Shakers At Sodus Bay

 

                  1826 – 1838

 

The Shaker community was located on the southwestern part of Sodus Bay in what is now called Shaker Heights. Another lasting legacy of their religious movement is Ann Lee Drive which was named after the founder of the American movement.

 

An account of their time on Sodus Bay is found in:

 

Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited

by

John H. Martin

 

Chapter 6

 

Sodus Bay and Groveland

 

Shaker Life In Western New York

 

 

The Shaker  religion has fascinated Americans ever since its inception in the late 1700s,  one of the longest surviving of the “new religions” which were to  develop in the United States. It spread at its zenith by establishing  communities from Maine through New England to New York to Ohio and to Kentucky.  In New York State in the “Burned-Over District” of central New York,  a Shaker community was begun in 1826 at Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario, a community  which would relocate to Groveland to the south of the Finger Lakes area after a  few years.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           The Shaker faith  had its incipient beginnings in England in the mid-1700s, but it was Ann Lee,  born in 1736, who was to found the ongoing faith in America once she left  England. Ann Lee came from an impoverished background, she never learned to  read or write, and she was forced to work at menial tasks all of her life. She  married unhappily and had four children all of whom died young. Open to  “heavenly visions” which brought her new truths, she came to abhor  “the depravity of human nature and the odiousness of sin,” particularly  the act of sexual relations. These concepts from her occult occasions became  imbued in her mind and were to influence the years of her adult life. In 1758  she was converted by James and Jane Wardley, Quakers, who were the followers of  a small group of French religionists who had taken refuge in England from  persecution in France due to their beliefs. These French peasants claimed to  have been inspired in their native land by the Holy Ghost, and they wished to return to the forms of primitive Christianity as they viewed that early faith.  In their religiosity they were subject to trembling, fainting, trances, and  given to visions and prophecies. They looked forward to the imminent  Millennium, and they had gifts of speaking in tongues and of healing.  Relentlessly persecuted by the French Church and government, their survivors in England had few followers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          James and Jane  Wardley, although Quakers, came under the influence of the ideas of these  French refugees. They, too, felt the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and this  was manifested in their worship services by a form of ritual dancing. They were  therefore referred to derogatively as “the Shaking Quakers” or  “Shakers.” Ann Lee became a member of the Wardleys’ small group, and  , when in her trances she realized fully the root of human depravity, she began  to preach on the subject of “the causes of man’s fall from grace.” As  a too active dissident from the Church of England, she was jailed in 1770 and  on other occasions as well because of her outspoken religious beliefs. Finally,  in 1774 she and her husband, a brother, a niece, and a flock of eight followers
sailed for New York to free themselves from English persecution. In New York  City the group split, some members heading up the Hudson River valley to Niskayuna  (Watervliet today) just outside of Albany where they purchased land through the  funds supplied by one of their wealthier members. Ann Lee remained in New York
City, once more working at menial tasks. In the New World her husband deserted her for another woman, and Ann eventually followed her colleagues to Niskayuna  where they had prepared a refuge for her and for themselves in which they could  follow their own faith.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          On the edge of  what was still frontier country her group was free to pursue their own  religious ways, but here, on the verge of a wilderness, in a five year period  they enticed no new converts to their beliefs. Then in 1779 in New Lebanon,  southeast of Niskayuna and closer to the New York State and Massachusetts border, a New Light Baptist revival took place. Some of those converted at this  revival found no satisfaction with the New Light Baptists’ approach to  religion, and they made a visit to Mother Ann, as she was known in her group at  Niskayuna. The doctrines espoused by Mother Ann proved more satisfying than  those of the New Light Baptists, and new members soon joined the Niskayuna  group. With the additional followers, in the 1780-1784 period Ann and her new  converts began proselytizing towns in New England, and they were able to found  small colonies in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1784  Ann Lee died, leaving a doctrine to her followers of frugality, chastity,  industry, humility, and temperance. These were precious virtues, but they did
not constitute a theology nor an organized pattern for a religious following.

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Fortunately, in  1787 two natural leaders arose out of Mother Ann’s small group, Elder Joseph  Meachum and Eldress Lucy Wright, and they were able to organize and systematize  Mother Ann’s teachings into a way of life for a celibate religious society  which was to grow and to flourish. As Shaker theology developed, God was seen as having a dual personality which encompassed both the masculine and feminine  aspects of being. In Jesus, the masculine side had been made incarnate, and in the fullness of time the female aspect of the divine would also become  incarnate—as had occurred in the person of Mother Ann. As with many groups  touched by the revivalism of the age, the Biblical books of Prophecy and Revelation  were the foundation of their beliefs, to which was added their abhorrence of  “carnal sin”—and thus the doctrine of celibacy became a cornerstone  of their faith. In this life, they felt, there was the need to perfect oneself,  and this was the goal for Shaker members who would work for the ultimate  salvation of their own souls and for all other souls as well. In the developing  Shaker villages, individual “Families” were established of celibate men and women in separate quarters where they worked to support their  existence, each “Family” having its own dwelling house from which the  combined members could farm and could work at the hand industries which  supported their endeavors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               A surge of  religious revivals in Ohio and Kentucky soon proved fertile ground for the  spread of Shakerism beyond the New England and eastern New York State areas. A  Shaker community had been founded in Lebanon, Ohio, and then one in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Among the early converts to the Ohio Shakers was Richard Pelham who joined the Shaker’s Union Village in Lebanon, Ohio, and he was to become a leader of that community. In 1824 he returned to New York State to visit his brother Joseph in the Lyons, New York, area, and he talked his brother into  visiting Union Village to see the new life which one could experience as a  Shaker. Joseph Pelham was not only intrigued by the life he saw at Union Village, but he, and then his wife, converted to the faith. Born in 1792 and  married in 1813, Joseph and his wife Susanna now became convinced that the  Shaker way of life was the only true calling, and thus they petitioned the  Shaker Central Ministry at New Lebanon, New York, for the creation of a  celibate Shaker community in western New York with Joseph as its leader and with their support.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               The Central Ministry sent a delegation to survey the situation, and they found the rich farmland and the cover of timber in the Sodus Bay area at Lake Ontario such as could support a new community. A community at Sodus Bay offered another benefit, for it could serve as a way-station for those Shakers who traveled on religious business to the Shaker communities in Ohio and Kentucky. Therefore private funds were solicited and money was borrowed from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Shaker units to purchase 1,331 acres of land for $12,600. Four Shaker “Families” and a leader were sent from the New Lebanon Ministry to Sodus Bay to create the new community. When the new Shaker Sodus Bay unit was organized in March of 1826, it numbered seventy-two members, growing over the next nine years to one hundred and fifty members. It would be the last, long-lived Shaker community established, existing until 1892 when it was dissolved.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               The land which was purchased held several farm houses, a grist mill, and barns, and the new group thus had a basis for the establishment of a Shaker village. A meeting house arose in 1830-31 and then a large dwelling house for the first “Family” in 1833-35. What seemed a successful and prosperous establishment with thirteen houses and ten barns would be threatened by the internal improvements which New York State was pursuing in order to serve the farms and nascent industries of western New York. In 1836 the State proposed the creation of the Sodus Canal Company, and, with the State’s right of eminent domain, it seemed that the canal would go right through the Shaker lands. The community therefore decided to sell its land in November of 1836, and 1,692 acres of farmland were purchased in Groveland, New York, fifty miles to the southeast, for $55 an acre. Over the next twenty-four months all the members, the community’s property and livestock, and even the bodies of its deceased members were moved across New York State to their new home. The move was not an easy one, for the housing in Groveland at first consisted of log cabins and one farm house, but by June 1838 the relocation had been completed.