At the top of Prospect Hill in Harvard, Massachusetts, are the Fruitlands Museums, founded in 1914 by Clara Endicott Sears, a wealthy Bostonian who summered in Harvard. She befriended the last members of the Shaker communities of Harvard and Shirley that formed the Harvard Bishopric of the United Believers of Christ, and chronicled their histories. Miss Sears structured the Museum around the farmhouse in which Bronson Alcott and his family lived in a communistic experiment from June 1843 to January 1844. She later added a Shaker building, an art gallery of early American itinerant portraits and Hudson River School landscapes, and a gallery devoted to the American Indian. As Miss Sears intended, the eclectic collection of the Museums forces the visitor to connect different aspects of the past, and the past with the present.
This paper is my modest effort to make the same sort of connections through an examination of one aspect of the Shakers' lives: the method by which they obtained and retained children who came to Shaker communities without their parents. Because Shaker theology required that community members subscribe to a creed of celibacy, new members could only come from outside a community's boundaries. When adults joined a community, they signed a covenant and "consecrated themselves and their property to God." When these relationships crumbled, courts were faced with the broken pieces. For example, could a man who had signed a community's covenant, in which he acknowledged that his work would be for the good of all, recover wages if he left? When families, or only portions of them, joined the Shakers, different legal questions were posed. Did a woman have grounds for obtaining a divorce if her husband joined the Shakers? The way that courts dealt with these issues has received some analysis by scholars of legal and Shaker history.
Barbara T. Schneider,
Prayers for Our Protection and Prosperity at Court: Shakers, Children, and the Law,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol4/iss1/3