In the mid-nineteenth century, young Shakers often went into trances during which they believed themselves to be conduits of divine messages. Professor of Religion Jane Crosthwaite has just published about this era in The Shaker Spiritual Notices of Eleanor Potter.
The Shakers—a religious sect whose followers often literally shook with spiritual fervor during worship services—believed in “a theological world where heaven and earth enjoyed frequent and free interchanges,” Crosthwaite writes.
Potter, who lived in the New Lebanon, New York, Shaker community, copied in elegant handwriting the divinely inspired “notices” she received. Then she illustrated the messages with pen and ink drawings. Each notice was bound into a neat booklet reproduced in Crosthwaite’s book, which also includes her scholarly essay analyzing the notices.
Crosthwaite says Potter’s notices were part of a “flood” of such messages from the Heavenly Father, Holy Mother Wisdom, and other “heavenly parents,” praising current Shaker leaders and telling them how to lead their flock. Potter’s notices are particularly conservative in content, warning members not to stray from the teachings of Shaker leader Mother Ann Lee, which included practicing celibacy and self-denial. The messages also reflect worries about what will happen when aging Shaker elders die.
Potter’s illustrations are related to a larger Shaker tradition of “gift drawings,” which were an acceptable way for Shakers to create and accept art despite a ban on decoration. Shaker artists “were adept at making virtues and blessings concrete,” Crosthwaite writes. “Approbation became roses; fans indicated discernment; cups could carry tribulation or evidence of long-suffering.” Potter’s images were typical of an era marked by an “extraordinary combination of visionary ambition and common images.”
Potter’s notices both “highlight a moment when the Shaker community was dealing with many issues” and “show the imaginative reach of uneducated believers trying to make statements about eternity,” says Crosthwaite.
Although the Shaker mindset can seem very foreign to many today, she says their efforts were “not unlike what we are still trying to do with our limited understanding of the universe—make what we hope are profoundly insightful observations.”
—By Emily Harrison Weir