Enfield Shaker Elder Odilon O. B. Elkins
Brother Odilon O. B. Elkins
Photographer unknown, ca. 1865
Collection of Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA

Elder Odilon O. B. Elkins

Odilon Otho Barrot Elkins, Shaker student, shoemaker, and elder, was born September 15, 1844, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Josiah R. and Almira (Simonds) Elkins.

Elmira Simonds Elkins and her husband Josiah were raising four children on their small farm in Dorchester, New Hampshire,  when he had a fatal train accident. The year was 1852 and the young widow found few options open to her as she tried to re-assemble her shattered life.

Elmira knew that she could not maintain the farm and her young children by herself, and she looked for possible support from her family in Massachusetts. Finding none, she was forced to consider other alternatives. In nearby Enfield, New Hampshire, the Shaker community was a possible lifeline. Elmira’s husband Josiah had lived there for several years when he was a boy, and some of her in-laws were still living at the North Family. Her brother-in-law Hervey Elkins had recently left the Shakers so he understood her misgivings about uniting with that community. Nonetheless, he encouraged her to consider a Shaker life for herself and her children Jasper, age 6, Odilon, age 4, Almira, age 2, and Mary Ellen, just 6 months old.

On May 12, 1853, Elmira was admitted into the Church Family and on May 17 her sons Jasper and Odilon were formally admitted as well. The Church record does not indicate whether the girls remained with their mother or were placed with the girls’ caretaker.

Odilon and his brother lived at the boys’ house. Shaker boys were expected to assist with farm chores, haul firewood, sort broom corn, and participate in seasonal tasks organized by their caretaker or the farm deacon. The Boys Order had their own religious activities during the week and worshipped with the adults on Sundays. In winter they attended school. Their teacher was Brother Henry Cumings, then Brother Sylvester Russell, Jr., and for Odilon’s last two years, Brother Samuel Keniston. During his school years, between twenty-three and thirty-five boys were taught in one room. Odilon attended school until he was almost sixteen.

If Odilon was content with his life at the Shakers, the security it offered was not enough to hold him. Although his departure is not noted in the Enfield membership records, his brother Jasper is listed as having seceded on July 23, 1865. It is presumed that the brothers left together. For the next eight years Odilon lived “in the world.” It is only through correspondence and diaries kept by the Hervey Elkins family that his whereabouts and activities can be traced.

In 1873, twenty-five-year-old Odilon made the decision to return to the Enfield Shaker community. When applying for re-admission after leaving the Shakers a person was usually required to reside at the gathering order (the North Family at Enfield) until he or she demonstrated both repentance and a serious re-commitment to a Shaker life. In Odilon’s case, he was immediately taken into the Church Family. Now that he had returned, perhaps the Shakers wanted to keep him close, rather than risk his being drawn back into “the world.” Although his mother had died in 1857, his two sisters, Almira and Mary Ellen, were now young Shaker women in the Church Family. Perhaps their commitment would encourage his. Odilon became the family shoemaker.

On March 22, 1875, both Odilon and his sister Mary Ellen signed the Church Family Covenant. His uncle Hervey Elkins’ family was in regular contact with the Enfield community, and Shakers frequently visited them in Andover. But Odilon seemed content with his decision to re-establish a Shaker life and deepen his own Shaker faith.

Then in January of 1881 Odilon alarmed his Elders by again leaving Enfield without warning or explanation. This time, however, his absence was short-lived. Again, through Elkins family letters we know that he went to the Shaker Village in Mount Lebanon, New York, hoping to talk with Elder Giles Avery. Although Elder Giles was not at home, he was counseled by Elder Daniel Boler and he returned to Enfield after a few days.

The following May, Elder Abraham Perkins organized a two-week trip to the Shaker communities at Canterbury, New Hampshire, and at Alfred and New Gloucester, Maine. The travelers included Elder Abraham and Odilon on the brothers’ side, and a group of stalwart Believers, Julia Russell, Mary Basford, Mary Ann Joslin, and Henrietta Spooner on the sisters’ side.

When they returned home Odilon penned a letter of thanks to his Maine hosts. Perhaps appreciating the efforts being made to strengthen his faith, he wrote, “I would also express my renewed resolution to be constant and faithful in the cause to which we have pledged our lives, and which is dearer to me, than ever, and which, as time passes, grows more lovely to my sight.” But he also acknowledged his doubts about the future of Shakerism. “I remember a very long row of mowers in the hay-days of my childhood and youth. Not a solitary one of that formidable array of strong men remain. They have long since dispersed in every direction, and how long their places will remain vacant is known only to Him who knoweth all things.” Odilon repeated Elder Henry Blinn’s admonition that the Shakers could not wait for the Lord to accomplish a revival, but he admitted that he could see no prospects for recruitment “in these degenerate times.” Not wanting to end on a discouraging note, he did his best to summon a positive outlook. “Nothing is gained however, by desponding, and there are still enough good things, I suppose to give one courage, if he looks upon the right side of them.”

Odilon continued to think deeply about his faith and his Shaker home. A piece that he titled “Our Home” was published in the April 1883 issue of The Manifesto (p. 84). In it, he celebrated the possibility of making one’s Shaker residence a place of both aspiration and peace. “A home where purity reigns is of all places the most beautiful,” he stated. He also acknowledged that the quality of home life depended on the positive effort of all its members. But, Odilon insisted, “To the meek, the poor in spirit, and to those who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, our home affords an ever present hope and prospect of inexhaustible riches.”

Odilon had been serving as a family deacon in the Church Family, when, in November of 1883 he was appointed Elder at the North Family. His intelligence and his personal spiritual struggles would, it was hoped, make him a perceptive counselor and guide for those just starting out in the faith. Sadly, his capacity for leadership would never be tested. Three months after moving to the North Family, Elder Odilon Elkins died at the age of 39.

Odilon Otho Barrot Elkins died on February 7, 1884, in Enfield, New Hampshire. He is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield.

After his death, two more pieces he had committed to paper were published. The first, “Reason and Intuition,” appeared in the November 1884 issue of The Manifesto (p. 249). It deals with the ineffable qualities of intuition and their importance in the development of one’s faith. Particularly when he was living “in the world” Odilon enjoyed the company of people who examined alternatives, read widely, and engaged in reasoned debate. In this essay however, he concludes, “The cold light of Reason is not favorable to growth of soul; but the tender buds of conviction expand and thrive in the genial warmth of God’s infinite love, and this is the fountain whence Intuition derives her authority and power. Not that there is any clashing between these two principles, their light may blend as one, but after all Reason’s light is but a borrowed light.”

In the March 1885 issue of The Manifesto (p. 69) his testimony, “Thanksgiving” was published. It may well have been his Thanksgiving Day homily as the new Elder of the novitiate order. His closing sentences are their own touching memorial to Odilon Elkins’ spiritual journey:

God’s love is over us, and beneath us, and all about us. No depth of human depravity is able to sink a soul where His love does not reach. But our sinful lives may, and do, make us blind to that parental tenderness, which is slow to anger and quick to forgive. And sometimes in looking back upon trying scenes, where we have had everything, seemingly, but the last feather to bear up under, we have traced through it all the designs of a wise and tender Parent. We have learned the lesson which His loving care placed before us, and have seen that it was His hand that sustained us all through the chastening, which made us more fully and tangibly His children.

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen