Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

tree of life
Hannah Cohoon, Tree of Life or Blazing Tree, 1845

Religion as revelation

Race and the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing

Y’all, I love Shakers so much.

I love a female Christ. I love ecstatic religious expression and services that include dance parties.

I love religious innovation that rethinks sexual practice and tries to live into gender and racial equality. I love their beautiful and practical solutions to organized communal living while waiting for the world to end. (Have you ever used a flat broom or sat in a ladder-backed chair? Thank a Shaker.)

I love the Shakers’ YouTube channel. I love their Insta. I love their sheep.

Shaker sheeps

I love Shakers so much I made my spouse detour on the way to pick up friends at the Albany airport so I could visit Mother Ann Lee’s grave. True story. (In my defense, the cemetery was just down the street. In his, we were definitely late to pick up our friends.)

Mother Ann Lee’s grave
no one should travel with me unless they don’t mind random impromptu religious studies side quests

Even if you aren’t familiar with the Shakers, chances are you’ve heard their most famous song, “Simple Gifts.”

I could truly talk about Shakers for HOURS. But I’ll try to focus on our topic for today: Shaker theology, which argues that all people are equal, and how a Black Shaker woman, Rebecca Cox Jackson, described her own relationship with the group.

What we’re reading

Discussion prompts

  • In what ways does Shaker theology inform Jackson’s efforts toward abolition? Based on her own account, did her religious community support her in those efforts?
  • Why does Hull think Jackson’s spiritual autobiography is so important?
  • How does Bassard complicate our understanding of Jackson’s Christianity?

African-American Shakers

This is mostly for context, both so you can get an overview of Shakers’ theological commitments and so that you know there were a number of prominent Black Shakers.

The Shakers recognized Jackson as a true “prophet” and she freely preached in Sabbath meetings.

Note that several, including Jackson herself, had revelations and visions accepted as credible by the wider Shaker community. Many NRMs create opportunities for minoritized people (including women and Black people, and in this case,Black women) to access religious authority.

Jackson, Gifts of Power

Rebecca Cox Jackson

The fear of sudden, irrational violence, attack, mutilation, that is expressed in this dream and many others throughout her writings may very possibly have a personal, private side, unrelated to race. Yet it must also have roots in the growing tensions that produced the explosions of white mob violence against black Philadelphians, beginning in 1829 and reoccurring in 1834,1835, 1842, and 1849. (Humez 1981, 2)

You probably don’t need me to tell you that nothing in Rebecca Cox Jackson’s life was “unrelated to race,” right? Because that’s not how intersectionality works. Two decades of white mob violence against Black Philadelphians definitely and obviously also contributed to the un-safety of Jackson and her family, however.

[Jackson] was suddenly able to rejoice in the presence of lightning. Then and thereafter she regarded it as a welcome messenger from the divine, an instructive outpouring of God’s energy. (Humez 1981, 2)

This makes me think of Turner waiting for a sign from God to begin his revolution, too — remember the eclipse?

A major theme of Jackson’s autobiography is the necessity of learning to act in ways that will earn and invite divine protection from the constant, debilitating threat of sudden violence, both natural and human. (Humez 1981, 3)

Again: this threat of sudden violence is not unrelated to her race or her gender.

Jackson’s advocacy and practice of celibacy is best understood and appreciated in the context of her need to gain complete control over the use of her body, which she had come to regard primarily as an instrument for the receipt of spiritual instruction. (Humez 1981, 4)

Two things here:

  1. Shakers’ celibacy has biblical precedent: early Christians were also encouraged to be celibate, as Christ was returning soon and there was no need for future generations.
  2. ALSO: While discussed in primarily theological and apocalyptic terms, Shaker celibacy also had practical implications. Abstaining from sex allowed Jackson — and other Shaker women — to have control over their own bodies, as the introduction mentions. This is important (whether the Supreme Court thinks so or not) because pregnancy and childbirth have huge impacts both on a woman’s body, her mobility, and her financial stability. Childbirth was the leading cause of death for women of child-bearing age at this time, and having children would have prevented her from traveling to preach.

In order to regain control over the sexual use of her own body, she had first to persuade her husband that it was not she, Rebecca Jackson, who wanted to end their sexual relationship but rather the overwhelming force of the divine Spirit that inhabited, moved, and possessed her. (Humez 1981, 4)

Again, religious belonging and conviction grants Jackson control over her own body in ways that wouldn’t have been available to her otherwise. Strict bodily practices (asceticism) are quite common in NRMs; keep an eye out for this as we move forward.

She came to the decision to create and lead her own, predominantly black, Shaker sisterhood in Philadelphia. (Humez 1981, 8)

No scholarly analysis here; this is just awesome.

However fragmentary, the evidence suggests a relationship combining elements of motherhood, marriage, and sisterhood in a blend that seems to have suited the two women’s personal needs for over thirty-five years, until Jackson’s death in 1871. (Humez 1981, 8)

This doesn’t not sound like they loved each other very much/were queer? (Humez says as much on page 9.)

[The Shakers] were not quite the utopian ideal of perfectly holy living that Jackson had so admired from a distance. (Humez 1981,12)

As a tour guide once pointed out to me: if all Shaker communities got along the way they thought they should, there wouldn’t be so many hymns and prayers praising patience and flexibility and asking God to soften their hearts. Even groups that believe all people should be equal can and do struggle with living into that commitment. For example, Brother David Buckingham mocked Cox’s calling to draw more Black women into the Society:

We understand that Rebecca Jackson and the other colored woman that came with her, have started out, in their own gift, some time last week, on a mission to convert her nation, or under that pretence, perhaps consciously, but I should say, rather delusively. (Humez 1981,13)

This didn’t prevent Jackson from following her visions, however, or from trying to eventually reconcile with the Shakers in Watervliet:

Jackson saw herself as the only Shaker capable of applying the true principles of the Gospel of Christ’s Second Appearing in a nonracist manner when blacks and whites were to share together in communal life. (Humez 1981,15)

Reconciling with Eldress Paulina gave Jackson religious, legal, and financial standing to continue her mission. Eventually she blended her faith in Shaker teachings with a more radical lived commitment to racial equality and liberation for Black people.

Rebecca Jackson’s life and writings make it clear enough that she felt that midcentury Shakerism, as embodied in the white-led Watervliet community, did not satisfy the needs ofblacks for a community of spiritual relations and a model of “living to live forever.” Though she found it disappointing, and even finally impossible, to live in the Watervliet community, however, there is no indication that she ever rejected Shaker theology or its principles of community organization. On the contrary, she seems to have spent many years in Philadelphia in the 1850s digesting, selecting, and transforming, to fit her own experience and her view of black needs, the doctrine explained in Shaker publications that she had acquired during her Watervliet years. (Humez 1981, 15)

Humez suggests Jackson was attracted to Shakerism for several reasons:

  • the group’s “idiosyncratic” and apocalyptically-oriented understanding of the Christian bible, world history, and personal revelation (direct communication with the Divine)
  • feminism — which is a bit anachronistic, as Jackson is unlikely to have identified as a feminist per se. But certainly the group’s emphasis on gender egalitarianism, its theological expression of the Divine-as-(also) Feminine, and the space the Society made for women’s religious leadership must have appealed to Jackson

Based on your readings for today, especially the excerpt from Gifts of Power, do Jackson’s writings give us any sense of why she invested so deeply in Shaker theology and practice? How did she express her commitment to Black liberation?

Hull, “Rebecca Cox Jackson and the Uses of Power”

To my mind, this review is mostly of interest for the background it provides on Jackson herself. But I was also struck by the parallels Hull is drawing between Jackson’s writings and visions and the kind of American feminist spirituality emerging in the early 1980s — what Hull calls “psychics-mystic-witches-whatever,” (1982, 204).

Hull also notes that Jackson’s contemporaries, including family and community members, called her “crazy” and “witch,” (1982, 204). I know we only read about Mary Daly for this class, but if you’ve read any Daly at all, Hull’s tone is going to sound very familiar:

Many additional issues and themes emerge from the consideration of Jackson’s life. Primary among these is women’s fight against the patriarchy of organized religion, a struggle which could radicalize even the most faithful female believer (Hull 1982, 205).

Unlike Daly, however, Hull directly addresses the ways Jackson’s commitment to Black liberation put her at odds with “Shaker insularity and political non-involvement,” (1982, 205).

It’s frustrating to see Hull pathologize (make an illness of) Jackson’s celibacy. Hull conjectures that Jackson was likely a survivor of sexual violence. Hull doesn’t recognize that Jackson might well have been asexual. (She’s writing in 1982, to be fair. Queer theory and queer communities are still learning how to fully incorporate asexuality even now.)

Rebecca Jackson’s discovery reveals, once again, that Black women have been in many places — some unexpected — being themselves (to the extent possible) and bequeathing their spirit imprint (if not always a written legacy) (Hull 1982, 209).

This, ultimately, is the reason we’re reading and reading about Rebecca Cox Jackson today. It’s important that we recognize Black women’s contributions to radical religious innovation have a long, rich history — one too often left out of textbooks and syllabi.

Bassard, “Rituals of Desire”

Jarena Lee is a hugely important figure in American religions. She’s more mainstream than the groups we’re studying in this class, but if you don’t know about her, you really should.

Bassard’s making an interesting argument about text — specifically Gifts of Power — as ritual space (1999, 124). That is, Bassard argues Jackson wasn’t just writing about her visions; Jackson was making contact with the spirit world through writing (1999, 125).

(Side note: when she refers to Shango as a “cult,” she’s not using the word pejoratively. But Conjure has absolutely been denigrated as a cult-in-the-bad-sense by outsiders, which, again, is why we just don’t use this word.)

Like Hull and Humez, Bassard suggests that Jackson’s practice incorporated elements of African Diasporic Religions, similar to those employed by practitioners of Conjure. Read in this light, Jackson’s theology and practice would best be understood as hybrid, mixing elements of marginal Christianity (as taught by the Society) and ADR.

I believe her conversions to Christianity and Shakerism to be authentic. I also think that in Jackson’s time the presence of the traces of African religions/conjure would have been accessible as “folk customs” or beliefs that may not have retained specifically religious meanings.

Here’s the thing: lots of ADR practitioners are also Christian. The two aren’t diametrically opposed. (We talk about this a lot in my Witches class.) So the binary Bassard is setting up here doesn’t necessarily hold water. And her observations of ADR ritual elements popping up in Jackson’s writings are pretty interesting, I think.

Hybridity, especially mixing of Christian and ADR elements, frequently characterizes Black religious innovation in what’s now the United States. Keep an eye out for more of this throughout the semester.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin


author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults