Bodies of Life

Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies examines the roles of reading and writing in the celibate, religious communities known popularly as Shaker villages. Questions driving the project emerge from the widely held belief that understanding and reasoning through texts (especially the Bible) under gird the best faith practices and true religion.  But the Shaker’s female founder, Mother Ann Lee, was deemed illiterate. She drew followers in Revolutionary America as she preached from Bible verses learned through hearing them. And she added to these what she gained through mystical visions and experiences.

Persecuted for distinguishing practices, such as female leadership, the Shakers grew in number nonetheless. They also prospered financially as the years passed.  Reading and writing in Shaker communities changed through the years as well. Bodies of Life traces the complex relationships among literacy and faith, reason and emotion, personal experiences and family ties.  Zooming in on individuals who came to and left the Shakers, the book makes communal life personal.  This approach makes it relevant to those today who are on spiritual quests and seeking communities.


The Shakers’ spiritual literacies, defined through an examination of their reading and writing practices, blur boundaries between traditionally masculine and feminine realms by using reason and emotion and by being innovative as well as traditional. This exploration of the relationship between literary practices and religious life in the 19th century, of such genres as autobiographies, elegies, histories, and doctrinal works, provides new insights into the many ways in which literacy enriches people’s lives.

What readers are saying about Bodies of Life


“Well researched and well reasoned, this excellent book adds distinctly to the substantive and theoretical literature on Shakers serving graduate students, researchers, and faculty.”

- Choice

Utopian Studies

“This volume is a sophisticated engagement…. Madden breaks new ground…She is not the first scholar of American literature to examine Shaker narratives and publications, but she has brought to the task a new level of sophistication in contemporary literacy theory.”

- Utopian Studies

American Literature

“Anyone with an interest in early American literature, literacy, religious history, and gender studies will find this study of Shaker culture a rich and innovative resource.”

- American Literature

Stephen J. Stein Chancellors’ Professor and Chair Department of Religious Studies Indiana University, Bloomington

“. . . Madden probes the ways in which both reading and writing among the Shakers enriched the lives of the Believers. Her focus on the variety of literacies within the community adds immensely to our understanding of the Shaker traditions of spirituality. Her recognition of the multiplicity of ‘texts’ among the Believers as well as the creative tensions between public and private, oral and written, male and female, physical and spiritual, enhances our knowledge and provides insight into critical pieces of Shaker literature.  . . . [T]he role of the body in all this discourse ties her work to major currents of contemporary scholarship. This is a sophisticated contribution to current Shaker scholarship.”

- Stephen J. Stein Chancellors’ Professor and Chair Department of Religious Studies Indiana University, Bloomington

Jean M. Humez University of Massachusetts, Boston

“. . .  highly readable, interesting, cogent, well bolstered by knowledge of relevant secondary studies, and brimming with good ideas.  . . .Madden is one of the few people in Shaker studies so far to insist that we look at Shaker literature not just for what it can yield the historian or the scholar of religion, but also for its importance as American culture.”

- Jean M. Humez University of Massachusetts, Boston

David D. Hall Harvard Divinity School

“To the simple question, ‘how did Shakers read and how did they understand writing, ‘ this book returns a remarkably interesting series of answers that engage with the overlapping significance of orality and writing, authority and freedom, ecstasy and control. An important addition to our understanding of the meaning of print, writing, and orality in 19th-century America.”

- David D. Hall Harvard Divinity School

Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

“Examines the interaction of reading, writing, and religious belief in the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming (the Shakers). The author finds that an increase in literacy, especially after 1850, appears to contribute to an emphasis on individualism and the fragmentation of the church, but also allows them to revise their theology so that they see Shakerism as continuing to grow rather than as in numerical decline. She also argues that multiple kinds of reading and writing reinforces the beliefs of individual Shakers and the church as whole. Through these findings she speculates on the nature of the dialectic between individuals and their communities and between communities and the larger society.”

- Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.


“This volume appeals not only to  . . .  Shaker scholars, but also to researchers interested in American literature and culture, literacy, religious history, and gender studies.”