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Book Review



Mr. Lincoln's Chair: The Shakers and Their Quest for Peace

by Anita Sanchez

Granville, Ohio: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, 2009 (paperback), 196 pages.

This book takes a slightly different approach in writing about the Shakers. The book's title is a bit misleading since it isn't mostly about Lincoln and his contact with the Shakers.

The title refers to a Shaker chair given to President Abraham Lincoln and his letter dated August 8, 1864, sent in return to thank the Shakers for their gift.

The author, Anita Sanchez, spends most of her book writing about the history of the Shakers and she is a very good writer so she makes it an interesting tale to tell.

Since this is a music website, that will be the focus of this review.

In the first few chapters, she writes about the now familiar story of the first Shakers, from their origins in Manchester, England to their emigration to America in 1774, with Mother Ann Lee and her small band of followers, including her brother and her husband.

Of particular interest in the book is the focus on Elder Henry Blinn, one of the greatest Shaker leaders of the 19th century. Following his entire life from before he was a Shaker member to his years as a Shaker elder at Canterbury, New Hampshire is well worth telling. Unfortunately, his contributions to Shaker music are not mentioned. For instance, Elder Henry had special type produced to print the first Shaker hymnal in letteral music notation in 1852. Because he was fond of music, he made sure to include a song or hymn in almost every issue ofThe Manifesto, the Shaker newspaper printed at Canterbury during the late 19th century which was distributed among the Shakers and also to non-Shaker readers.

Ms. Sanchez uses a verse from Shaker songs and hymns as the headlings in many of her chapters, yet fails to tell much about these Shaker spirituals, except to credit the sources. She gives far too much weight to the Boston Camerata CD, Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals. This is an appealing recording with very good singing, but it is not entirely an "historically authentic rendering of Shaker music " (p 56). The use of bass drones and other added vocal effects on the CD are not part of the Shaker singing tradition. Also, some of the information provided in the CD notes is misleading or inaccurate. For example, indicating that the best known Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," was composed "circa 1875" instead of 1848.

One incident that is especially appropriate to Abraham Lincoln concerns Sister Cecilia DeVere from the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York, and the hymn she received in a dream in 1862, discussed on pages 144-45.

This hymn was later sung on the day of Lincoln's funeral in 1865. Ms. Sanchez mentions the title "Supplication in a Nation's Calamity," as indicated in Daniel Patterson's excellent book, The Shaker Spiritual. In a footnote (p 147), she adds:

Darryl Thompson reports the use of another title: "A Prayer for the Captive."

Yet Ms. Sanchez fails to investigate where this title originated and if it was available anywhere.

It was actually an alternate title found in a Shaker music manuscript and was first published in a modern edition in The Shaker Messenger magazine in 1986. Six years later, it was reprinted in the songbook, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals. "A Prayer for the Captive" has also been recorded twice, and was included on a recent CD in tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Ms. Sanchez fails to mention any of this information in her book. This is a common oversight among many authors when writing about the Shakers. They look at the most readily available sources and disregard or are unaware of the information on the Internet, even when it might provide relevant information.

The references to Shaker music are sometimes incorrect. One example is what Ms. Sanchez calls "Mother Ann's Song" (p 32). It was actually titled simply, "Mother," and is not a song at all. Instead, it is a powerful sixteen verse ballad hymn by Elder Richard McNemar written in Ohio about 1810.

Other than these music errors, this book is well written and amply documented with footnotes, perhaps more than needed since she does such a good job in her explanations.

Adding a list of Shaker sites and museums is useful for reference but unnecessary since many of them are already provided in other books or on the Internet.

As a general overview, Mr. Lincoln's Chair succeeds as a fascinating telling of the Shaker story for the novice reader interested in this innovative and ingenious religious communal society.


-- Roger Lee Hall, July 2009



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