Stephen C. Taysom teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University.
Drawing on an extensive archive of primary documents, Wergland discusses topics ranging from girlhood, health, and dress to why women joined the Shakers and how they were viewed by those outside their community. She analyzes the division of labor between men and women, showing that there was considerable cooperation and reciprocity in carrying out most tasks-from food production to laundering to gathering firewood-even as gendered conflicts remained.
In her conclusion, Wergland draws together all of these threads to show that Shaker communities achieved a remarkable degree of gender equality at a time when women elsewhere still suffered under the legal and social strictures of the traditional patriarchal order. In so doing, she argues, the experience of Shaker women served as a model for promoting women's rights in American political culture.
In the correspondence of William S. Byrd, the Shaker experience is expressed in human terms and becomes a living faith. The letters also record the trials associated with conversion to a religion that was socially unacceptable to many Americans of the time. Some of their more poignant passages describe young Byrd's attempt to reconcile the tensions created by his membership in two families -- the one of blood and the one of faith.
Letters from a Young Shaker provides an unusually instructive commentary on life in a Shaker community, on the questions agitating the community, and on the appeal of Shakerism to Americans in the early nineteenth century. In addition to the letters, the book contains other documents bearing on William Byrd's relationship with the settlement at Pleasant Hill and an introduction placing him in the social and religious context of the period. This book will appeal to historian of American society and to anyone interested in the Shaker way of life.