Who are the Shakers?

A Petition to President Abraham Lincoln by the Shakers

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).
Photograph from the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site.

by John N. Rankin and Harvey L. Eads

Question of Draft.

In May, 1863, all male citizens who had not taken the oath of allegiance to the United States were required, under penalty of banishment south of the federal lines, or death, to do so before the first of June. Two brethren, representatives of the [Shaker] society, went to remonstrate against taking the oath, as rendering them liable to be drafted. Gen. Shackleford, at the headquarters, wrote, “You will not be requested to take the oath.” In August 1863, Elder Eads drew up a petition to President Lincoln, which is a good summary of their relations to the Government up to that time.

PETITION.

To the Honorable Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:

KIND FRIEND, Strike, but hear! The armies of the south, like a great prairie fire, swept over this part of Kentucky in the fall and winter of 1861, licking up the substance of the land. We were humbled before its power and for many months remained the quiet subjects of the Confederate Government, obeying all its behests save one which, nobly and generously, they permitted us to disregard, and that was to take up arms on their behalf. They encamped for days, as many as a thousand at a time, in our lots and occupied our buildings. We chopped and hauled wood for their camp fires and slaughtered our animals for their commissariat, and at all hours of the night we were compelled to furnish food for thousands at a time.

They pressed all our wagons and horses of value for army purposes; but for these they paid a moderate price in confederate scrip. It was then we prayed earnestly,—O Lord Almighty, if it be Thy will, deliver us from our enemies! the worst of whom were our elated and high headed neighbors. This our prayer was partially answered, when your loud ordnance was heard to open on Bowling Green, fourteen miles northeast of this place. Since that time we have suffered much from the ebb and flow of the tide of war, until a good part of what the fire left, the merciless and surging billows have in their turn swept away, so that we have been left, as it were, writhing sometimes under the heel of one power and sometime another.

Your armies have visited us, from a small squad to five or six thousand at a time. Our barns were cheerfully relieved of their contents, our fences turned into camp fires, (for these we have been paid by you) but gratuitously have we furnished food for thousands of your men. Of this we complain not. To our uniform kindness (if we must say it) all your armies that have passed us, all your hospitals within our reach, all your post surgeons and commanders can bear witness. When your supplies were cut off at Green River, your officers pressed our sugar for hospital purposes, our cellars disgorged themselves of nearly a thousand dollars worth, for which so far, on account of some informality, we have striven in vain to obtain one cent of renumeration.

We state these things now, not by way of complaint, but merely as grounds (coming to your knowledge) on which we may rest a hope that we may be treated on the sensitive point, with as much lenity and as much justice, as we were by the Confederates which we were subjects of their government.

It is impossible that one’s friends can be as tolerant, as just and generous as their enemies? Must our prayers be reversed, and we cry to the Lord to be delivered from our friends? After we have uncomplainingly borne until we can scarcely bear any longer, must we receive from our friends the most unkindest cut of all, besides the derision, jeers and mocks of our enemies? Shall the main support of one hundred and fifty women, children and invalids be taken from them? Must this indeed be added to our yet untold sufferings? Heaven grant that it may not be! We have yet in our society about twenty-four young men between the ages of eighteen and fourty-five years, a majority of whom would be capable of doing some kind of service in the Federal army, but who are the main support of the women, children and invalids above mentioned, a number of whom will not shoulder a musket, nor bear about their persons the weapons of war; who, having been taught from infancy to love, not to fight, their enemies, would sooner lay down their own lives, than to aid, even remotely, in taking that of another. If this was respected by the Confederate government cant it be ignored by the Federal? It is hoped not. Were it possible to convince us that we could love a man and shoot him at the same time (!) we could hardly spare either the numbers or the few thousands of dollars demanded in lieu of them. Add to this the serious fact that these young men, through us as their leaders, have pledged themselves (we do not swear) not to fight against the Confederate government. Must we be compelled to violate this pledge? Certainly not; still, as long as we are able, we will feed the hungry and clothe the naked, as an act of humanity and Christian duty, but not for the purpose of supporting war, but cheerfully render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

We are aware that you are oppressed and harrassed on all sides, and deeply do we sympathize with you and therefore make our words few. If you cannot exempt all the Shakers in the north, who have scarcely felt the war, never having witnessed your marshalled hosts nor the desolating and deathly tread of an army,—is it selfish in us to claim that our pledges, our losses and our sufferings, and that in the midst of our enemies, demands that our Society in Kentucky should be the object of your commiseration and fostering care? Or can it be God’s will, that after having been spared by our enemies, we should be blotted from the earth by our friends? Surely not.

To take the young men of our home to sure demoralization and slaughter, or further wrest from us our means of support with all that has been done, would seem cruel.

Our principles are above conditions. There is not money enough in the vaults of the nation to buy them not to induce one truly honest Shaker to engage in any war against his fellowman. We do not expect that absolute equality of burden is attainable in the present condition of things, only approximation toward it; be where it can be, it should be. We ask for simple justice, nothing more,—hardly that. We look upon you, not only as the friend of humanity and the rights of man, but as the chosen instrument of God, in this time of the nation’s peril. But the instrument of God dares to do right. Now that our young men are threatened with enrollment and draft, and are only held (some of them) by their friends, from crossing the Tennessee line,—we ask and feel almost certain that you will, from the foregoing consideration, grant exemption from the draft to the few young persons of our community, on whom so much depends, seeing especially each one has more to do for the support of others, than the only son of a widow, now by law exempt.

With what ease you can render us the simple justice for which we pray, and enable us to hold within our sacred precincts these of whom we shall shortly be bereft if we “find not favor in thy sight.”

Only tell us, at the earliest possible moment, consistent with your other duties, that you will release them. You will then have done for us a favor equal to all the losses we have sustained and will receive the cordial and heartfelt thanks of a grateful Community. We will not weary you any more, but humbly wait and hope and pray.

We are sincerely,

Your friends,

JOHN N. RANKIN

H. L. EADS,

Leaders of the Society of Shakers at So. Union, Ky.

To the Honorable Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, Washington, D. C.

In December, several brethren were drafted, but the provost Marshall at Bowling Green informed them that he had received the following despatch from Washington:

To the Provost Marshall, Bowling Green.

SIR:—If there is any religious Community within your district, whose conscientious scruples abjure war, or the payment of commutation fee, you will parole them indefinitely, still holding them subject to any demand from the authority here.

(Signed) E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.

Washington, D. C., Dec. 30, 1863.

This was “good and glad news indeed” to the Shaker Community.

This material is taken from Shakerism Its Meaning and Message, Embracing An Historical Account, Statement of Belief and Spiritual Experience of the Church from Its Rise to the Present Day., by Anna White and Leila S. Taylor (Columbus, Ohio: Press of Fred J. Heer, 1905), p. 195-199. A digital edition of this book is now available on line.