry noted. Bennett also worked as a furniture maker and herbalist.
The Shakers were the first group in America to grow herbs for the burgeoning pharmaceutical market. While spending several
years in the Shaker medical environment, he became familiar with the sciences of botany and chemistry and became the community
physician. Bennett was also a ministry-appointed journalist during the most intense spiritualistic period in Shaker
history, the Era of Manifestaions. "I have understood from those who knew him intimately," a prominent Shaker spokeswoman
wrote, "that he was thoroughly upright, of apparently strong religious convictions and sensitive to spiritual influences."
the late 1830s a revival of spiritualistic activity occurred among the Shakers. The Shakers were spiritualists decades
before the modern spiritualism movement began in 1848. In a sense, the Shakers were the forerunners of the spiritualism movement
that became popular in America and later Europe. Ann Lee and the other founding members believed in spirits apart from the
human body and that they could and did communicate with them and receive "revelations." Although Bennett joined the
Shakers decades after Ann Lee and the original members were deceased and the spiritualistic activity had subsided, a resurgence
of spirit transmission occurred not long after his arrival.
"Era of Manifestations" or "Mother Ann's Work" as it was known, was a period filled with messages and visions from the spirit
world. The spiritualistic outburst preoccupied the Shakers for nearly a decade and both revitalized and weakend the
Society. Shaker historians have compared the period favorably with the first century of Christianity. It was an
intense charismatic epoch in Shaker history that attracted much attention.
phenomenon was similar to the spirit communication experienced by Ann Lee and other Society's founders. Although these
"gifts" often caused derision from outsiders, they also attracted converts including Frederick W. Evans, who became a leading
Shaker and spokesman: "It was by spiritual manifestations... that I, in 1830, was converted to Shakerism. In 1837 to
1844, there was an influx from the spirit world, 'confirming the faith of many disciples' who had lived among Believers for
years, and extending throughout all the eighteen societies."
the mid-1830s, most of the Believers who had been in the Society when it was founded were dead, and the church elders felt
that the Shakers were becoming removed from Ann Lee's initial vision and wisdom. With a declining membership
and a growing number of apostasies, mostly young Shakers, the Society's elders welcomed the restoration of the charismatic
spirit gifts. Although numerous accounts of spiritual manifestations occurred during the 1830s, including inspired dreams,
prophetic visions and speaking in tongues, it was not until 1837 that the church elders proclaimed a new Era of Manifestions.
During a worship service, a group of ten-to- fourteen-year-old girls exhibited unusual trance-like behavior. Some spoke
in tongues, while others saw visions and communicated with angels in heavenly places. Others, as if possessed by spirits,
shook, jerked and twirled about. Some talked to Mother Ann and other first-generation leading Shakers and were given
gift songs, dances and rituals to share with their fellow Believers. Those individual Shakers who received these gifts were
called "visionists" or "instruments" and because of their unique abilities became influential and slightly controversial.
In some ways Mother Ann's work helped revitalize the Society; in other ways it widened the generation gap that already existed.
instruments played an important role during the Era of Manifestations and believed themselves called and chosen. The
ministry designated some instruments as "official"; whom they felt were divinely inspired. Because of their sacred calling
and personal sacrifices, instruments were separated from the other Believers. The instruments were thought by the Shakers
to be their connection to the "celestial sphere" where inhabitants like Ann Lee and other founding members existed. During
this spiritualistic period, the inspired gifts included songs, drawings and revelations carefully recorded by journal keepers
or scribes. The same meticulous attention to detail that the Shakers had paid to their family, furniture making and
business records was given to the important documents.
first year of the Era of Manifestations was also the same year that Bennett begame an official journal keeper. As an
official scribe authorized by the ministry, he recorded, collected and transcribed the Society's most important communications
and revelations to be preserved. These manuscripts were of immense importance and were believed to be divinely inspired.
Some of these spiritualistic sessions like the Holy Mount feast celebration could last eight hours and fill a small booklet.
was mindful of the importance of his status as a journalist. In a self-effacing statement made on January 1, 1840, he
promised to be "more brief" in the journal that he had been keeping for three years, a journal which he "kept considerable
of a full & minute account of the work of God & the movings of the spirit among us." But, he added, "...when
there is particular inspiration or revelation or anything that will be considered most worthy to be recorded, I shall endeavor
to give as comprehensive a description as my feeble abilities will allow." He ended these introductory remarks with:
If my labors in recording the gifts of our heavenly parents & some of the great displays of a wise providence, meet the
approbation & continence of my friends & prove to be any satisfaction to those now living, or to those who may hereafter
come upon the stage, my most ardent wishes will be fully realized. It is all I want, it is all I desire in this respect.
the Era of Manifestations, every year seemed to present new and more mysterious developments. In 1841, Holy Mother Wisdom
spoke through a chosen instrument. Bennett recorded that the feminine deity's visit lasted over a week, examining members
and speaking "love and blessing." The most delightful and discernible spiritualistic gifts were the drawings and paintings
rendered by Shaker artists while under the inspiration of the spirits. These inspired instruments or "image makers," as they
were known, produced unworldy religious pictures that became important to the Believers, a community that in the past, forbade
any type of "superfluous" pictures, portraits, images, engravings or likeness of any kind, especially "art." One of
the revered "image makers" was Mary Wicks. The visionary art works were presents for older members for their devoted service
to the Society.
rare gift drawings and paintings were especially powerful because of their simple yet abstract and intricate detail that could
be subconsciously appealing. These gift images were not exhibited for the general public and although outsiders were
admitted to the Shaker meetings, they were never allowed to view the visionary drawings and paintings. The abstract
quality would have surely confused even the most aesthetically aware art connoisseur in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps
only a fellow instrument like Philemon Stewart, a prominent instrument who understood Shaker myth, history, and iconography,
could acurately describe the merit and importance of these gift messages and visions: "The mighty manifestations
of God to his chosen people are truly wonderful, very wonderful; far beyond any thing ever before revealed on earth.
It has often seemed as though the Heavens and earth had come together, and that we were in reality surrounded by heavenly
hosts; yet these heavenly and divine manifestations, with which we have so often been favored, are not understood by the world
of mankind; nor can they understand them except by revelation from God, or faith in the testimony of his appointed agents."
1842, at the height of the Era of Manifestations, the lead ministry instructed each village to prepare a sacred
site for an outdoor feast and ritual activity. These sites, chosen by instruments under inspiration, were believed by
Shakers to be the holiest of places on earth. The sacred feast ground at New Lebanon was at the top of a mountain and
within walking distance of the community. Beginning in May 1842, this "Holy Mount" would be the site of the Society's most
sacred and important celebrations. Bennett, the twenty-three year-old community scribe, chronicled the seminal first
meeting on the mount. On May 1, 1842, at 5 a.m., he wrote, the members of the Church Order gathered together "in the
meeting room to receive the blessing of the Ancients (oldest Shakers) who were not going upon the Mount." The day's historical
significance was expressed by one of his fellow journalists who wrote: "This is a memorable day & long to be remembered,
being a day lately in instituted by divine authority to be observed a feast or Passover, to be kept yearly, sacred to
Holy & Eternal Wisdom. The Church, (Except some of the aged & those unable to go), all marched up the mountain, to
the Holy consecrated ground, & assembled there to perform religious devotion."
written account of the esoteric religious rituals that May 1st is a fascinating document filled with descriptions of peculiar
phenomena and inspirational messages. The day began with the members singing a song "Feast of Lord" followed by the
Believers kneeling and being blessed by the Ancients. The instruments were identified, including John Allen who "was
Instrument for the Savior & spoke for him in most cases." Another instrument, Philemon Stewart, read from the 4th Chapter
of the Prophet Micah, which everyone united in repeating. Other instruments included Giles Avery, who spoke of "a fountain
of wine" which the members "partook of the wine after which we sung & danced joyfully." Most of the activity that day
consisted of elaborate mime and playful worship. However, at least one of the "messages" revealed a subconscious discontent
among some instruments and would prove to be a presage. While under inspiration John Allen came forward and stated: "Who has
doubts? What doubts? saith the Prophet (Isaiah) Many answered & said they had none. Well said the Prophet I have doubts.
The Instrument was then taken under violent operations, thrown on the ground & rolled over. He was then raised up,
& the P' (Prophet) said I guess I shall get rid of them now."
duties as a herbalist and physician included leaving the New Lebanon Society on business trips. These local day trips
afforded him an opportunity to interact with fellow Shakers, some of whom decided to leave the society. Journal entries
for the period show an increased number of departures and the reproachful attitude of Shaker journalists. As the apostasy
rate increased, the journal entries included more pointed remarks regarding the apostates. Bennett gave a ride to two
departing Shakers who, a journalist wrote, "chose rather to live among the world than with us." One entry noted that
two sisters made their choice "to go away into the wide world of sin." Another Shaker, "loving his own way much better
than the gospel," was determined "to have a swing in the world of pleasure & sin..."
the mid-1840s, Believers began to lose interest in spiritual gifts and communications. Messages from deceased Shaker
founders or leaders were replaced by "revelations" from historical figures Washington, Jefferson and Christopher Columbus.
Some instruments claimed to have received spiritual communications from American Indians. Shaker leaders were finding
it increasingly difficult to determine the authenticity of the spiritual "gifts" that were beginning to border on the absurd.
Other messages were scolding and admonished against the ways of the flesh. A sister brazenly informed elder Frederick
Evans of her revelation from Ann Lee that the Society should discontinue celibacy! An atmosphere of cynicism bordering
on anarchism developed among many of the younger members and several of the important official instruments. The relations
between the sexes became troublesome for the church elders. The Shakers were after all human, and occasionally a love
affair or "sparking" would occur within the community. These taboo relationships might begin during a union meeting
or while brethren and sisters were working in close proximity. In 1837 a Believer from the Harvard community testified:
"The worst snare that Satan has to decoy souls from the way of God is to lead them into carnal fleshy affections. These
affections are often created by sympathizing with each other in times of sickness and weakness... When you are obliged
to be together at such times you ought to be as careful as you would be if you was at work among powder with fire."
this period, the intensity and fervor of the revival began to dissipate. The communal rules and regulations that were
part of the gifts of spirit manifestations – felt by many younger members to be petty – were continued.
The strict Shaker Millennial Laws of 1845 were severe, even for Believers who were accustomed to a rigid coexestence among
the sexes. One of the new rules was designed to limit further the familiarity between the males and females that was
becoming a formidable problem for the church elders. One regulation declared, "Sisters must not mend, nor set buttons on brethren's
clothes while they have them on."
New Lebanon Society began losing members, including some instruments from the church family. In 1846, the rate of apostasy
was nearly fifteen percent in the Church Family – the most devout Shakers in the New Lebanon community. "In
the summer of 1846 a spirit of dissatisfaction and discontent overspread the minds of many of the young folks in the society,"
Bennett recalled, "and the faith in the Shaker religion had lessened."
years to the day after DeRobigne Bennett's arrival at New Lebanon – September 12, 1846 – the most shocking
apostasy occurred in the history of the Shakers. A quartet of apostates including prominent instruments went out into the
world. The backsliders were John Allen, DeRobigne Bennett, Letsey Ann Bennett and Mary Wicks. George Allen (John's brother)
would join them a few days later. The Society's dismay was expressed in the Shaker journals of the day: "An
astonishing & awful event this day occurs, by the sudden & unsuspected absconding of four our members, viz –
John Allen, Derobigne M. Bennett, Mary Wicks & Letsey Ann Bennett!!!! They had very privately concerted the plan,
agree with a man at the pool to come with a carriage & take them, which he did, coming up the round by the gristmill,
as far as the house below and burying ground. The 4 walked off not far distant from each other pretending to be going on some
common business, no one suspected them, tho they were seen, excepting in one or two cases, when too late. They all went
to the pool where some of our Deacons afterward went to settle with them."
story concerning John and George Allen, Derobigne & Letsey Ann Bennett & Mary Wicks is true. They have fallen! And
they fell as did the Angels, by rebellion against the order of God! And tho they went voluntarily and without the knowledge
of the Elders, yet they went as tho they were driven out by a whirlwind! John was their leader & drove on the rebellion
and apostasy. That their hell has already begun, for they reflect on themselves for the sad condition in which they
have plunged themselves, & they accuse John Allen of being the instigator of the whole plan. They shed a flood of
tears when too late, John was more braced for a time, but he finally bust forth almost in torrents. Poor Mary Wicks
could hardly find words to express how awful it felt to lose her state of innocency which she had been brought up in.
She said if some one would dig a hole in the ground & bury her therin it would be a heaven to her!!!"
is unknown when DeRobigne Bennett and Mary Wicks began their relationship. The Shaker leaders suspected that the apostates
planned their departure during a union meeting. A church elder announced that the marriages were the first to be contracted
at the New Lebanon church family, home of the most devoted Believers. One month following their apostasy, the Elder
declared, "the time had come for particular union to be abolished, and a general union to be subsitituted in its place...
it went into effect last sabbath."
Allen-Bennett apostasy was a traumatic event that had diverse and lasting effect on the participants and remaining members
of the Society. All five of them had been there since childhood. "The parting from the home and friends of so
many years was a severe trial," Bennett recalled. "It seemed almost like 'pulling the heartstrings.'"
historians wrote at length about the impact caused by the Allen-Bennett apostasy. Some Shaker leaders were glad to see
the rebellious deserters' banishment because of their deleterious influence over devoted Believers. A Shaker elder expressed
the Society's dismay and his suspicions about John Allen. He wrote: "This feels awful beyond description, & has
caused many tears & is such an occurence as the family never experienced before since we began to gather in the year 1787.
He [John Allen] had some beautiful gifts when he yielded obedience; but the most remarkable one seemed to
be about himself. This was while the church were marching up the Holy Mount, and while assembled there on the Holy ground.
He was then an Instrument, and spoke for the Savior. Both on the way, and while at the feast ground, he, with another
Instrument (?) frequently went aside & knelt and wept bitterly; and asked if there could ever be any mercy for Judas:
He said there was a Judas on the Holy Ground! And that he, from whom the word came, would yet betray the Son of God!! And
many expressions to the same effect."
Allen (no relation to the Allen brothers) a reform minded Shaker spokesperson noted that following the Era of Manifestations,
Bennett had "a sudden reversion of thought and feeling encompassed his being, radically changing his view points in life."
Allen, who succeeded Bennett as the ministry appointed scribe, declared: "He (Bennett) not only became infidel to the teachings
of the Shaker church but, I am told, one of the rankest atheists – hence excessibely irreverent and I have heard
blasphemous." And prior to leaving Mt. Lebanon, she added, "he courted & took with him a very nice young sister,
Mary Wicks & married her."
of the remaining Believers at New Lebanon were less critical of the apostates and lamented the future of the Shakers.
A poem by one of the sisters who grew up with Mary Wicks and Letsey Ann Bennett, expressed her sentiments about her departed
friends and the fate of the Society:
Ah fond recollections come
stealing upon me,
Unmindful the tears of affection
As my heart wanders back to
my former companions
Who with me refused yet longer
But ah! can it be that it
will be eternal,
That this separation must
always be made?
It will and it must, it can
never be altered,
They've made their own choice
and they cannott be saved...
O hear me my God for my soul
is in anguish,
When but for a moment I take
Of the sorrow and grief and
the sore tribulation
That we have been called in
times past to go thro'.
Could this be the end of these
days of affliction,
I'd willingly live to be threescore
But my spirit does murmur
when all the predictions
Do firmly declare it is but
Bennetts stayed on very friendly terms with the Shakers for the rest of their lives. When Bennett was convicted and
imprisoned for violating the Comstock Laws, the Shakers came to his defense. Shaker elders visited him in jail, defended
him in print, and petitioned the President of the United States to pardon the "illustrious martyr, suffering from acts of
the most devilish bigotry of our day."
Shakers were known for their simplicity, humility, order, peace, and simple goodness. And while their strict rules of
celibacy, strange modes of worship and separatism, eventually caused their demise, they certainly attracted men and women
with integrity, personality, and virtue. In studying their lives and reading their words, it is difficult to believe
that such intelligent individuals were only "deluded fanatics." During an age of seeking, a Shaker historian wrote:
"Shakerism was a clear answer to the question: What shall I do to be saved? It offered a discipline and a means of service.
And in the end it bore fruit of abundance... And as the world slowly absorbs another dissident faith, much remains to record
the seeking, and in some measures the finding, of truth, and beauty, and light."