In honor of Women’s History Month, the Juvenile Instructor is planning a number of excellent posts on various aspects of Mormon women’s history. Earlier this month, Ardis S. spotlighted a recent article by Max on Jane Manning James and Jerri Harwell–two magnificent Mormon women of African descent, separated by time but not by faith. Today’s offering comes from Rachel Cope, who describes her recent visit with the last surviving Shaker women, and the impact of that experience on Prof. Cope’s approach to writing history and the importance of women and gender in our past. — David G.
Last summer I decided to take a quick trip to Sabbathday Lake, Maine, so I could attend a Shaker service (while a Shaker population still exists). The group consisted of three members: Sister Frances, who has congestive heart failure, is in her early-eighties. The Shakers gave her a home when she was orphaned in early childhood; she has remained a committed member ever since. Sister June, who also has poor health, is probably in her seventies, and Brother Arnold is in his fifties. Both are converts of approximately thirty years.
Since I have read a little bit about Mother’s Work – the Shaker revival period which took place in the Albany, New York area during the 1830s and 1840s – I had a sense of what a Shaker meeting would have looked like in the nineteenth century, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in a meeting of three held in 2010.
In addition to the Shaker trio, approximately nine or ten other people entered the chapel: each had a story to tell about some kind deed this tiny religious group (particularly Sister Frances) had performed for him/her. They, in turn, expressed their gratitude by worshiping with the Shakers.
The meeting commenced with readings from two different passages of scripture, followed by intermittent sharing of thoughts and feelings (almost a cross between a LDS testimony meeting and a Quaker service) and frequent (and seemingly random) hymn singing. Powerful. Pure. Sincere. Selfless.
Words cannot really capture what went on in my mind during that hour, but the love that filled that room caused tears to flow from my eyes. I was touched by the goodness that surrounded me, and I ached for an elderly woman—too close to being an orphan once again—who had devoted her life to something that would, in many ways, end with her. The present was uncertain, the future seemed to hold a promise of extinction, and thus she clung to the past, to memories of a time and a place in which her people had thrived. She lived by remembering what many will forget. To me, her life is an example of why history matters—indeed, why women’s history matters. Personal meaningfulness, Sister Frances’s story suggests, is found as we connect our stories to people, events, and places of the past, as we contextualize our experiences, as we confront and grapple with our own memories, and as we define and redefine our lives in the process.
As I left the Shaker village I thought about nearly two centuries of Mormon women whose lives are hidden in the shadows. Could we really understand ourselves without knowing their stories? Of course I already knew the answer, but in that moment I recognized, perhaps more than ever before, the importance of being a historian of women and religion, the value of situations in which our people can share our lives and our histories with one another, and the fundamental role of preserving and remembering our complete past.