Date of Award

Fall 1995

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

David H Watters


I examine the roles of literacy and literature among the Shakers from the opening of "Mother" Ann Lee's testimony in 1780 through the early twentieth century to propose that the sect persistently resisted and revised "the world's" literacies. I assert that multiple kinds of reading and writing acts reinforce the beliefs of individuals and the church as a whole, and I argue that the increase in literary acts which appear to contribute to individualism and fragmentation of the institution actually allows Believers to revise their theology so that they see their sect as continuing to grow rather than declining.

In Chapter I, "Varieties of Literary Experiences," I chronologically survey shifts in the sect's literary endeavors. In Chapter II, "Letters, Spirits and Bodies," I define the Shakers' "spiritual literacies" by exploring relationships between bodily behaviors such as celibacy, theology of an embodied spirit, and literary acts, beginning with examples of Lee recorded in the biographical 1816 Testimonies.

Chapters III-VII are case studies of doctrinal treatises, histories, biographies, autobiographies and elegies. In "Handbooks to Spiritual Literacies," I analyze Richard McNemar's Kentucky Revival and John Dunlavy's Manifesto to argue that Lee emerges as an "absent presence" which shapes the writers' faith-strengthening polemical works. In Chapter IV I argue that editors' construction of the 1816 Testimonies and Believers' interpretations of Lee imagery within it depend upon their knowledge of popular texts such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple.

Lee imagery and racial concerns inform the literacies of African-American Rebecca Jackson and her editor Alonzo Hollister, whose autobiographical writings are the focus of Chapter V. In Chapter VI I argue that the Canterbury, New Hampshire, Obituary Journal and elegies within it reflect an increasing sense of individualism and loss as they preserve Shaker literacies. Finally, I demonstrate how Anna White and Leila Taylor, in Shakerism; Its Meaning and Message (1904), revise the stories of Lee's literacy and Shaker educational practices to sketch the sect as progressive. Yet like many prior Believers, they underscore the presence of a spirit which breathes life into their literacies and literature.