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One Shaker Life

Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865
A rare inside look at the life of an ordinary Shaker

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A member of the United Society of Believers, better known as the Shakers, Isaac Newton Youngs spent most of his life in New Lebanon, New York, home of the society’s central Ministry. As both a private diarist and the official village scribe, he kept meticulous records throughout those years of both his own experience and that of the community. All told, more than four thousand pages of Brother Isaac’s journals have survived, documenting the history of the Shakers during the period of their greatest success and providing a revealing view of the daily life of a rank-and-file Believer.

In this deeply researched biography, Glendyne R. Wergland draws on Youngs’s writings to tell his story and to explore “the tension between desire and discipline” at the center of his life. She follows Youngs from childhood and adolescence to maturity, through years of demanding responsibility into his fatal decline. In each of these stages, he remained a talented and committed yet independent Shaker, one who chose to stay with the community but often struggled to abide by its stringent rules, including the vow of celibacy. Perhaps above all, he was a man who spent most of his waking hours working diligently at a succession of tasks, making clocks, sewing clothes, fixing roofs, writing poetry, chronicling his daily acts and thoughts.

In his journals, Brother Isaac writes at length of his efforts to control his lust as a young man, and he complains repeatedly about overwork as he grows older. He defines the rules of his community and identifies transgressors, while enciphering his critical entries (and those chronicling his own sexual desires) to avoid detection and uphold the demand for conformity. At times he admits doubt, but without ever relinquishing the belief that he is on the straight and narrow path to salvation. What emerges in the end is the complex portrait of an ordinary man striving to live up to the imperatives of his faith.

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