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“All To Me Was New and Strange”: Mary Doolittle Leaves Her Family for a Shaker Community, 1830

During the second quarter of the 19th century numerous radical movements emerged, and some withdrew from society and formed ideal or utopian communities. The Shakers (or Shaking Quakers) were the oldest and largest of these utopian movements, founded in Great Britain by Mother Ann Lee, who arrived in North America in 1774. Shakers abandoned the traditional family in favor of a new fellowship of men and women who lived as brothers and sisters, worked in agriculture and artisanal crafts, and adopted the practices of cooperation and celibacy. Many were attracted to their communitarian message, especially women like Mary Doolittle of New Lebanon, New York, who joined the local Shakers (the second of what became 19 communities stretching from New England, across New York, to Ohio and Kentucky). Doolittle narrates her initial emotional conflict between family and belief, and the suspicion, even hostility, of local people toward her new “Family,” as Shaker units were called.

I did not forget the book and wished I had it in my possession; but how I could obtain it, was a query in my mind. I knew I could not gain consent, if I should ask, to go to the village and get it. I did not want to be deceitful nor disobedient; for we were early taught obedience to our teachers; but I think it was more from feelings of love to our parents than fear of punishment that prompted us to obey them. I thought the matter over and was puzzled to know how to act or what to do. I wanted the book, and felt that I must have it. It occurred to me how I could get it, in what appeared to be a reasonable way.

My grandmother-on my father’s side “married the second time and lived with her husband (Amos Broad) on the summit of the mountain, between New Lebanon Springs and Pittsfield, on the old stage road, and kept what was called the ”Stage House." The children of our family often went and spent some time with our grandmother, who seemed to be fond of us. I formed what I deemed a feasible and legitimate plan, which was to get permission to visit my grandmother for a few days, and on my way thither to call at the Shakers, and get the book. I did not intend to tarry there an hour.

Accordingly, on the morning of the second day of November, 1824, I said : “Mother, are you willing for me to go and spend a week with grandmother?” She replied, “Yes, my child, willing for you to go anywhere except the Shakers.” I made no reply; but while in another room, I heard my eldest sister say: “Mother, I believe Mary will go to the Shakers.” I returned, mother said to me, “Now, Mary, do not go to the Shakers.” I replied, “Do you think I would ask to go to see grandmother, and go to the Shakers instead?” She said “No, I do not think you would.” This occurrence gave me some uneasiness; but I reasoned that there could be no harm in calling at the door to get the “book.”

A neighbor of ours was going in a carriage, about half way my grandmother’s, and he agreed to give me a ride as far as he went. I started out in good spirits, and thought all would be well. The road was rough, and for two reasons I preferred walking. I gave the neighbor but one reason, that of the roughness of the road; but I knew if I continued to ride him, I must go a different road from the one that led to where the desired “book” was. So I concluded to take my time and walk. It took me longer to climb the hill than I anticipated, and when I called, I learned by inquiry that the way which lay across the mountain, and led to my grandmother’s house, was long, lonely and dreary.

Sister Polly thought it would be quite imprudent for me to attempt the journey that day, but of course left me to choose my own course of action. I did not wish to risk the danger of being overtaken by night-fall on a lone mountain, and I concluded to stay until morning.


When I awoke in the morning, judge of my surprise at finding the ground covered with snow, twelve inches deep. What could I do under the circumstances? I felt that I had committed a wrong, but where was the remedy? I knew I did not intend it, and thought I could do no better “under the circumstances” than to bide the time for the snow to melt away, so that I could pursue my journey without danger.

I waited until Thursday morning, November 5th, and then to cross the mountain. After leaving the main road, two miles I followed a path, seldom traveled except by woodmen. It was a lovely morning and there was nothing to my course as I slowly threaded my way through the woodland, as the path opened before me a little at a time. I was eager to devour some of the contents of the book that I had taken so much pains to get into my hands, and I walked and read. Occasionally a little squirrel would run across the path before me and arrest my attention, or a singing bird would chirp a few notes in my ears as if to let me know there was some living thing in being beside myself.

I reached my grandmother’s dwelling about noon-day. I told her about my book, and she wished me to read to her. She felt friendly toward the Shakers, and became quite interested; but my grandfather, by marriage, was bitter in his feelings toward them. I will not say that he hated them, but he so disliked them, that if the earth had opened its mouth and swallowed up, I do not think he would have mourned over the event more than forty days and nights. He did not like to have me read “Shaker book,” and he watched an opportunity to get it into his own hands and hide it from me; and then tried to make me think he had destroyed it.

The Sabbath following, his daughter Lucy —who married Allen Spencer, and lived in the valley below—visit her parents. They were my friends and had influence over him. Allen told him he had better give it back to me for it was borrowed, and if he kept it, he would have to be responsible for it. He returned it to me, and on Sabbath evening I went home with Allen and Lucy, and stayed with them over night and went in the morning to my father’s house, having been absent eight days. While at my uncle’s in the evening, he said to me, “Mary, if I wanted to be a Shaker I be one regardless of opposition.” His father (Squire Spencer) also told my father that if any of his children should choose to cast their lot with the Shakers, he would not place any obstacle in their way. I afterward learned that Priest Churchill—the settled Presbyterian minister of New Lebanon—if I were his daughter, he would head me up in a hogshead sooner than let me go to the Shakers. I gave thanks that I was not a creed-bound minister’s daughter.


Again I found myself in my humble home. My father away, but I found they had anticipated my wanderings, and had given the subject much serious thought in my absence did not try to conceal anything from them, but gave account of my doings from the time I left them...

In the evening, my father, in the presence of the rest of the family, commenced a conversation that continued nearly two hours. If he had been severe with me, I could have borne it better. As it was, it seemed as if it would break my heart. He reasoned, but did not chide, and tried to make me understand what an important step I was about to take, and he feared that I did not realize what the consequences might be; but said, “He would not force me, one way, or the other; said he was not willing to take that responsibility after a child was of my age; but I was still young and needed a father’s advice, whether I would accept it or not; and that advice would be, to remain at home until I was older.”

He said that “he knew little of the Shakers, except in business transactions, and had always found them honest and upright in their dealings; but in their religious views they were certainly very strange, and he thought deluded.” He continued: “Mary, if I thought you could go, and always remain, I would not try to hold you; but I have known many who have lived among the Shakers awhile and left them; and I do not know what the matter is, but they never seem happy after they leave”—as he expressed it —“they are not company for themselves, or anybody else. Now if you go there and stay awhile, then return to me saying, ”Father, I do not like to live with the Shakers as well as I thought I should, I want to come home again,“ I will still be your friend, and as long as I have a loaf of bread you shall share in it; but I could not feel towards you as I would have done had you accepted my advice. But the time has now come for you to make your choice.” I wept bitter tears, while he said to me, “Come, my child, tell me what you will do.” I said, in broken accents, “Father, I will go!” A death-like stillness prevailed, for my mother’s heart was too full for utterance.

When the matter was fully decided, they continued to be kind and gentle to me. I waited until the fourteenth day of the month, then I bade them all good-bye. On parting, my mother took me by the hand—while tears gushed from her eyes— and said: “Mary, my daughter, I expect to see the time that you will tell me that you repent of having lived to see this day.” I said, “Perhaps you will; but I must go, and time will decide.” I would not have had her known my feelings at that time for the world; it seemed as if my heart would burst; but some unseen power sustained me, and as I sped my way up the hill, the ground seemingly rose up to meet me in the face; and it was all that I could do to reach my Shaker friends, and what—under the good providence of God—was to be my future home.

At first, all to me was new and strange. I had many lessons to learn pertaining to the new life that I had chosen, and many friends and relatives who were interested in my welfare called upon, and visited me in my new home; for young as I was it created quite a sensation in the then conservative neighborhood of New Lebanon.

Some of the brethren were mechanics; and as all branches of business in a community are necessary to keep the machinery moving and in good order, every one could devote their talents, whether large or small, to making themselves useful. Some turned their attention more to agriculture and horticulture, and went forth into the fields, gardens and vineyards to plough and till the soil, and with their own hands honestly earn their own bread; and when they returned to their home at night they were greeted by kind-hearted sisters, who stood ready to make them welcome, and supply their needs with clean, comfortable food an raiment, and bestow honor and praise upon the sons of toil.

As it was the aim of the brother and sisterhood, as far as possible, to perform all manual labor pertaining to the institution among themselves, there was ample room for every one, male and female, to exercise all their faculties to good advantage. The domestic arrangements of the family rested exclusively with the sisterhood. The brethren made ample provision in the line of farm and garden produce and all needful substantials, and the sisters faithfully performed their part in taking care of what came into their charge; also in providing what properly belonged in their sphere. Thus, while the dual principle was maintained, there was unity of action.

When sisters needed assistance in the line of repairs in and around their dwelling and workshops, they were free to ask such aid as they needed from their brethren, who did not chide, but were always ready, when consistent, to befriend them. When the sessions for general house-cleaning rolled around, instead of fretting because everything was turned inside out and upside down, in order that every place might be thoroughly clean from the attic to the cellar, they would turn in, one, two or three, as need required, to help move heavy articles of furniture and carry pails of water up and down stairs; and frequently, after the buildings were cleaned and set in order, the brethren would raise a vote of thanks to the sisters for duties thus performed, and for making their home so clean and pleasant.

Brethren and sisters being mutually interested in each other’s labor and prosperity, the sisters take great delight in spring time, when the trees are in full bloom, in marching out into the fields, gardens and orchards, in company with the brethren, and spending a few hours in singing, reading and in conversation. And while we inhale the sweet fragrance wafted in the breeze from the beautiful blossoms, we reverently ask the blessing of a kind Providence upon the consecrated labor of our brethren.


Prudence and economy are marked features of the intuition, and their motto has ever bee, "Use the things of this world righteously, as not abusing them. Let all things be done decently and in order, to the honor and glory of God, and for the good of humanity. Temperance in all things. Eat and drink for use and not for gluttony. Dress for comfort, not for vain show.

I have many times heard the remark from strangers, that “the life of Shakers must be very monotonous.” Very far from that to those who are interested in the cause. Time does not hang heavily, but passes so swiftly that we cannot accomplish more than the half we wish to do.

Source: Mary Antoinette Doolittle, Autobiography of Mary Antoinette Doolittle (Mt. Lebanon, N.Y., 1880), 22–30, 38–40.