In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, I examine 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.