How the Shakers Invented Spiritualism

The Ecstatic Spirits of Holy Hill

Harvard Massachusetts



Field Investigations: 11 August 2002 & 30 May 2007

by Daniel V. Boudillion




Note: this is the full text of the abbreviated version published in the book Weird Massachusetts



The Shakers are known for their many inventions, but did you know that one of these was modern Spiritualism?  And, that they had ecstatic meetings on a Holy Hill in Harvard that were attended by upwards of 40,000 spirits at a whack?  Including the Angel of Victory, Noah, the Virgin Mary, and throngs of Indian spirits anxious to become Shakers? 

   Who Were the Shakers?

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing first came to Harvard, Massachusetts, from England in 1781.  They were searching for a place that their leader, Mother Ann Lee, had seen in a vision prior to coming to America.  That vision was realized as the little valley in Harvard that eventually blossomed into the Harvard Shaker Community. 


The term Shaker was a derisive name given to them by non-Believers who had observed their practice of whirling and trembling to "shake off" the sins of the world in their ecstatic dance-filled meetings.  These meetings were open to the public (called "The World" by Shakers) and many people regularly attended to watch the spectacle. 


The basic tenets of Shakerism were celibacy, communal life, and confession of sin. Other important beliefs were separation from the world, equality of the races and genders, and pacifism. Shakers believed that their founder, Mother Ann Lee, embodied the second coming of the Christ spirit as manifested on Earth.  They also were Millennialists.  They believed that the second coming of Christ had occurred and that they were living Saints of the Second Coming. 


Shaker's dancing while "The World" watches from the sidelines


   An Inventive Society

The Shakers are credited with a long list of innovations and inventions.  These inventions include the flat broom, the screw propeller, a pea sheller, a threshing machine, the metal pin, an apple parer and corer, a turbine water wheel, a revolving oven, the circular saw, the common clothespin, and an industrial washing machine.  Being a humanitarian Society, these inventions were rarely patented. 


It is no surprise that their spiritual life was also inventive and a step ahead of its time, and perhaps even still so today.

   Visions & Spirits

Spirits and the Spirit World were an integral part of the original Shaker teachings of Mother Ann.  She had many visions and described them to her attentive followers. 


Her teachings stated that the offer of the Gospel was free to all souls, be they alive or in the spirit world, and that none could be denied it simply because they were dead.  She often saw visions of the dead being brought to salvation.  She had visions of meeting with angels and of conversing with Old Testament prophets and she reported the mighty doings of deceased Shakers "in the world of spirits" converting the dead.  She would address the spirits in unknown tongues, and had visions in which she saw herself with "great wings" flying though a gulf in the Spirit World populated with unsaved souls, bringing them to salvation. 


These glimpses of the Spirit World almost exclusively came from the visions and seership of Mother Ann as described by her.  But fifty years after her death in 1784, an amazing period of Shaker history arose in which the outpourings of the Spirits and Spirit World would be expressed front and center on the Shaker stage.  It would be a time in which any and all Shakers would bring through the voice and messages of the Spirits, not only as visions but in real-time channelings and possessions. 

   The Story Begins with an Ending

Mother Lee died in Watervliet, New York, in 1784 and was buried there in a local cemetery.  In 1835 her remains were moved to a Shaker owned cemetery in the Watervliet Community.



Mother Ann's Grave


Perhaps the re-interment disturbed the spirit of Mother Ann.  Perhaps the return of her remains from the secular world to within the holy body of the Shaker Community of "Wisdom’s Valley" after 50 years aroused it to a new spiritual life.  It is no coincidence that the following 10 years were known throughout Shakerdom as Mother Ann's Second Appearing, also known as the New Era, and Mother Ann's Work. 


Indeed, the Spirit of the New Era moved throughout the entire Shaker Community.  In 1837, at the site of Mother Ann's re-interment in Watervliet, it was reported that several young teenage girls simultaneously began to shake and tremble with extraordinary intensity.  They whirled around their schoolroom until they fainted to the floor in a deep trance.  Upon awakening the girls relayed greetings from the "spirit land" and recounted tales of trips to the heavenly worlds.  Soon this phenomenon spread to other teens and to adults in other Shaker Communities.  But it did not become a codified part of Shaker practice until it reached and affected Elder Philemon Stewart in New Lebanon, New York in early spring of 1838.  In short, he became a "chosen instrument," as they called it, for direct communication from Jesus and Mother Ann, among others.   


Shaker girl falling to the floor in trance


   Taking the "Lead" from New Lebanon

Elder Steward's involvement was pivotal to the spread of the New Era.  He was the head of the "lead" in the "lead" Shaker community of New Lebanon.  Steward was a man of indomitable will and his commands were followed throughout Shakerdom absolutely.  It was from revelations of the "lead" that rules and regulations were disseminated and absolute adherence was required.



New Lebanon (Mount Lebanon) Shaker Meeting House


New edicts called "gifts," or spiritual revelations traveled like electricity throughout Shakerdom from the "lead" of New Lebanon.  Initial instructions were for the various Shaker Communities to cleanse and purge themselves of all non-Shaker worldliness.  For the next seven years, many more edicts and "gifts" of the unfolding spiritual nature of Mother Ann's Second Appearance followed.


With the last of the original Shakers dying off, it was believed that Mother Ann was sending her Spirit to revive and refresh the faith of a new generation who believed that a new spiritual age was imminent. 

   The Lovely Vineyard

In the Harvard, Massachusetts, Shaker Community something was certainly brewing in the air early on.  As early as March of 1835, a diarist there noted it to be a "time of great awakening, confession, and repenting." 


Following the initial "gift" from New Lebanon in 1838 regarding spiritual housecleaning, they swept clean the entire community with imaginary spiritual brooms and continued to do so yearly.  In 1839 it is recorded that the spirit influence had indeed arrived in Harvard; there were many lively meetings with "testimony from Spirits brought forward through a mortal instrument."  These mortal instruments were typically young women from the ages of 13 to 25.


By January 1841, the spiritualism and clairvoyance of Mother Ann's Work was firmly established in the Harvard Shaker Community.  When Abijah Worster died on the 10th of that month, a young "inspired" Shaker girl stood by the door to take down the names of those old friends from the spirit world who were expected to attend his body to the grave and honor his funeral.


As the outpourings of Spirit unfolded, the "lead" of New Lebanon revealed an elaborate ritual for the Healing of Nations in the spring of 1842.  This "gift"  required each Shaker community to build a holy place of worship (a spiritual feasting ground) on a nearby hill to be used for semiannual all-day Spiritual Feasts in May and September.  Each location was to have a special spiritual name, and the communities themselves were also given special spiritual names.  Harvard Community became known as Lovely Vineyard, and their worship place was christened the Holy Hill of Zion.


Main Street, Lovely Vineyard, Harvard Massachusetts


Harvard was quick to espouse and unfold the new outpouring of Mother Ann's Work.  In fact, the community had already begun work on Holy Hill by October of 1841, well in advance of the "gift" directive from New Lebanon. 

The Fountain of Youth Found

The Harvard Shakers' Miraculous Spring Water

by Daniel V. Boudillion


The longevity of Harvard Shaker Community was remarkable.  In the 1880’s, the average lifespan of a Harvard Shaker was just over seventy years of age.  It would be another 50 years before the general populace were to equal that.  A casual walk through the Harvard Shaker cemetery reveals an unusual number of long lived community members, and ages in the 90’s are not uncommon.


The Harvard Shakers were in no doubt as to the reason of their extraordinary health and longevity.  They had a special spring from which the entire community drank exclusively.  In fact, they claimed a 16% increase in lifespan from its waters alone. 


For the rest of the article, see here.




   The Holy Hill of Zion

The feast grounds, as they were originally called, were required to be on a high point of land close to the community.  However, according to the "lead" of New Lebanon, the exact location was to be chosen by spirits speaking through the "chosen instrument" of the local Shakers.  The Harvard "instruments" were lead to chose a nearby 120 foot tall hill about 700 yards west of the central Church Family location.  It is a long narrow hill running on a due north-south axis and about a half mile long. 


Over the course of two years the Shaker Brethren transformed the top northernmost end into a half-acre square plateau.  They carved off the rounded top and used it for fill along the sides and end of the hill.  This area was enclosed with a wooden fence.  In the center a hexagonal area on a north-south axis, about 11 feet long and 5 feet wide was enclosed with a low shin-high fence. (See picture to the left.)  This was known as the Fountain, an area of energetically upwelling spiritual blessings.  At the northern end of the Fountain area was erected a marble slab variously known in the different Shaker Communities as a Fountain Stone, God Stone, or Lord's Stone.  It was engraved as follows:


On the back: "Written and placed here By the command of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ THE LORD’S STONE Erected upon this Holy Hill of Zion November 23d, 1843.  Engraved at Harvard."


On the front: "For the healing of the nations, who shall here seek my favor.  And I will pronounce all people who shall come to this fountain, not to step within its this enclosure, nor place their hands upon this stone while they are polluted with sin.  I am God the Almighty in whose hands are judgment and mercy.  And I will cause my judgments to fall upon the willful violator of my commands in my own time according to wisdom and truth, whether in this world, or eternity.  For I have created all souls, and unto me they are accountable.  Fear ye the Lord."



Holy Hill of Zion Dancing Ground & Fountain Stone Footing


The feast grounds (dancing grounds) in each Shaker community were set up very similar to this, each with its Fountain area and Fountain Stone.  The only surviving Fountain Stone is from the Groveland "Union Branch" Shaker Community and is on exhibit at the New York State Museum.



Harvard & Groveland Fountain Stones


   Sacred Indian Sites?

Interestingly, Brad Olsen, in Sacred Places of North America, believes that "most of these hills were originally Native American worship sites."  Indeed, artifacts found on Mount Sinai in the Hancock Shaker community indicate that the peak was sacred to local Indian tribes. 


Some researchers including Olsen, but most specifically James Mavor and Byron Dix in Manitou, believe that Indian ritual was incorporated into Shaker ceremony and that the choice of Indian ritual locations by Shaker "instruments," particularly in Harvard, was intentional.  Mavor & Dix go as far to suggest that these Indian sites were maintained by the Shakers along with the Indians, and then later on their own.  Certain lithic structures in the Harvard area are given as examples of Indian activity on what became Shaker lands. 


According to them, these include large perched boulders, balanced rocks, standing stones, stone mounds, unusual stone rows, prayer seats, artificial rock shelters, and ditch and bank earthworks.  Two of these, a rocking stone and a standing stone, may be seen near the trailhead on South Shaker Road in Harvard. 



1 Ton Rocking Stone & nearby Standing Stone


Certainly Indian spirits played a major role in the New Era of Mother Ann's Work between 1838 and 1844, but there is no hard and fast evidence for collaboration with actual Indians themselves.  At best, Mavor & Dix provide circumstantial evidence in Manitou, and perhaps sum it up best in their own words as a "curious affinity between the Shakers and the Indians."

   Meetings on Holy Hill

The first recorded mention of meetings of the Lovely Vineyard Harvard Shakers on the Holy Hill of Zion was on August 29, 1842.  This was well before the Holy Hill was completed, but it can be assumed from the entry that they had been meeting there from at least the summer of 1841.  Over the next few years these spiritualist-type meetings were to become such an obsession that in August of 1842 there were up there almost every other day, and the meetings were lasting up to six hours on each occasion.  So much time was spent in spiritualist activity that the crops languished and the only substantial harvest for several years was spiritual, as was noted by some of the more pragmatic members. 


Processional Avenue to Holy Hill of Zion


On meeting occasions, the Holy Hill was approached in procession along an avenue of maple trees.  The procession would then ascend the north end of the hill in two columns, one of Brothers and one of Sisters, and thus enter the enclosed feast grounds from the North. 


An eyewitness account from nearby Shirley Shaker Village relates that during the procession they "threw love" to each other by throwing both hands forward, and the recipient drawing the hands back to the heart. 


This favorite Marching Song was sung on the precessions to the Holy Hill of Zion:


I shall march through Mount Zion

With my angelic band,

I shall pass through the city

With my fain in my hand,

And around thee, O Jerusalem,

My armies will encamp,

While I search my Holy Temple

With my bright burning lamp.

   Dancing & Pageantry on Holy Hill

On Holy Hill in their day-long (and occasionally night-long) meetings the 80 to 90 Brother and Sister Harvard Shakers found a particularly intricate and ecstatic form of worship in the dance.  They would dance round and round the fountain, spinning and whirling rhythmically.  They would march and sing for hours, swaying in unison.  Whirling like a top, a "chosen instrument" would fall to the ground in a faint, to arise conversing with departed spirits and in unknown tongues. 


Shakers march around Fountain Stone on Holy Hill of Zion


At the meetings the Brothers and Sisters would symbolically bathe at the holy waters of the fountain, and drink of it from invisible cups.  They would have elaborate feasts of spiritual foods such as exotic fruits and sip on invisible heavenly wine that made them drunk. 


Same view today


They also imagined that they were wearing fantastic costumes.  For the Brethren these were costumes of coats of twelve beautiful colors; sky-blue, gold-buttoned jackets; white trousers spangled with stars; white shoes; and a silver fur hat.  For the Sisters these were imaginary gowns of twelve beautiful colors; silver shoes; silver-colored bonnets; and blue silk gloves.  They were even given by the Elders invisible spectacles, the better to see the invisible realities.  Imaginary incense was poured over them, and invisible mantles of strength were bestowed upon them.  They received caskets of spiritual treasures that they divided among themselves upon the Holy Hill of Zion. 

   Under the Operations of the Spirits

The chosen instruments of clairvoyance were typically young women from the ages of 13 to 25, although any Shaker who felt the Spirit move could bring through the words and songs of the disembodied spirits.  In fact, anyone who did not willingly cooperate with the spirits who were manifesting at a meeting was subjected to "Warring Gift" where a Sister or Brother would cry out at them, "Woe woe! woe! to them that should leave the ways of God, or oppose it!"  This message would be accompanied by loud groanings. 


The appearance of the spirits was invoked by ecstatic dance: whirlings and spinnings around the Fountain when on the Holy Hill, and rocking and clapping in the Meeting Hall in inclement weather. 


Shakers Dancing in the Meeting Hall


The Elders & Eldresses of Lovely Vineyard (Blanchard, Orsment, Babbit, and Loomis) would exhort the Brethren and Sisters to be zealous and labor (meaning to dance or move ecstatically) for the "Gifts of the Power of God."  As their zeal and labors increased, some would whirl in place or rush rapidly back and forth, while others rolled on the ground.  The young Sisters were especially noted for spinning like tops. 


There would be shouting and leaping, along with talking and singing in unknown tongues.  All the while the young Sisters would spin, spin, spin until they would fall to the ground in violent spasms "as though affected with shocks of electricity."  Whereupon they would subside into a swoon and bring forth the words of the spirit world.  Consider the following example, "her limbs became ridged, her face took on an ashen hue, her lips moved, and she began to speak in a clear distinct voice." 


When a "chosen instrument" was spoken of as being under "operations" it meant jerking of the head, bowing and twisting, rolling the eyes and contorting the face and throwing the arms about. 


The Gift was contagious and soon the entire Meeting would be in the violent ecstatic throes of the spirit world, which was a sight to behold.  Indeed, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's wife compared a New Lebanon meeting to a "Witch's Sabbath."

   The Thronging Spirits of Holy Hill

There was no limit to the extraordinary number and breadth of the spirits who spoke and attended the ecstatic dancing at the Holy Hill of Zion.  According to Clara Endicott Sears in her book Gleanings From Old Shaker Journals these included, "the apostles, the prophets of old, the famous dead of all nations – the great among the Egyptians, Indian chiefs, Arab sheiks, the French prophets – all these disembodied spirits held converse with the worshipers through the chosen mediums and clairvoyants." 


Spirits by the thousands thronged among them.  Recorded here on Holy Hill were the spirits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Noah, Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Mother Ann, and Angels of Truth, Repentance, Peace, Prophesy, and Victory, and many other "bright and holy angels" including the "two angels that drove the righteous Lot out of Sodom."  So too were the spirits of many departed Shakers and ancient Saints.  On another occasion "40,000 such spirits were seen encircling the hilltop like a great and mighty host of witnesses, and remained there during the hours spent in worship." 


Where Spirits Thronged and Shakers Danced

Holy Hill of Zion


In a more esoteric vein we learn that the Mighty Angel of God is named: MA’NE ME’RAH VAK’NA SI’NA JAH.  Linked to this the four Angels of the Four Quarters of the Holy Hills of Shakerdom are:







The Shakers were very protective of the Holy Hill and loathe to permit visits by non-believers.  They made "claim that here the supernatural revelations received were starling clear and definite," and refused entry to The World. 


A further "gift" from the lead of New Lebanon around 1842 was the instruction that meetings were now to be closed from the public view.  So Holy were the manifestations taking place that it was no longer deemed fit for The World (the public) to observe them.  The doors were closed and no public admittance allowed for the next three years.  Thus the times and doings of the Holy Hills of Shakerdom were essentially cloaked to all but the Brethren and Sisters alone. 

   Converting the Indians

The chosen instruments had prophesied that that "hundreds & thousands" of "naked, hungry and needy" souls would come to the Shakers for salvation, whether they were living or dead did not seem to matter. 


The New Era Shakers, much like the Mormons, believed that the dead of all peoples could still be converted to rest in heaven.  The chosen instruments described them as seeking salvation of the Shaker Ministry by the thousands.  It seems that the Indians were a favorite recipient of this Shaker belief. 


In fact, a young female instrument who, after 15 minutes of whirling in place, described a tribe of "savage Indians" that had been "around two days," then instructed the Meeting that "Mother Ann says to take in the poor spirits and assist them to get salvation."  This practice of assisting spirits pioneered by Shakers is now known as a Rescue Circle in modern Spiritualist groups. 


Crowds of Indians spirits were said to have thronged the meetings and pressed for admittance.  They would be admitted collectively, and possessed the Shakers collectively.  Indian whoops would abound and entire Shaker communities would speak and sing in pseudo-Indian languages, and dance pseudo-Indian dances.  But unlike other channeled spirits, the Indians did not seem to deliver any teachings or messages.  Rather, the Shakers came to the conclusion that they had to teach and convert these spirits.  And, according to the chosen instruments, they did so by the thousands. 

It was further communicated that the spirit Indians lived in the Blue City, said to be on the closest plane "across the river" from the material plane. "Question:
'What city is this?'  Answer: 'The Blue City.'  Question: 'Who lives here?'  Answer: 'The Indians.'  Question: 'Why are they the first city we come to in the spirit-land, and most accessible?'  Answer: 'Because the Indians lived more in accordance with the law of nature…'"



Gift Song & Gift Drawings

The designs and songs were considered gifts of the spirit-world


A number of Indian "Gift Songs" were recorded at this time.  A representative example of this stereotyped pidgin-English is He Haw Tallabo Tallabo:


He Haw tal-lab-o, He Haw tal-lab-o haw,

Tink-a-tay ad-dle-um, i-did-dle ad-dle-um.


Contrast this with the following non-"Indian" Gift Song with a typically distinct Latin flavor:


O calvini criste I no vole,

Calvivi criste liste um,

I no vole vinin ne viste,

I no vole viste vum.

   Spiritual Practices in the Lovely Vineyard

Further spirit-driven practices in Harvard involved "gifts" from the "lead" in New Lebanon.  For instance, when spirit communication there instructed them to sow seeds of Love, Truth, Hope, Charity (and all the virtues), this resulted in the Brother and Sister Shakers in Harvard sowing invisible seeds the length and breadth of their fields prior to planting real ones. 


A Harvard Shaker diarist notes on October 19, 1842, that the entire community between the ages of 16 and 65, "commenced sowing our farm with the seed of faith."  And on November 12 of the same year, it was recorded that the "Sisters sow the seed of protection etc. on the Bigelow pasture and plain." 


Gifts from the Spirit World were common such as a ball of love or a basket of peace.  Shaker Elders traveling from New Lebanon would often distribute the contents of these baskets to the Shaker communities they passed though.  Some baskets would be from Mother Ann or other departed Shaker spirits, and each present was accompanied by attending angels.  The baskets, gifts therein, and the angels would be invisible to all but the chosen instrument describing them to the recipients.  On one occasion in Harvard, each member received a invisible chain of gold which symbolized love. 

   The Millerites Didn't Go Up

The New Era of Mother Ann's Work shared a fervent religious landscape in Massachusetts.  The philosophical idealism of Ralph Waldo Emerson's circle in Concord was in full swing, and Bronson Alcott's Transcendentalist experimental farm at Fruitlands in Harvard was spluttering away over the summer of 1843.  In a "season of wonders," spectacular comets lighted the night skies and Nashoba Hill in adjacent Littleton made strange rumblings and boomings. 

Nashoba Hill: The Hill That Roars - Vision Quest and Nashoba Praying Indian Village

Presented at the NEARA 2008 Fall Conference

by Daniel V. Boudillion


There is a very special hill in Littleton Massachusetts that roars. The Indians thought the winds were pent inside; the Colonials said it sounded like cannons; some folks climbed it to await the rapture; and others erected an altar stone on its top.  It's a well-known hill, famed these days for its ski slopes. But its history is far more strange, and ongoing, than anything that has ever swooshed down its slopes or taken the chair-lift. Gather round the ski lodge fire, friends, and hear the strange tale of Nashoba Hill: of a dark king under the mountain and an island village of vision quests and shamans.


Littleton, Massachusetts was originally a Praying Indian Village.  Back in 1646, Rev. John Eliot, known as the Apostle to the Indians, began an effort to organize the Massachusetts Indians into Christian Villages.  With the backing of Cromwell’s England and 12,000 pounds sterling, he began a long-term mission to the Massachusetts and translated the Bible into Algonquin in 1663.


Although he was a Puritan, Eliot was also a humanitarian and he felt that the best way to assure their survival in the midst of heavy English land-pressure was to organize the Indians into English towns and lifestyles.  They were to convert to Christianity, have deeded towns, live in English houses, wear English clothes, and worship Puritan style in Meeting houses. 


For the rest of the article, see here.



One town over in Groton was one of the main "encampments" of the Millerite Movement.  William Miller was a Vermont farmer who preached and prophesied the coming end of the world, expected to happen between the vernal equinoxes of 1843 and 1844.  His message excited between 50 to 100,000 followers in New England who sold their homes and belongings and climbed hills to await being bodily lifted up to heaven with the advent of the Millennium.  When 1843 passed uneventfully, followed by an abortive Ascension Day on the spring equinox of 1844, the End was meticulously recalculated for October 22, 1844. When this date also passed without event, many of the disillusioned followers joined the New England Shaker Communities.  Others went insane or committed suicide following the "Great Disappointment." 


There were certainly similarities between the Shakers and Millerites.  For one, the Millerites believed the Millennium was imminent, while the Shakers believed it had just happened and they were living in it as its Saints.  There was also a commonality of forgoing material works for spiritual experience.  Because they believed the end was nigh, the Millerites simply forwent their farming chores.  Instead they conjugated at encampments reported at the time to have been regular boisterous night-long bouts of religious singing and dancing, and even rolling on the ground, not unlike what was happening in nearby Lovely Vineyard in 1843 and 1844.


It is no surprise that many a disillusioned and now homeless Millerite found haven in the dorm houses and ecstatic spiritual practices of Harvard's Shaker Community. 

   End of the New Era

The New Era ended around 1844 almost abruptly as it began.  The Holy Hill of Zion in Harvard had only been fully completed on November 22, 1843, with the erection of the Fountain Stone, and saw only a few years use all together.  The last mention in Shaker diaries of meetings there is the semiannual Feast on May 6, 1844, only six months after its completion.  After that there is silence. 


In many ways the ending had as much to do with economics as politics.  There is only so long a farming community can neglect its crops with six hour every-other-day meetings.  And, the dynamics between the chosen instruments and the Shaker Elders very much pitted those experiencing visions and gifts, most of whom where young women, against a pragmatic leadership consisting of elderly men and stern women. 


In almost a fit of embarrassment and irritation, the Shaker Holy Hills were abandoned – not by decree out of New Lebanon – but more out of a mutual and unilateral decision to end that chapter and face the hard realities of crumbing community economics and diminishing memberships. 


Ruins of the Harvard Shaker South Family Barn

See original structure here.


In Harvard, Elder Elijah Myrick, who had lettered the Fountain Stone, quietly removed it one day and buried somewhere on Harvard Shaker Lands.  It has not been seen since, and he left no record of its final resting place. 

   Departing for the World

Almost as if knowing the end was in sight, the spirits who had provided and demanded so much obsession and attention of the Shakers formally announced a withdrawal from the Shaker Holy Places.  They departed the Holy Hills to now manifest themselves (in their own words) "in mighty floods upon the world's peoples as stupendous tokens of spiritual presence." 


The chosen instruments further conveyed the message of the spirits that this would commence around 1848 with the discovery of "mines of treasure" which was supposed to be actual mineral wealth from the earth to compliment the "down streaming spiritual riches." 


Right on schedule, 1848 saw the California Gold Rush and a strange stirring of the supernatural starting with two young girls, much like it had started among the Shakers.  In that year on March 31st in Arcadia (Hydesville), New York, Katie and Maggie Fox came into communication with a mysterious spirit who rapped on the walls of their house.  And thus, modern Spiritualism was born and swept the Western world, and the Spiritualist Church was begun.  The credit for Spiritualism went to the Fox sisters, but the Shakers always maintained that it was their spirits that had tapped back. 


Home of the Fox Sisters, Arcadia, New York


Interestingly, the Fox farm was only seven miles from Palmyra, New York, the birthplace of Mormonism, where its founder Joseph Smith experienced his visions from 1820 to 1827.  This is only a few miles south of the Sodus Point Shaker Community.  Watervliet, where the New Era first made itself known, is about 100 miles to the East. 


A interesting note is that this entire area of New York was known as the Burned Over district due to the successive waves of religious revival that had swept over it so often.  It was considered by the 1820's to be an area of few pickings by the revivalists, so jaded to it were its inhabitants.  And yet three significant spirit-originated movements began here afterwards: Mormonism in the 1820's, the New Era of Shakerdom in the 1830's, and Spiritualism in the 1840's. 

   Spiritualism Killed Shakerism?

There are a multitude of factors that sent Shakerdom into decline in the years following the New Era of Mother Ann's Work.  One interesting theory is that in the 1860's there "was an ideological challenge that threatened to change Shaker views on celibacy and to destroy the structure of the Shaker community." 


This outbreak of discontent was a result of the popular new Spiritualist Movement and their attractive message that there could be reconciliation between the physical world and the spiritual world – between the flesh and worshiping God. 


At New Lebanon, always at the "lead" in all things Shaker, a group of young Believers in 1864 unsuccessfully advocated for a union between flesh and spirit.  Similar discontent arose at Hancock, Massachusetts, and a number of similar uprisings against the strictness of the separation of flesh and god resulted in many expulsions in Shaker communities. 


Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts

by Katie Berry


More and more the Shaker conditions of living in complete celibacy and constant perfection were unacceptable by the younger members and increasingly unattainable.  With the abrupt end of the New Era and its hours of almost daily ecstatic dance and spirit communication, there was little area to channel the life energies creatively.  The number of apostates grew, and the Shaker suicide rates rose above the state rates. 

   Still Interested in Spirits

In another odd turn of events, the prevalence of Spiritualism in mainstream culture by the mid 1850's was such that its terms and practices fed back into the Shaker world, with the Shakers adopting them.  Cyrus O. Poole comments in 1887 that:


"What is now known as Modern Spiritualism is accepted by them [Shakers] as a fact.  They assert that all phases of mediumship were common among them several years prior to the first raps at Hydesville, and that its advent to the general public was then foretold.  In its higher phases it is still sometimes exhibited."


Indeed, the Shaker movement maintained a life-long history of interest in the spirit world.  It only peaked as an obsession in itself during the New Era from 1837 to 1844.  But afterwards the interest is clearly shown to be alive, but it is not a participant interest the way that the chosen instruments participated in ecstatic dance and mediumship.  Rather, from time to time individual Shakers went to or entertained Spiritualist Mediums.  The final recorded mention of the Holy Hill of Zion in a spirit sense comes from a Harvard Shaker diary dated September 26, 1882:


"I go to the Holy Hill of Zion with two lady mediums and Roxalana.  Had a wonderful message in relation to that consecrated place.  Prophecies of its future much like I have heard time to time by the most reliable mediums in the past when we had a wonderful influx from the spirit sphere." 


Sadly, this prophesy has not come to fruition in the 125 years since it was uttered.  The only spirits who haunt the place today are the woodland ones of deer and fox and owl. 

   The Holy Hill of Zion Today

The Holy Hill of Zion is owned by the Town of Harvard, and may be visited by a trailhead accessed on South Shaker Road.  The exact GPS location of the dancing ground on Holy Hill is 42.5350N, -715620W. 


Holy Hill of Zion Dancing Ground


Today the dancing ground on the Holy Hill is covered in trees, although cleared of brush.  A new white fence has been erected around it.  The old iron ties of the original fence may still be found embedded into the old footing stones.  The Fountain Stone has long since been secreted way from the profane eyes of The World by Elder Myrick.  But its slotted footing stone remains.  This stone marks the northernmost end of the Fountain area, and thus its rough dimensions can still be traced on the ground by those interested in doing so. 


Several dozen feet in the woods from the Southwest corner of the dancing ground is a lone scattered heap of stones.  It is known that some Fountains, notably at Hancock, included a pile of stones placed there by the Believers during their ceremonies.  Perhaps this lone pile is the carted off remains of one such ritual in Harvard. 


Stones from the "Fountain?"


I have spent many a contemplative spring or autumn afternoon at the dancing ground.  It is not uncommon to see deer, and nature lovers wander though several times a day on their excursions. 


There is unquestionably a spiritual power that remains here, possibly due to the channel that was carved to the Spirit World by fervency and zeal in the 1840's, or a sacred energy that has always resided at this place.  Indeed, I know of people who have whirled the night away here, same as the young Sisters did 150 years ago.  Others come to meditate. If one were to wear one of the marvelous old imaginary glasses that helped the Believers view the spirit world Holy Hill, I am sure they would still see the dancing ground as a beacon of spiritual power.  For those of us without access to such aids there is still a palatable feeling of proximity to the Unseen. 


Some have attempted recordings of the so-called spirit voice phenomena at the site of the Fountain Stone.  This is a process called Electronic Voice Phenomena where recoding tape seemingly picks up voices not heard with the physical ear at the time of recording.  But with what results I do not know. 


The foot of the Fountain Stone still stands in mute testimony to the extraordinary and fervent days of whirling Sisters and thronging spirits, having all here given good measure to a powerful belief that culminated in ecstatic heights unknown to the common run of human kind. 


From the play "As it is in Heaven" by Arlene Hutton


To quote Flo Morse, who is herself quoting Shaker sources, "By the mid-1840's the Shakers had given good measure to a 'Swift winged' Holy Angel, who had demanded, 'More zeal, more life, more fervency, more energy, more love, more thankfulness, more obedience, more strength, more power!'"


This is Holy Ground of an uncommon and ecstatic type; tread here at your peril lest ye also dance. 



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