by SHERMAN B. BARNES
Professor of History, Kent State University
On August 27, 1810, a body of some five hundred armed men.
threateningly descended upon the Shaker community at Union
Village, near Lebanon, Ohio. The crowd eventually withdrew, how-
ever, without committing any act of violence. In explaining this
withdrawal official Shaker historians gave credit not only to "the
calm, peaceable and harmless deportment of the believers" but
also to "the orderly and flourishing appearance of their school; the
marks of contentment visible in the countenances of the children."1
Because their school life has not been much studied, the present
paper examines Shaker educational practices and ideas, especially
the ideas of Seth Youngs Wells (1757-1845), who for twenty-four
years supervised Shaker schools and was the society's "educational
The communities of "The United Society of Believers in Christ's
Second Appearing," although practicing celibacy, usually had chil-
dren under their care. Convert families, widowers and widows,
guardians of orphans, brought their children. In addition, as Wells
put it, "we have from time to time, many children urged upon us,
by poor parents, who are not of our community, as well as those
who are; and, generally speaking, we think there are ten offered
to us where one is accepted."2 The preference was given to "children
whose parents profess the same faith with us." Shiftless or insecure
parents or guardians, mothers of illegitimate children would send
children to the Shakers:
We have no lack of children here--I suppose there are about 150 under
the age of 14, & about 30 that are under 5 years old, & a number of them
1 A Summary View of the Millennial Church, or United Society of Believers
Commonly Called Shakers (2d ed., Albany, 1848), 82.
2 Seth Y. Wells, A Plain Statement of the Custom and Manner of Receiving,
Managing, Teaching, Governing and Disciplining Children in the Society of People
Called Shakers. Unpublished manuscript, 1815, Cathcart Shaker Collection, Western
Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland. All manuscripts cited hereafter, including
letters, are in the Cathcart Collection.
68 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly
not more than one year, & some less, & besides almost every married woman
& many a single one that comes in has a baby or two on hand.3
A kind soul brought some kidnapped Indian children to the Shaker
community of North Union Village, Ohio.4
"Mother" Ann Lee (1736-84), the foundress of the society, re-
garded as the bride of Christ and prayed to by Shakers, had loved
children and left the precept "hands to work and hearts to God."
The older believers not only took care of the childrens' material
needs, but taught mechanical skills or crafts to the boys, and
domestic arts, including spinning, weaving, carding, and sewing, to
the girls. Vocational education was given by the apprentice system
rather than by schools. Minor children were taken, if considered
satisfactory after a preliminary trial and study of their disposition
and past record, on the legal basis of indenture contracts. Such
contracts contained the name of one of the elders or deacons of
the society and also of the brother or sister to whom the child was
assigned to learn "such trade or occupation as shall appear best
adapted to his genius and capacity." The care of the child could
be transferred to another caretaker according to circumstances and
the abilities and preferences of the growing child. Also, indenture
contracts provided that if the child did not like his life in a Shaker
village or felt conscientious opposition to Shaker views as he
matured, he could be returned to his parents. There was always a
large turnover of children entering and leaving the communities.
This was allowed because of the Shaker belief in the principles of
both kindness and freedom. "When we take children under our
care, we of course become as parents to these children. . . . We
want no children among us, but such as are really attached to us in
Although at first the gospel was felt to be sufficient book knowl-
edge, it was not long before other books and subjects were studied
3 Eldress Molly Goodrich at South Union, Kentucky, to A. G. Hollister, May 1,
4 Caroline B. Piercy, The Valley of God's Pleasure: A Saga of the North Union
Shaker Community (New York, 1951), 198.
5 Seth Y. Wells, Communication to the Elders . . . Deacons and Trustees in the
United Societies, October 1844.
Shaker Education 69
for which schools were created. Thus, Shaker education came to
have three parts: the religious-moral, the vocational skills taught
by the apprenticeship method, and schools for what Shakers called
"letter-learning." Schools for letter-learning and numbers were
already instituted at South Union, Kentucky,6 Union Village, Ohio,
and New Lebanon, New York, when in January 1821 Mother Lucy
Wright (1760-1821) at New Lebanon, New York, relieved Brother
Seth Youngs Wells of his duty as head of the Second Family at
Watervliet, New York, and gave him "the charge of writing for
Believers and seeing to their schools."7
Before becoming a Shaker, Wells had been "in charge of the
first instituted city school in the City of Albany, in the year 1796."8
He states that in his early life he had opportunity "to enter upon
the pursuit of a literary education."9 By his letters, writings, speeches,
and visits to Shaker schools Brother Wells left an important imprint
upon Shaker education. In 1822-23 he supervised the introduction
of the then novel Lancastrian method into the teaching of spelling,
reading, and writing at Enfield, New Hampshire, Alfred and New
Gloucester, Maine, and Harvard, Massachusetts. At Alfred he "set
the scholars to writing for the first time."10 In his addresses to
his young scholars he stressed the duty of obedience. That he had
the power of moving them appears from his frequent mention of
the children weeping during their farewell hymns to him. In 1823
he recommended a half hour a day of instruction in singing and
music.11 In 1832-33 he helped give instruction, especially in grammar
and composition, at Harvard and Shirley in Massachusetts, and at
Canterbury and Enfield in New Hampshire. At Canterbury he in-
spired a winter evening school in which "one evening in each week
was particularly devoted to reading, examining and correcting
6 At South Union, Kentucky, in May 1813 there were "130 children in the School
Order, & about 16 grown persons to take care of them." Eldress Molly Goodrich to
A. G. Hollister, May 1, 1813.
7 Seth Y. Wells, School Instructions, 1844.
9 Seth Y. Wells, A Few Remarks upon Learning & the Use of Books, 1825.
10 Seth Y. Wells, Tour to Eastern Believers Schools, 1823.
11. E. D. Andrews, The Gift to Be Simple (New York, 1940), 13.
70 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly
composition."12 Wells felt in 1844 that he had not done enougl
visiting and "would gladly visit every school in every branch of
Zion were I able to do so; but that is quite beyond my power in
my present advanced age."13 The pupils could no longer hear the
moving close of a farewell address he had often given:
You ought to love one another, and be kind to each other, as your Elders
and Elderly brethren and sisters have been kind to you. Many, if not the most
of you, have been taken out of the wide world, into the ark of safety,
where you have a great privilege, a privilege that no others can have, unless
they forsake the world and come into the same way. Doubtless there are
many thousands in the world who would rejoice to have the privilege
which you now have; but they cannot have it. You ought to think of
these things. I hope you will remember what I have spoken to you, and
what I have taught you. And remember that the learning which you have
received, will do you no good unless you make a good use of it. I hope
you will be kind to one another. Love your Elders and be subject to them,
love your elderly brethren & sisters and be kind to them. Love the way of
God and keep it; love your interest in the gospel of Christ and hold it
fast; let it be your treasure; let it be your all.14
Seth Wells thought of school education as desirable both for the
useful knowledge imparted and for keeping naturally active children
busy. During the winter especially, if not employed, they were
likely "to spend their time in talking nonsense, rolling about the
floor, scuffling, pulling and hauling each other, tearing their clothes,
or rambling where they have no business and corrupting them-
selves and each other in body and mind."15 Accordingly, the boys
usually attended the three to four month school term in the winter,
the girls in the summer. This was an efficient use of the school
building and equipment. Brothers taught the older boys and sisters
the girls and younger boys. In 1845 Wells recommended attendance
to age sixteen.16
Wells conceived of conducting a school as a task requiring
12 David Parker to Br. Seth Y. Wells in behalf of the scholars at Canterbury,
New Hampshire, June 17, 1833.
13 Wells, School Instructions.
14 Seth Y. Wells, Lecture on Obedience, 1832.
15 Wells, Communication to the Elders, Deacons and Trustees.
16 Piercy, Valley of God's Pleasure, 188.
Shaker Education 71
great wisdom. The first object of a teacher should be to secure
the love of the children, "for if scholars cannot love their teachers,
they will not love their school, and consequently are in no situation
to learn much by their instructions."17 In the classroom to keep
the scholars alert and avoid monotony he felt it was important
to vary procedures. In the schoolroom he wrote, in capitals, "Order
is Heaven's first law, and disorder is Hell's broad way."18 The
purpose of all punishment and admonition was reformation. The
society early decided against the use of the rod except "in cases
of extreme necessity when all milder means failed"; if used, it
should be unaccompanied by "a ruffled temper of mind; because
a person in a passion is incapable of using discretion or doing
justice."19 For the giving of reprimands "it is the wisest way to
take the child alone" and prepare him to make "honest confession
of his wrong" in the presence only of those who witnessed the
wrong.20 On-the-spot reproof before a group was to be avoided.
The mode of discipline should be adapted to the disposition of
the child and the type of wrong. A forgetful child might have a
rag or string around his finger. A proud child might be required
to kneel in the presence of the family either at table or at worship.
A lecture in the presence of the family often had a good effect
on the impudent. Badges or labels of disgrace on the back and of
honor on the chest were advocated. Good actions should be praised,
and no individual was allowed to twit the wrongdoer of his error.21
The power of good example was not overlooked: "Every important
thing that we require of them we ought also to practice & show
our faith in what we teach, by ourselves fulfilling the same."22
As is to be expected, much attention was given to teaching good
manners. Lessons on good breeding included such precepts as not
to laugh "at poor people because they are poor; nor make sport of
17 Wells, School Instructions.
19 Wells, A Plain Statement.
20 Wells, School Instructions.
21 Wells, A Plain Statement.
22 Franklin Barber, Reflections on the Government & Care of Children, New
72 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly
the lame, blind, deaf and dumb. We are subject to the same mis
fortunes."23 A Shaker poem captured the combination of manner,
Of manners good I'm daily taught--
To play no naughty games,
And when we speak to other folks,
To call them by their names:
To move with care, and sit with ease,
And learn our lessons well,
Whether it be to read, or sing,
To cypher, write or spell.24
There was a strong practical emphasis in Wells's view of the
various subjects of study. He felt numbers should be taught by
means of "small articles, such as beans or kernels of corn" without
the use of figures at first. For learning to read he favored the use
of pictures with names printed under them. He liked Worcester's
Pictorial Primer. This does not mean that he opposed learning the
alphabet, for he favored a speedy learning of it and felt most schools
took too long to teach it. He felt it useless to spell words before
the children knew their meaning.25 For improved penmanship he
kept in touch with the latest methods. He felt grammar was very
important as a school subject because without it "we often find
people of good natural talents who express themselves very
awkwardly."26 He considered it useless, however, "to try to beat"
English grammar "into the heads of those who have no relish for
it; and no faculty to gain it." Oral reading and correct speech he
viewed as imperative. For uniform pronunciation he took the new
Noah Webster as the standard. He favored the reading of poetry
aloud. Wells was a student of bookkeeping and favored the single-
entry method for the believers.27 It is not clear whether this became
a Shaker school subject. For the sciences Wells favored the prin-
23 Miscellaneous Questions.
24 The School.
25 Wells, School Instructions.
26 Wells, A Few Remarks upon Learning.
27 Seth Y. Wells, Importance of Keeping Correct Book Accounts.
Shaker Education 73
??iple that a few should know them "for the benefit of society
because that knowledge may be rendered as really useful to society
as if every individual was acquainted with it."28 He gave this
dictum in connection with his expression of "serious doubts"
whether geography should be a common school subject. If studied,
he said, it should be done cheaply by means of globes and maps as
likely "to give clearer ideas of the subject in much less time than
all the books that have been published can do without them."29
History, then little studied as a school subject, he felt should
be let alone in favor of "present duty." He felt no history text
was available which set forth "the most essential good deeds done
by nations and individuals of past ages." Works of profane history
would have a pernicious tendency on youth because such books
"tend only to fill up the mind with the confusion of wars, con-
tentions, frauds, crime and villainies of almost every description."30
In such a view of history there is a curious blend of Shaker religious
distrust of "the world" with the anti-Christian view of history as a
tale of crime and folly held by such historians of the Enlightenment
as Voltaire and William Robertson.31
Were the Shakers narrow in their attitude to learning? Wells
and other Shakers often spoke of the useless learning that clogs
the mind and of the danger of youth becoming puffed up from too
much learning. Wells says that after his conversion he never read
any work of either ecclesiastical or profane history in its entirety,
merely examining the passages for which he had occasion and
letting the rest go. He disliked novels or romances as an evil in-
fluence. A Shaker manual of 1844 said it does "not immediately
concern us . . . what makes a weight incline downwards, what
causes the winds to blow, or the planets to move."32 Isaac N.
Youngs in a lamentation of 1854 over the failure to hold the youth
28 Wells, A Few Remarks upon Learning.
31 For evidence of the direct influence of Robertson on Wells there is among the
Cathcart papers an unpublished manuscript of Wells consisting of his notes on
Robertson and some critical comments.
32 A Juvenile Guide or Manual of Good Manners, Consisting of Counsels, In-
structions & Rules of Deportment for the Young (Canterbury, N.H., 1844), 49.
74 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly
felt that one of the chief corrupting influences was "an insatiab
thirst for books and letter learning that some young men ha??
imbibed, who have grown up in our society." Youngs went on
say that "no man by human learning has ever found out the w??
of God." Youngs deplored the fact that the youth felt they mu
keep up with the times and grow wise with their generation.
Yet to label the Shakers narrow is not so helpful as seeing w??
the Shakers distrusted intellectual pride.34 The fear of usele??
learning derived from the fact that the Shakers had an integrate
communal life in which religious faith was not merely a subje??
but a total world-view within which vocations, education, and a??
communal activities lived and moved and possessed their sig??
nificance. Life had a purpose. Each moment was precious. The
school subjects served higher moral and religious purposes beyon??
themselves. Thus, knowledge of grammar was valued as a mean
of keeping correct accounts of divine manifestations, as of Mothe
Ann's speaking for schools at a meeting in 1840.35 At Canterbury
in New Hampshire, "reading, examining and correcting com
position . . . opened a door for the many expressions of good fait??
and resolution, in which all the youth here have taken an active
part, which have strengthened our union & relations with each
other, & to the true fold."36 Of the children brought into the society
for schooling Wells says, "Our great object should be to make
good Believers of them, that they may become useful and honorable
members in the house of God."37 Shakers wanted to keep the
loyalty and obedience of the children, but their belief in freedom
of faith and conscience led them to let children decide when coming
of age whether to become believers.38 One believer who valued
33 Isaac N. Youngs, Idle Company.
34 The unpublished doctoral dissertation by Harold T. Cook, Shaker Music
(Western Reserve University, 1946), suffers from the assumption that the Shakers
were held down by their religion; the author interprets Shaker music as the only
realm in which fancy and self-expression had any free play among the Shakers.
35 A Short Communication from Mother Ann.
36 David Parker to Br. Seth Y. Wells, June 17, 1833.
37 Wells, School Instructions.
38 This is the thesis of Marguerite Fellows Melcher in The Shaker Adventure
Shaker Education 75
independence of thought affirmed that "to attempt to warp the
ideas of children into the same channel with our own ... & restrain
by the fear of our displeasure, any new or independent idea that
they may have, seems very improper & injurious."39 That after the
middle of the century especially many used their free thought to
leave the colonies is obvious. Pathetic appeals were made to remain
loyal, even with such secular arguments as the comfort, security,
health, and great longevity enjoyed in Shaker villages. Such argu-
ments show the waning of the faith.
Wells was capable of seeing an emergence of good in "the world."
He saw good in the laws setting up the public school systems:
In this there evidently appears to be an overruling hand of Divine
Providence to prepare the way for an extensive spreading of the gospel,
in a future day. For without a general diffusion of moral principles, among
mankind, there can be but very little prospect of success in preaching the
gospel, in the present and past deplorable state of the world.40
Possibly he was sympathetic to the new school laws of "the world"
because "the world" respected Shaker education. In 1849 a report
on Shaker schools by the New York Assembly stated that "it is
commonly acknowledged that the Shakers generally excell children
of the same age in the public schools."41 Shaker teachers were at
times employed in town or district schools and taught the children
of the "world's people" together with Shaker children.42 At North
Union, Ohio, in 1848 the Shakers had sufficient children to form a
district school under Ohio law, for which the Shakers received
money from the general Ohio school funds. The children of "the
world" in the neighborhood attended.43 Shakers served on school
I have found only one case of Shakers clashing with district school
officials. At Harvard, Massachusetts, on January 26, 1841,
39 Barber, Reflections on the Government & Care of Children.
40 Wells, School Instructions.
41 Quoted in Piercy, Valley of God's Pleasure, 190. Wells felt Shaker schools did
in four months what other schools took twelve months to accomplish.
42 Melcher, Shaker Adventure, 159.
43 Piercy, Valley of God's Pleasure, 194-195.
76 Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly
George Fisher (one of the School Committee in this town) came here
examine our school but did not gain admittance,[.] he informed us, th
if we would not have our school go on according to the usual manner,
was authorized to employ a master to teach it, & has agreed with one
come next Monday. He had previously been informed that we did n
wish to be controlled by the School Committee.
The following Monday, February 1, 1841,
Fisher came here and brought Granville Hill with him to teach our schoo
they were informed that we did not wish for any of their assistance, s
they returned home.44
This incident is perhaps no more than the exception which shed
light on the rule that Shaker schools "were scrupulous in thei
conformity to the school laws of the county and state."45
44 A journal containing some of the transactions of the Church of Harvard, 1840-44
45 Melcher, Shaker Adventure, 159.