Shaker Brother Nelson Chase
Brother Nelson Chase
Cabinet card
C. E. Lewis, Photographer, Lebanon, NH, ca. 1880
Private Collection

Brother Nelson Chase

Nelson Chase, Shaker dentist, woodworker, musician, and inventor, was born July 14, 1830, in Stanstead, Quebec, Canada, the son of Seth and Sarah (Williams) Chase.

Shaker brother Nelson Chase came to the Enfield Shakers in 1835 as a five-year-old child. Here he developed his many innate talents, becoming an accomplished dentist, woodworker, inventor and composer. Through his songs and in his writing Nelson was able to articulate his faith, and encourage others to meet the demands of a Shaker life. It was hoped that he would become a strong spiritual leader in the society,

During his years at Enfield (1835-1882) he was twice appointed to the Elders Order in the Second Family. He submitted an article for the December 1876 issue of The Shaker entitled “Community Principles as a Part of Christianity” in which he wrote, “As one interested in the unfoldment of greater truths, in an open door for the increase of righteousness, I ask for myself, for my brethren, yea, for all men, that we cultivate without reserve and with greater zeal, more love, more union, the basis of all that is great and good.” About the Enfield Shaker community he wrote, “Here we find peace flowing a river, bringing to our souls life and joy eternal” (pp. 91-92). But his personality apparently did not lend itself to meaningful spiritual engagement with those in his charge. Both times he was removed after a short tenure.

Beginning in 1870 Nelson moved frequently between Enfield and Canterbury doing dentistry work. He also applied his creative impulses to designing an Improved Pocket Stereoscope that he successfully patented in 1872 (Patent No. US129,100). An article entitled “Shaker Inventions” in the November 1877 issue of The Shaker declared, “A most beautiful folding stereoscope was, a few years ago, invented, and we believe, patent applied for, by Nelson Chase of Enfield, N.H. Society. By those who have seen this latter invention, it is pronounced unequaled for beauty and convenience” (p. 86). Unfortunately, it was also very expensive to produce and retailers were not willing to pay its price. So despite its quality and refined detail, it was not commercially viable. (Enfield Shaker Museum has an example of Brother Nelson Chase’s Improved Pocket Stereoscope in its collection [1999.18.1]. See the object record with images.)

Nelson was disappointed in what he considered a lack of recognition for his contributions at Enfield, but a second try in the Elders Order at the Second Family was again short lived. After a year in that position he was discharged and returned to the Church Family. Three years later he requested to move to the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. He moved there in 1882, although in 1889 he returned to Enfield for a short visit.

Ultimately, Nelson found life as a Sabbathday Lake Shaker disappointing too, and he moved from the community to nearby Lewiston, Maine. In 1894, worldly recognition finally came to Nelson Chase as the Lewiston Sun-Journal on April 25, 1894, and newspapers across the country, reported on a five-million-dollar estate that he seemed in line to inherit. Once again disappointment was the only pay out, as the estate in question was finally settled on an illegitimate daughter of this distant relative.

Nelson Chase died penniless on June 4, 1898, in Auburn, Maine, and the Sabbathday Lake Shakers were asked to come to Auburn, Maine, for his body. He was buried in the Shaker Cemetery at the Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen