Ohio History Journal





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 Unpublished manuscript, 1815, Cathcart Shaker Collection, Western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.


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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

their feelings."5

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

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.

8 Ibid.

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.

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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

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.

18 Ibid.

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

Lebanon, 1843.

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the lame, blind, deaf and dumb. We are subject to the same mis

fortunes."23 A Shaker poem captured the combination of manner,

and learning:

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

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.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

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.

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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

(Princeton, 1941).

Shaker Education 75

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.

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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.