Enfield Shaker Elder Abraham Perkins
Elder Abraham Perkins
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Private collection

Elder Abraham Perkins

Abraham Perkins, Shaker school teacher, caretaker, medium, and Elder was born October 13, 1807 in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, the son of Jonathon and Anna (Taylor) Perkins.

Abraham Perkins was all that the Shakers hoped for in a convert. He was young, healthy, well educated, single, and in search of a meaningful spiritual life. His family and friends decried his inclinations and tried valiantly to dissuade him from joining the Shakers. But once he began visiting the Enfield community in 1827, Abraham Perkins never looked back.

As a young believer he served as schoolteacher and caretaker of the boys.

Perkins was not part of Enfield’s founding generation. He never knew the first parents in the faith. But he enthusiastically embraced the “Period of Mother’s Work” (1837-1850) during which his visionary experiences gave him access to the spirit world and those early Believers. In 1899 he contributed his reminiscences about that time for Canterbury Elder Henry Blinn’s publication, Manifestations of Spiritualism Among the Shakers (pp. 54-55).

A very rare Shaker song book from the period, in Abraham Perkins own hand, is “A Collection of NOTED SONGS,” now in the collection of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

He himself received communications from deceased Shakers, from Jesus, Mother Ann, biblical prophets and African American spirits. For the Shakers’ A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book (1843), he submitted a testimony dated June 29, 1843:

Having for several years been an eye witness of the effects of the marvelous and wonderful power and out-pouring of the spirit of God among his peculiar and distinguished people, and also being a subject of its influence, often having been led by it to speak in different tongues, to hold communion with holy Angels and many of the departed of this life,…I have no hesitation in declaring my faith in the preceding…as being the word of God (pp. 352-353).

Throughout his life he maintained a deep faith in the power and purpose of the revival.

His capacity for leadership was recognized early on, and in 1845 he was appointed an associate Elder of the Church family. Soon thereafter he was made associate to Elder Joseph Johnson in the New Hampshire Ministry.

Perkins saw the nurturing of young Believers as one of his most important jobs. In 1865 he wrote, “One of the great concerns of my life is so to operate, as to gender a seed in the present generation as will bring forth gospel fruits. I want an inheritance in the present race. I want to know that I have a spiritual offspring, who will both possess, and keep and minister the gospel for and to an unborn generation, in the proper season.”

Over the years Perkins experienced the anguish of losing many promising Believers to “The World.” In a letter to a young Enfield sister, Flora Appleton, he acknowledged those disappointments, but also celebrated her faithfulness, “Your resolves to be loyal to conviction represent good sense. Ah, Flora, so many weak minded senseless souls whose lower passions control and lead to the broad way and to shame, my heart has been many times broken. I rejoice that you have chosen the good part; may it never be taken from you.”

Perkins had many opportunities to write, preach, and travel. His extensive correspondence reflects the friendships he maintained with other Shaker leaders throughout the country. Together they wrestled with issues facing all Shaker communities; particularly the challenge of attracting and retaining converts. Unlike some more conservative Shaker theologians, he was sympathetic to the progressive initiatives of Mount Lebanon’s North Family. And he supported social reform movements in society at large, particularly temperance, women’s suffrage, and the work of the Salvation Army.

From its inception in 1871, he was a frequent contributor to The Shaker Manifesto and his essays covered a wide range of topics:

In the lead article of the February 1878 issue of The Manifesto, he addressed the question, “Are the Shakers Christians?”, advising readers, “What then are our obligations? Simply to live soberly, honestly, justly, truthfully” (pp. 25-26).

He asked, “What but the principles of honesty and truth will preserve nations, maintain governments and become bulwarks of strength in the religious world?”, in “The Duties of a Christian,” written for the May 1883 issue of The Manifesto (pp. 100-101).

In “Our Mission,” published in the May 1886 issue of The Manifesto, reflecting his own high standard, he wrote, “We are not justified in human frailties, simply because we are human; indeed we are to become gods, imbued with a power akin to almighty, to be able to fulfill the destined mission of man” (p. 104).

Perkins considered the gift of song to be one of his greatest blessings. He wrote, “Songs innumerable have been put into my mouth and their sentiments engraven in my soul; for which I claim no credit. How I received them or where they came from I am unable to represent. The words and music were generally combined, and accompanied in their ministration with a spirited pathetic sensation. Sometimes when one piece was finished another would follow, until six or seven would be produced all different in key and character.”

Abraham Perkins was First Elder of Enfield’s Church family when, in 1894, it was decided to close the Second (South) Family. Perkins was now 87 years old and had borne the weight of leadership for almost half a century. He was tired and ready to pass the torch. He considered the Second Family’s elder, William Wilson, a capable leader. He requested that Wilson be made first elder of the Church, and that he be allowed to retire to Canterbury. He wrote to Eldress Anna White at Mount Lebanon, “In the Elders’ Order, my successor is William Wilson with George Henry Kirkley as an associate, who is a young man of about twenty-seven years. May you in your prayers remember Enfield, which has been to me a precious and much loved home.”

He visited Enfield only a few times after his retirement, expecting each visit to be his last. Those occasions were of tender interest to the community.

Abraham Perkins died on August 12, 1900, at the Shaker community in Canterbury, New Hampshire. He is buried in the Shaker Cemetery in Canterbury.

His long life was summed up in this benediction: “At the age of ninety-two, with form still erect, step quick and face radiant with the innate goodness that had marked his life, he passed to the Home Land. He had lived largely in the realm of inspiration, and as Elder and Bishop, he was unsurpassed in faithfulness, self-sacrifice and devotion.”

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen