This year marks the 150th anniversary of an important event in American history -- the end of the Civil War between North and South and also the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Though they remained pacifists during this war, the Shakers or The United Society of Beleiverers, a religious communal scoeity, were saddened by its bloodshed and suffering.
In 1862, a Shaker sister felt so moved by the war that she wrote a hymn reflecting upon it. But it wasn't written in the usual way.
Here is the story:
It was reported in a Shaker manuscript that this Shaker sister sang a hymn
"three times over while asleep, & learned by another sister in company [in the same room] with her."
The Shaker who received this hymn in her sleep was Sister Cecilia DeVere (1836-1912) at the North Family, Mt. Lebanon, New York.
Sister Cecilia was obviously troubled by horrors of the Civil War then going on.
This sentiment is expressed in the first stanza of this hymn:
Dark is the cloud that rests over the nation,
Wild is the war cry
that pierces the air.
God's heavy judgments spread wide desolation,
Strong hearts are bowed in the depths of despair.
Sister Cecilia's hymn is titled, "A Prayer for the Captive," and in another Shaker manuscript it is titled, "Supplication in a Nation's Calamity."
Here are the remaining two stanzas:
Lord, may the bonds of the captive be brokenn
O may this struggle bring sweet liberty.
Teach man that love is a heaven-born token
And that the truth can alone make him free.
Guide Zion's children in this trying hour,
Keep us dependent
on thy love and care.
in the valley we find thy true power;
Lord, in thy
mercy, O still guide us there.
In addition to being written about the horrors of the Civil War,
this hymn has another important distinction.
The following was written about this hymn in the Shaker history book, Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (1904), by Anna White and Leila S. Taylor:
Some have frequently received songs while asleep, and one sister [Cecilia DeVere] at Mount Lebanon would often, on awakening, be called upon to listen to her own songs, which had been noted down by her room-mates as she had sung them while asleep. In the early days of the Civil War, before the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, one thus received prefigured that event. This was sung in every family of Believers, although without previous arrangement or understanding, on the occasion of President Lincoln's funeral.
Thus, though the Shakers were pacifists and did not participate in any fighting during the Civil War, they still felt moved and sorrowful about the sudden loss of President Abraham Lincoln.
Like so many others they had --
"Strong hearts bowed in the depths of despair."
-- Roger Lee Hall
Lyric Book and CD
The book (PDF) includes a history of their music written by a Shaker sister, an interview with two Canterbury Shakers, and the lyrics to 25 Shaker spirituals (including "A Prayer for the Captive"). Read more at --
"Give Good Gifts"
Edited in 1976 by Roger Hall, the first recording of Sister Cecilia DeVere's hymn, "A Prayer for the Captive," was sung by bass soloist, Leonard Hart, with the Plymouth Church Choir of Shaker Heights, Ohio, John D. Herr, Director.
This performance is available on the accompanying CD, Gentle Words: A Shaker Music Sampler, with the 25 Shaker spirituals, including several versions of the best known song,"Simple Gifts."
"A Prayer for the Captive" is also included in this publication: