Ohio History Journal

<span style="color:#cc0000;font-weight:bold">SHAKER</span> <span style="color:#cc0000;font-weight:bold">MEDICINES</span>





When I began the study of this aspect of SHAKER industry, I was

soon impressed with the large volume of material available. As I

read I became more and more interested, because I found here the

reflection of the therapeutic means and methods used to heal the

sick in the remote past. In the famous Papyrus Ebers, dating about

1552 B.c., are found the names of many herbs and mineral products

that have been used by physicians from that early day down to

our own time. It cannot be said that any revolutionary change

occurred in the methods and materials of therapeutics until the

advent of the twentieth century.

This paper deals with herbal MEDICINES in general use in the

nineteenth century. The vast number of vegetable products-root,

stem, bark, leaf, blossom, and fruit-with relatively few exceptions

owed their virtues more to traditional use than to proven therapeutic

effectiveness. The extraction and assay of the active principles of

these herbs awaited the day of the physiological laboratory and the

development of analytical and synthetic chemistry, conspicuous con-

tributions to the healing art of the twentieth century.

I have lived long enough to have had touch with the nineteenth

century, and having been, so to speak, raised in a drug store, I

became familiar with herbs, fluid extracts, and the bladder filled

with crude opium, at a very early age. This experience of my early

youth permits a somewhat nostalgic approach to this subject, but

the miracle drugs and the improved diagnostic methods of the

present day give no occasion to regret the passing of empiric

medicine and the coming of the day when the sick of each generation

are better treated than those of the one just past.

The SHAKERs were a remarkable people. No other social-religious

experiment has left so large a volume of records of all sorts-day

by day diaries, letters, pamphlets, and books. No other social-


* Harry D. Piercy is a physician of Cleveland. His article was given as a paper at

the seventeenth annual meeting of the Ohio Academy of Medical History at the Ohio

State Museum, May 1, 1954.


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economic experiment, of which there were some sixty during the

first quarter of the nineteenth century, was so successful in spreading

over so wide an area, or gaining more in property, or producing

more in goods. No other exerted so great an influence on agri-

culture, animal husbandry, and household arts, or set more lofty

ideals of industry, thrift, honesty, sobriety, and integrity before the

young nation in the troublesome years after the Revolutionary War.

It is necessary to recall, briefly, the origin and growth of the

Shaker movement. About 1766 a small group of English Quakers

aspired to seek perfection in a new mode of worship and a new

way of life. So intense were their feelings of worship that they

shook and trembled and danced, sometimes for hours, so that in

derision they were called the Shakers.

Ann Lee, considered by her followers as the feminine component

of the Godhead, was the head and spiritual leader of this group.

Accompanied by seven of her followers, she sailed from Liverpool

on the ship Mariah on May 10, 1774. The ship docked in New York

harbor, August 6, 1774, a stormy passage requiring three months.

Arriving in this new country just before the start of the

Revolutionary War, their peculiar habits of worship and strange

way of life caused them to be regarded with suspicion, and during

the years of the war, charges of espionage and treachery were

brought, but not proven, against them. It was not until 1780 that

the society was brought into some form and converts began to

pour in.

The first colony was established in Watervliet, New York, in

1787. Time does not permit the portrayal of the persecutions, trials,

and sufferings of Ann and her followers up to this point, but it

must be stated that her zeal and strength of spirit and that of

James Whittaker, who had been subject to Ann's influence since

early youth, and who was an inspiring and forceful speaker, made

a gathering force that attracted hundreds of seekers after the saving

grace the Shakers offered.

What was the cross these followers were asked to bear? It con-

sisted in denial of all lusts of the flesh; confession of sins to the

elders and those in authority; loving all mankind as they loved each

338 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

338    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

other; renunciation of all private property; and personal dedication

of the best and truest labors of the individual for the benefit and

good of the whole community. In the words of Mother Ann, it

meant "Hands to Work and Hearts to God."

Marriage was forbidden. Mother Ann said to Jonathan Slosson,

who was in love with a certain young woman, "The marriage of the

flesh is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell."1

Certainly austere and to us forbidding conditions for salvation!

We must remember this gathering of converts was at a time of

great and bitter doctrinal disputes, causing general spiritual unrest

and intense religious emotionalism throughout the eastern states.

Certain of these troubled souls found in the renunciation, humility,

and useful way of life of the Shakers the means to peace of mind

and a sure sense of salvation. To these the price seemed not too high.

Ann Lee died at Watervliet, September 8, 1784. News of the

passing of the "Mother of Zion" was published in the Albany

Gazette and carried to the surrounding country by messengers. A

great assembly of believers and unbelievers attended her funeral,

and Father James Whittaker said to the world, "This that we so

much esteem, and so much adore, is a treasure worth laboring for:

it is the only means of salvation that will ever be offered to sinners;

it is the last display of God's grace to a lost world."2 James

Whittaker, worn out by his labors in spreading the faith, survived

Mother Ann less than two years. He died at the age of thirty-six.

His funeral was held July 21, 1786. He was the last of those

faithful ministers who brought this gospel to this land.

Now the remarkable thing is that this little band started a social-

economic religious order that grew and prospered in the years ahead.

It attracted to its fold substantial and influential people of all walks

of life, individuals of great native ability and great integrity. By

1794 there were eleven communities scattered through New England,

and by 1826 there were nineteen communities extending westward

into Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. The order comprised a total


1 Edward Deming Andrews, The People Called Shakers (New York, 1953), 22.

2 Ibid., 50.

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Shaker Medicines                   339

membership over the years of more than 16,000 persons. Three

communities are still struggling on with a total membership of less

than fifty. The fire and enthusiasm of the early days are gone, and

we now view the dying embers of the inspirational flame that for

more than a hundred years was fed by the consecrated devotion of

hundreds of men and women.

These communities consisted of from one hundred to six hundred

or eight hundred people, divided into families containing not more

than one hundred, and known in the community as the gathering

family, the mill family, the church family, and so forth. Each

community owned from one thousand to six thousand or more

acres of land, on which they grew their crops and pastured their

herds of fine cattle and flocks of sheep. Huge barns were built to

house the animals and provide storage for grain and fodder. Mills

were built to grind the corn and wheat and to saw up the huge

virgin growth of timber for buildings, for cabinets, tables, and

chairs, and for the many needs which wood served.

Spinning shops were established, and here the wool and linen

threads were woven into the homespun which clothed the brethren

and sisters. In the cobblers' shops carefully lasted shoes were made

from their own tanned leather. Their industry and skill of pro-

duction produced articles of exceptional quality for the community,

and their surplus found ready takers among the people of the


Among these industries was the cultivation, gathering, and

packaging of numerous medicinal herbs. This was a natural out-

growth of the Shakers' skill in gardening and an example of their

ability to see the economic advantage in supplying a country-wide

demand. It is to be remembered that in that early day, in both the

Old and the New World, there was great faith in the curative

features of herbs. When the demand was for some herb not readily

grown at home, they imported such from Europe and South

America. This industry was claimed by the Shakers to have been

started at New Lebanon, New York, about 1800 and to have been

the first mass production of herbs in this country. This statement is

340 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

340    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly


substantiated by an interview between Edward Fowler of the New

Lebanon society and a representative of the American Journal of

Pharmacy in 1852. Fowler is quoted as saying:


It is about fifty years since our Society first originated as a trade in this

country the business of cultivating and preparing medicinal plants for the

supply and convenience of apothecaries and druggists and for about twenty

years conducted it on a limited scale. [About 1820] Drs. E. Harlow and

G. K. Lawrence, of our society, the latter an excellent botanist, gave their

attention to the business, and induced a more systematic arrangement, and

scientific manner of conducting it, especially as to the seasons for collection,

varieties, and methods of preparation.


Fowler continues:


There are now occupied as physic gardens in the different branches of

our Society nearly two hundred acres, of which about fifty acres are at our

village. Hyoscyamus, belladonna, taraxacum, aconite, poppies, lettuce, sage,

summer savory, marjoram, dock, burdock, valerian and horehound occupy

a large portion of the ground and about fifty minor varieties are cultivated

in addition. We collect about two hundred varieties of indigenous plants

and purchase from the South, West and Europe some thirty or forty others,

many of which are not recognized in the pharmacopoeia or the dispensa-

tories, but which are called for in domestic practice and abundantly used.


At this time the New Lebanon society had three double presses

in constant operation and occasionally used two others. Each of

these was capable of pressing one hundred pounds daily. Mr. Fowler

informed the reporter that this plant manufactured a total amount

of dried extracts of about six to eight thousand pounds per annum.

The greatest demand was for extract of taraxacum (dandelion),

thirty-seven hundred pounds having been produced over the pre-

vious year. The reporter thought the Shakers had a very well-

equipped and well-managed laboratory and regretted his visit could

not have been more prolonged that he might avail himself of the

hospitality proffered by the society.3

Time does not permit the detailed naming of the many and varied


3American Journal of Pharmacy, XVIII (1852), 88.

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Shaker Medicines                   341

herbs, roots and barks, and berries cleaned and carefully packaged

by the Shakers. Extensive herb gardens were maintained at New

Lebanon, New York; Enfield, New Hampshire; Union Village near

Lebanon, Ohio; Harvard, Massachusetts; South Union in Kentucky;

and other Shaker settlements. In addition to the herbs they had large

gardens of red roses, from which they distilled rose water for

flavoring their apple pies and soothing fevered brows. At New

Lebanon there were large poppy gardens, and in the early morning

the white-capped sisters could be seen carefully slitting the pods

from which the crimson petals had just fallen. In the evening they

returned with little knives to scrape off the dried juice. This crude

opium was sold at a high price and was one of the most profitable

products of the gardens.4

Records are available which reveal the rapid growth of the herb

business. The New Lebanon records show shipments in 1831 of a

box of herbs valued at $30.68 to Paris; and thirteen boxes of

medicinal herbs valued at $895.65 were sent to Charles Whitlaw,

"Botanist of London, England." During the year 1831 four thousand

pounds of roots and herbs were sent to the market. By 1836 the

production was six thousand pounds and rose to sixteen thousand,

five hundred in 1849.5

The Harvard community herb business grew to such proportions

that in 1848 they were obliged to construct a large building to

provide for the preparation and storage of the herbs gathered from

their gardens and from the surrounding fields and forests. In that

year they distilled 165 gallons of peach water, made 134 pounds

of ointment and 49 gallons of buckthorn syrup. From February

1849 to February 1850 they pressed 10,152 pounds of herbs, roots

and barks, and berries. The income amounted to $4,021.31. In 1851

the sales amounted to $5,653.44; in 1852, $8,300.00. They shipped

packaged herbs, peach water, and other products to Boston and

New York City and to Wilson, Fairbanks and Company in Cali-

fornia. A diary note dated February 24, 1853, reads, "Press 250

4 Good Housekeeping, XLIII (1906), 37.

5 Edward Deming Andrews, The Community Industries of the Shakers (New York

State Museum Handbook 15, Albany, 1932), 91.

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342     Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

pounds and pack 79 different varieties of two pounds each to go to

London, England."6

About 1830 they began the manufacture of alcoholic extracts of

herbs and roots. A catalog of "Shaker Fluid Extracts" prepared by

the Society of Shakers, Mt. Lebanon, New York, is available. It

is not dated but probably was published about 1875. It bears the

following statement:


In presenting you a new edition of our catalog we would call especial

notice to our inspissated juices and superior fluid extracts prepared in vacuo.

Our particular attention has been directed to this branch of business for

some years past, and we have procured very perfect and expensive apparatus

and the instructions and assistance of some of the best chemists and phar-

maceutists. We have been able to produce extracts which we confidently

believe are not inferior to any, and for which we have received high

encomiums from many of the medical faculty and some of our principal


Our Society having been actively engaged in the business of manufacturing

extracts for over forty years we claim the advantage of experience and the

rapidly increasing demands for Shaker herbs and extracts with their botanic

preparations is [sic] satisfactory evidence of public approval and esteem.

We pledge ourselves to furnish articles of superior excellence and are

determined not to be surpassed in the quality and the neatness of our



The catalog contained nearly two hundred different extracts of

herbs, barks, roots, and berries. Also advertised were pearls of

ether, chloroform, and turpentine. These were gelatin capsules.7

The production of fluid extracts was a great advance in thera-

peutics. They were much more convenient and of more dependable

strength than the infusions and teas made with the herbs. They also

gave impetus to the patent medicine industry in the United States.

The Shakers devised a number of preparations which were widely

accepted by laymen and by members of the medical profession both

in this country and abroad.


6 Clara Endicott Sears, Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals (Boston and New York,

1916), 249-255.

7 This catalog and other pamphlets and papers referred to hereafter are in the

library of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland.

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We find that David Parker, trustee of the Shaker village at

Enfield, New Hampshire, was awarded medals from the Massa-

chusetts Charitable Mechanic's Association for two Shaker prepara-

tions: Corbett's Shaker Compound and Concentrated Syrup of

Sarsaparilla, and Brown's Shaker Fluid Extract of English Valerian.

These medals were given at an exhibition held in Boston in 1850.

Their extract of veratrum viride was widely used. This does not

lack interest when we are aware of the recent renewed popularity

of this drug evidenced by numerous clinical studies published in

medical journals from coast to coast and the samples left in our

offices. In a paper advertising this extract published by Dr. Wesley

C. Norwood in Albany, New York, and dated 1858, the following

statement appears:

Having frequently visited the laboratory and botanical gardens at New

Lebanon, Columbia County, New York, I can unhesitatingly recommend

their preparations as the most pure and reliable Medicines manufactured in

this country, as they spare no pains in doing their work on the most

scientific and pharmaceutical principles. Just such articles as the Practitioner

wants to insure his success in his professional treatment; and as such I

recommend them to the Medical Faculty.

The statement is signed, "W. C. Norwood, M.D., Cokesberry,

South Carolina." It is followed by testimonials from many doctors

located in New York, Ohio, and Kentucky.

Another leaflet is an advertising pamphlet published by Dr.

Louis Turner of St. Louis, Missouri. It sets forth the virtues of

Turner's Consumption Cure, or Shaker Cough Remedy and Turner's

New Life for Women. Turner was a manufacturer of Medicines,

and he secured his herbs, tinctures, and fluid extracts from Union

Village near Lebanon, Ohio. This community in 1833 established

a special botanical garden under the supervision of Drs. Abiathar

Babbitt and Andrew Houston. These doctors were Shakers, who

acted as physicians to the community and accepted calls from the

world surrounding the settlement. Dr. J. R. Slingerland remarks

about the fine and complete equipment at Union Village and states

that the laboratory bottled and labeled Dr. Turner's Wonder Herbs,

344 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

344    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

the Great Shaker Blood Cure. Other preparations were the Shaker

Pain Cure, presumably a liniment, and Dr. Slingerland's Shaker

Granules, the latter a cathartic.

The Western Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, pub-

lished in Cincinnati, carried this notice in 1835:

The Society of Shakers at Union Village, Warren County, Ohio cultivate

and prepare a variety of medical plants, native and exotic. This is a branch

of horticulture in which the profession is interested and the industrious and

orderly community who have undertaken it, deserve encouragement. Orders

to be directed to A. C. Houston.

The Shaker village at Enfield, New Hampshire, had a less ex-

tensive herb garden and they secured many of their herbs and

extracts from the Mt. Lebanon Shakers. The important product of

the Enfield group seems to have been Brown's Shaker Fluid Extract

of English Valerian. This plant was brought over from England

and was successfully propagated. The extract was of exceptional

strength, containing the essential oils and medicinal properties of

the fresh root. It was warmly recommended by Dr. Edward E.

Phelps, professor of therapeutics and materia medica at Dartmouth

College; by Parker Cleaveland, professor of chemistry, materia

medica, mineralogy, geology, and natural philosophy of Brunswick

College, Maine; by Dr. Charles H. Stedman, superintendent and

physician to the lunatic and other city institutions of South Boston;

and by Dr. George Buddington of Green County, New York, Dr.

John Ely and Dr. J. B. Henshaw of New York City, Dr. Josiah

Crosby of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Dr. H. B. Wilbur,

physician to the institution for idiots, Barre, New York.

Another preparation of the Mt. Lebanon Shakers was a mixture

of fluid extracts as tinctures known as Seven Barks. It had a wide

and long sale. I can remember the package on the shelves of my

father's drug store. It was about four inches tall and one and a

half inches wide and deep, a square-on-the-end package. It was

printed in colors, and down one side were seven heads of different

breeds of dogs. I do not credit the Shakers with designing this

attractive and humorous package. It contained the following ex-

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tracts in tincture form: blue flag, butternut, stone root, golden seal,

sassafras, blood root, and black cohosh. The dose was five to twenty

drops. It was marketed by Dr. Lyman Brown, 68 Murray Street,

New York City. It was sold widely in the United States and ex-

ported to England, Germany, and France.

Of the many preparations of the Shakers, none attained the im-

portance in wide acceptance and in profitable return that was en-

joyed by their extract of sarsaparilla. It was made from the root

imported from South America, and was prepared as directed in the

United States Pharmacopoeia. I can well remember this preparation.

I have seen many prescriptions calling for a bottle of sarsaparilla,

to which was to be added four to six drams of potassium iodide.

This was widely used by the medical profession for the secondary

and late symptoms of syphilis. The acceptance of their extract of

sarsaparilla by the medical profession is certified by the following

resolution adopted by the Lebanon Medical Society of Lebanon,

Ohio, October 29, 1849: "Resolved: That this society has entire

confidence in the purity of the pharmaceutical preparations of the

Shakers of Union Village, Ohio, and we heartily recommend their

preparations to the profession, especially the extracts from the

narcotic plants and of sarsaparilla."

The popularity of this preparation cannot be exaggerated; its

reputed virtue carried it into the medical folklore of the masses.

The extract was made by the Shakers and was marketed by agents

in New York City and elsewhere. It was the great "blood purifier"

from 1848 to well into the twentieth century. A circular advertising

it reads as follows:


Scrofulous diseases; this poison lurks in the body and attacks with im-

punity, producing diseases of the kidneys, liver, and lungs-also the

digestive and uterine apparatus, often producing such diseases as con-

sumption, ulceration of the stomach, liver, and kidneys, biliousness, sores,

tumors, erysipelas, salt rheum, blotches, pustules, boils, and pimples, as

well as causing pains in the bones, side, head, and back, rheumatism,

dyspepsia, female weakness, leucorrhea or whites, and pain and distress

in the womb, emaciation, dropsy, and general debility. We recommend for

346 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

346    Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly


alleviation and cure a remedy that has been sold for sixty years and pre-

scribed by our best physicians-The Shaker Original Extract of Sarsaparilla.

I want to make clear that this copy was not written by the

Shakers. I have come across a statement made by them in which

they extolled the excellence of this preparation for its tonic virtues

but cautioned that it was not a "cure all." I have no doubt that they

were embarrassed and distressed at the extravagant claims made by

the energetic worldly promoters of their products.

It is of interest to conclude this discussion of the "wonder drug"

with an extract from the manuscript diary of Oliver C. Hampton,

a member of Union Village: "On March 4, 1865, the Union

Society lost by fire the Old North House and its contents which

contained the tin shop, broom shop, carpenter shop, and sarsaparilla


A very popular German proprietary preparation was Mother

Seigel's Curative Syrup. The formula was brought to this country

in 1868 and was prepared and packaged by the Shakers as Seigel's

Syrup or Shaker Extract of Roots. It became very popular and was

widely sold both here and abroad. A. J. White of 168 Duane Street

was the New York agent for Seigel's Syrup, as well as for Shaker

Soothing Plasters and Shaker Family Pills. The latter was a

cathartic and bore on the label the following statement: "Unlike

many kinds of cathartic medicines, these pills do not make you feel

worse before you feel better."

The Shaker Asthma Cure carried the still valid statement, "No

disease is harder to cure." An advertisement offering a number of

testimonials concluded: "We offer the reasonable hope that the

preparation will effect a cure, and a still greater possibility exists

that it procure at least so much relief that you can breathe the free

air of heaven without distress and be able to lie down and find

rest in sleep." The Shaker Hair Restorative carried the legend,

"Gray hair may be honorable, but the natural color is preferable."

Ointments, porous plasters, skin lotions, cold creams, and lini-

ments also were made by the Shakers, but they were less important

than the Shaker preparations already mentioned.

A word should be said of one manner of distribution of Shaker

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herbs and medicinal products. In the early days the Shaker wagon

was a frequent visitor to the towns, villages, and country homes

throughout the eastern states. These wagons carried small pieces

of furniture, certain dry goods, and other products of their shops,

along with packaged garden seeds, packaged herbs, and, in time,

their bottled Medicines. The packaged garden seeds made a flourish-

ing business. The seed business no doubt gave wide and favorable

familiarity to the Shaker name and set a standard for excellence

and reliability for their herbs and medicinal preparations as well as

their other products.

A recent visit was paid the Tilden Drug Company of New

Lebanon, New York. This company is the oldest manufacturing

drug house in America. It was founded in 1824 and carried on drug

manufacturing contemporary with that of the New Lebanon Shakers

situated a few miles distant. Through the kindness of William

Gordon Cox, the president of the Tilden Company, the author

met several persons who had close contact with the New Lebanon

Shakers during the final years of their drug manufacturing.

Mrs. Lois W. Rider, secretary of the company, recalls their

activity since 1903. By that time the extensive extract business of

the nineteenth century was greatly curtailed. They did however

make inspissated watery extracts to which alcohol was added.

Eldress Emma J. Neale was in charge of drug manufacturing. Their

principal products were Brown's Seven Barks and Shaker Extract of

Veratrum Viride. According to her memory all drug manufacturing

ceased about 1930. Robert Pick, superintendent of the Tilden Com-

pany, confirmed these statements and added the information that

the New Lebanon Shakers obtained from his company certain ex-

tracts they had ceased to manufacture.

Bill Reed, also of New Lebanon, was interviewed. His father had

worked for years in the Shaker laboratory and Bill himself worked

about the community when a boy and assisted in mixing and

packaging Mother Seigel's Syrup. In his time the only alcoholic

extract produced was that of Veratrum Viride. He added: "The

Shakers were lovely people to work for. They were industrious and

peaceful. There was no quarreling."

348 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

348   Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly

A few miles from New Lebanon is located the Old Chatham

Shaker Museum. This institution is outstanding for its great variety

of Shaker remains, presenting as it does every aspect of Shaker life

and industry. A large room is given over to displaying considerable

equipment and products of the New Lebanon Shaker drug industry.

Here are a great variety of dried roots and herbs, herb presses, herb

choppers, parts of a copper still, mixing tanks, and bottling equip-

ment. Original packages of Corbett's Extract of Sarsaparilla, Nor-

wood's Tincture of Veratrum Viride, Brown's Seven Barks, and

bottles containing the pearls of ether, chloroform, and turpentine

are also to be seen.

In approaching the end of this paper it is necessary to state that

this is not an exhaustive account of Shaker medicines. The material

presented has been drawn from many but not all sources. The

records are both voluminous and widespread; much of it beyond easy

access. Enough has been presented to demonstrate that Shaker herbs

and Galenicals were for more than half a century widely accepted

by both the public and the medical profession. They put into drug

manufacturing the honesty, integrity, and sincerity of purpose that

characterized their labors in other fields and made the name Shaker

a guarantee of genuineness equal to the sterling mark on silver.

Of the Shakers it cannot be said that their way of life or their

labors were in vain. During their flourishing days, 1840 to 1880,

they spread an influence for good out of all proportion to their

numbers, and in these days of their diminishing membership their

kindness, honesty, integrity, and wholesomeness are not forgotten.

Careful and serious study of the Shakers has produced a shelf of

books and the end is not yet. The ideals of Mother Ann, Whittaker,

Joseph Meacham, and many other leaders are alive today, and the

future will not fail to remember this romantic, social-religious and

economic experiment.