In the Historical Dictionary of the Shakers, Second Edition, Stephen J. Paterwic offers an extensive and fastidiously compiled volume of Shaker history and community. The author shares a glimpse into his lifelong interest and engagement with Shakerism in the Preface to the text—an appropriate introduction for a uniquely independent endeavor to construct an extensive reference work about the popular tradition. Paterwic notes that this volume includes considerable revisions of more than one hundred of his original entries, and the second edition includes more than seventy new entries since the publication of the first edition in 2008.
While the text is designated as a dictionary, it is more encyclopedic in its scope, with many entries reading like sections from a primer about Shaker history. As it admirably remains a work in progress, future volumes could benefit from a restructuring of the encyclopedic format. The current outline of alphabetically arranged topics and themes can be challenging to peruse easily for quick information, and a general lack of ready citations diminishes the text’s practicality as a reference source for research. Despite this unconventional organization, the historical scope of the dictionary is impressive, covering iconic Shaker themes like spiritual dances/exercises and broom and furniture-making, as well as lesser-known connections between Shakers and the outside world.
While Sabbathday Lake history features prominently and consistently in Historical Dictionary of the Shakers, passages about other significant Shaker communities are especially informative, with details about their founding, noteworthy members, history, industries, and decline. Broader topics like brothers/sisters, family, dress, and education expand on the brief history offered in the Introduction to the volume. The unusual addition of terms such as “circular saw” and “clothespin” verge into the anecdotal, highlighting items that are commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Shaker innovations.
As a reference work, the book has some welcome features. The new addition offers boldface type for the cross-referencing of terms, and a detailed chronology outlining the complex tradition. Its thorough bibliography is organized by sub-headings for topical reference, including recent and seminal secondary works about Shaker people, culture, theology, and Shaker publications and periodicals. Expanded topics in this second edition incorporate photography and selected works of poetry and fiction, as well as updated lists of websites for further research about the Shaker tradition, and for the archives and visitor centers of particular Shaker communities. Appendices contain valuable samples of communal covenants and daily schedules and rules for Shakers, while the text benefits from the inclusion of historic photos throughout.
Emily Bailey is Assistant Professor of Christian Traditions and Religions of the Americas at Towson University.
Date Of Review:
May 15, 2018
Stephen J. Paterwic recently retired from the West Springfield Public Schools. He is a frequent presenter at Shaker seminars and forums and he is the author of numerous articles on the Shakers. He currently serves as an overseer of Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts and is a trustee of Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. The Shakers of Sabbathday Lake have been his lifelong friends and provide inspiration for his spiritual life.
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