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A Visit to Union Village in 1811


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Transcription contributed by Arne H Trelvik 26 May 2003

Sources:
The History of Warren County Ohio
Part IV Township Histories
Turtle Creek Township
(Chicago, IL: W. H. Beers Co, 1882; reprint, Mt. Vernon, IN: Windmill Publications, 1992)
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Union Village and the Shakers of Warren County, Ohio

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The earliest account of the Shakers at Union Village and their religious exercises which we have seen is contained in a letter written by James McBride, and dated at Hamilton, Ohio, July 14, 1811. The religious exercises described by Mr. McBride are somewhat different from those of the Shakers at this day - their dancing exercised being to-day less violent and not protracted for so long a time, and shouting being now rarely heard in their public meetings. The following are extracts from the letter:

“I have known several instances of women leaving their husbands and children and going to the Shakers; and of husbands leaving their wives wretched widows, to shift for themselves in the wide world, and attaching themselves to the Shakers. One woman whom I knew survived the separation but a few months, I believe principally from the unnatural and unheard-of conduct of her husband – wretched, unnatural man. I last Sunday saw him in their church, engaged in their religious dances, as unconcernedly as any of the other members around him. I looked upon him as the worst of murderers. My blood ran cold from the extremities of my body, and threw my whole system into an involuntary tremor. Great excitement has been produced in the public mind by the conduct of the Shakers – so much so that the Legislature of the State, at their last meeting, passed a law of relief of unfortunate women, who might be abandoned by their husbands who joined the Shakers; and, in the fall of last year, a large mob of people assembled and marched to the Shaker village. They numbered about two thousand men, generally armed with rifles and muskets, and threatened to extirpate the Shakers from the face of the earth, which they undoubtedly would have effected had not some of the most respected characters in the country interposed their influence to prevent mischief.

“I, in company with another gentleman, who had seen them before, left here on Saturday evening and rode to within two or three miles of their village, where we lodged for the night, in order that we might get early to their church on Sunday morning, before their ceremonies of worship should commence, which we accomplished. When we came within their settlement, my attention was attracted by the regularity and neatness of their farms and gardens, which appeared to be cultivated with great care and considerable taste. When we arrived at their church, I was surprised at the appearance and neatness of the building, which was a frame (the dimensions I do not know, but it was very large), with two doors of entrance on the west side. Inside, it was handsomely plastered, ceiled overhead, but destitute of seats, except four or five rows of

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wooden benches on the west side of the house, between the two doors. The building is situated in the center of a lot of ground inclosed with a neat paling fence, covered with a beautiful sward of grass. The entrance is by two gates, on the west, opposite the doors in the church, with fine graveled walks between them.

“The men were all dressed in gray homespun cloth, their coats somewhat in the Quaker fashion, or of that cut and fashion which was probably the mode some fifty or a hundred years ago. The females were still more uniform in their dress. In the first place, from the little girl of six or seven years of age, to her old grandmother of seventy, they all wore long-eared caps, clean and white as snow, and which set close to their heads all round, without a single ribbon or bow-knot about them, except two short pieces of white tape at their ears to tie them under the chin. They all wore petticoats fastened around their waists, and a garment made something in the manner of a Dutch woman’s short gown, but so long as to come within a finger-length of their knees. These were all white muslin. Around their necks each wore a plain, clean, white, three-cornered handkerchief, but no beads, no lace, no ribbon or superfluity whatever. Their shoes were somewhat in the form of a Jefferson shoe, rather heavy or clumsy; this completed their dress, except a bonnet of black or brown muslin.

“They were all in the same dress, every mother’s daughter of them; not a single exception was to be seen in the whole society. In coming to the church they all walked in single file, like a flock of ducks coming from the creek in the evening. It was then that I discovered the use of the two gates, and the two doors of the church.

“On entering the church, the men took off their hats and hung them on wooden pegs at the north end of the room. The women likewise took off their bonnets, and disposed of them in like manner at the other end of the room. They then took their seats flat on the floor – not cross-legged, as the Turks do, nor with their feet extended at full length before them, to incommode their neighbors, but sitting flat, with their feet at a convenient distance before them, and their petticoats drawn under their knees.

“After sitting some time silent, they all rose at once, as by general consent, and commenced singing a tune, in which each one joined, and sang so loud that it made by very ears tingle. In short, I think if noise could crack the ceiling of the house, this would have long since been fractured although it is the strongest frame building I have ever seen perhaps the strongest of the kind ever erected. In their singing, I could not discover that they sang any particular hymn or song, as I could not distinguish any words, but merely a humming sound to make the tune. In this exercise they continued about an hour, with only short intervals to change the tune, after which they resumed their seats on the floor as before. An elderly gentleman then stepped from amongst them, advanced to the space between the members and the spectators who sat on the benches, and delivered a discourse about as long as a common sermon. I paid particular attention to what he said, and, had I time, I believe I could give you his discourse in nearly the words in which he delivered it, in which he gave us some of the outlines of their doctrine. Who he was I know not, but he certainly was an ingenious man. He clothed his discourse in handsome language, and prepared the minds of his audience, by his preliminary observations, by drawing them on step by step, will calculated to prepare the mind of the superficial thinker to adopt his conclusions, which were deduced from premises which none could deny. At the conclusion of the discourse, the speaker observe to the Shaker members that it was time to prepare for divine worship. The men immediately went to their end of the building, took off

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their coats, put them away, and returned; in the meantime, about half a dozen men singers and an equal number of women singers arranged themselves along the side of the house opposite their respective sexes, and commenced singing a lively air of a tune, on which the whole assembly joined in a dance, but without running any regular figures, or the men and women intermingling together, each dancing on the space which they occupied, keeping exact time to the music, and, at each turn of the tune, turning half round and facing their next rank. At this they continued ten or fifteen minutes at a time, when a pause took place long enough for the singers to change the tune, when at it they went again. At certain times during their dance, some of them would jump up, clap their hands, whirl round on their toes or heels, like a top, cutting all kinds of extraordinary capers, and sometimes the whole assembly shouted so loud that I thought, beyound all doubt, they would bring the house about our ears.

“The tunes which they sung were brisk, lively airs, such as I have often heard played on the violin at a country dance. They kept dancing in this manner for about two hours. The day was very warm, and before they concluded, their clothes were as wet with sweat as if they had been engaged in a harvest-field.”


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This page created 26 May 2003 and last updated 11-Feb-2005
© 2003-2005 Arne H Trelvik  All rights reserved