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Book Review


Historical Dictionary of the Shakers

ISBN-10: 0810859599

by Stephen J. Paterwic
The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lanham, Maryland, Toronto, Oxford,
2008, xli, 326 pages.


This book is No. 87 in the series, Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements. It does fill a need for a general reference book about individual Shakers and terms, such as "Church Family" or "Opening of the Gospel."

Since this is a music site, I will focus on that subject primarily.

What I noticed immediately is what is missing more than what is there. There are more than 200 dictionary entries and yet very few for music.

For example, what is most surprising is the most famous and popular of all Shaker songs, "Simple Gifts," has no entry in this Historical Dictionary. Also, the song's composer, Elder Joseph Brackett, does not have an entry either. In fact there are no entries for any individual Shaker songs, hymns or anthems. That is unfortunate since music has been such an important part of Shaker life.

I found only a few entries which apply directly to Shaker music.

One of them is "Laboring Songs" which is very brief but adequate.

Another is "Letteral Notation" which depends exclusively on Daniel Patterson's book The Shaker Spiritual. Having done a great deal of research on this notation, I would disagree with some of what Stephen Paterwic quotes from Patterson's book. I have found this notation being used as early as 1815 instead of the 1824 date which Patterson claimed was the earliest.

The other entry is "Songs," again based mostly on Patterson's book. Yet there are some errors in this summary. First, Paterwic lumps hymns and anthems in this same term. They should be listed separately as songs, hymns and anthems. If he wished to list them all in one entry a better term would be "Spirituals," which is how Patterson identified them all. Paterwic also does not mention even one representative title for these "songs" and there are wrong years as well. From my research, I believe that anthems began in 1815 not 1812, and that is confirmed by the Shakers in their writings. Millennial Praises was a hymnal not a "songbook," since that term implies one verse songs with words and music. Actually that hymnal has only titles with many verses and that is why they are better classified as hymns.

When looking at some of the entries for Shaker church leaders, it was also disappointing to see no mention of music. Issachar Bates was the first prominent Shaker composer. Yet there is no mention of his music in that entry. This is unfortunate since Elder Issachar wrote another popular song, "Come Life, Shaker Life", and also one of the finest early anthems, "Mount Zion." Both of them have been recorded as well.

Yet, this book does provide much information about Shaker leaders, both women (or eldresses) and men (elders). The most prominent and revered Shaker was Mother Ann Lee and she is given a four page treatment which is very informative. Other important early leaders, such as Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright, are also given longer entries. Another Shaker leader who also wrote music was Elder Richard McNemar. Once again Paterwic mentions his "songs" instead of hymns and does not name any of them, such as one of the best known ballad hymns, "Mother," also known as "At Manchester in England." That also has been recorded several times.

With a book selling for such a very steep price, there is not one illustration in it, except for the one on the cover. It would have been useful to have at least one section with pictures of prominent Shakers or scenes of their communities.

Overall, this Historical Dictionary might be useful primarily for the novice reader.

But for anyone doing serious research in Shaker literature, they would be better served by looking at specialized books on the Shakers.

For music especially, this book is very lacking and disappointing.

-- Roger Hall, August 2010





For additional material about Shaker music, see

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