Eldress Caroline Whitcher
Nancy Caroline Whitcher, Shaker eldress and trustee, was born January 21, 1822 in Andover, New Hampshire, the daughter of Joseph and Nancy (Elkins) Whitcher.
Caroline’s parents were aware of the Shakers because missionaries often came to their town from Enfield to proselytize. As a young girl Caroline was drawn to their message and especially to their singing. Her parents and siblings were not. When she was nine years old Caroline begged her mother to take her to the Shakers for a visit. Nancy Whitcher hoped a short stay would satisfy her daughter’s curiosity. Instead, when it was time to return to Andover, Caroline pleaded convincingly to be allowed to remain at Enfield instead of going home with her mother. Throughout her life Caroline often testified, “As a child I loved the people; as an adult I love and revere the principles by which the Church is guided and most willingly I consecrate my life to the maintenance of them.”
Mother Lucy Wright (1760-1821) of the New Lebanon Parent Ministry, and Father Job Bishop, (1760-1831) leader of the New Hampshire societies, had advised Shakers not to take children into their communities unless they came with at least one believing parent. Shaker history has perhaps proved their counsel wise, but it was not the path that was followed by subsequent leaders. Fortunately for Shakerism there are shining examples of individuals who, without parental support, chose a Shaker life and became persons of immeasurable value to their communities. Caroline Whitcher was one such Believer.
Caroline was an intelligent, capable person who over time assumed major responsibilities in her family. Her first official appointment, family deaconess, was made in 1846. Two years later she was named office deaconess. In 1859, she was appointed second Eldress of the Church Family and, a year later, she became it’s spiritual leader or first Eldress with Elder Brother Orville Dyer.
The 1860s were difficult times for the country and for Shakerism. Many young people who had been raised in rural Shaker villages were drawn to opportunities in America’s increasingly industrialized cities. Others felt called to serve in the Civil War. At Enfield, the community also lost its most important trustee, Caleb M. Dyer. His murder was a traumatic event for the family and would have far reaching economic consequences for decades. Despite the losses that confronted her, Caroline made it her mission to build up a strong, committed family that would love and support their Shaker faith as fiercely as she did. She was remarkably effective in this ministry, particularly on the sisters’ side.
Shakers were all too familiar with outsiders’ challenges to their way of life. But Caroline Whitcher was particularly aggrieved when Believers seemed to be the ones threatening fundamental principles of the faith. In response to declining membership some individuals, particularly at Harvard, Massachusetts, were willing to consider extreme measures to stem that tide. Most distressing was the proposal to abandon the requirement of a celibate life. Eldress Caroline responded passionately to this heresy. She rejected any notion of giving up “the spirit that wars against the flesh” and condemned those who argued that “restraint and self-denial are unnecessary and do not belong to an enlightened people, and a catalogue of such like doctrines which have come in among Believers enough to make a good Believer rend their garments.” She was unwilling to sacrifice principle for better recruitment numbers. She testified, “O I love the warfares of good Believers and had rather be associated with a few who are pure in heart or trying to make themselves so, than with a legion who know not God, neither wish to learn his way, but cleave to their own will and ways, and will have their lusts at any rate.”
Even as she sharply criticized those within the faith who were willing to side-step established Shaker principles, Eldress Caroline maintained a welcoming and nurturing spirit toward any who were drawn to Shakerism. For the June 1872 issue of the Shaker periodical, The Shaker (pp. 44-45), she submitted a letter entitled “My Kind Friend Eliza” that praised the spiritual progress of a correspondent, Eliza Blossom, while urging her to consider what a fully consecrated Shaker life would offer her.
Caroline was also openhearted in maintaining friendships with individuals who peaceably left the society. She had an especially close relationship with members of the Elkins family, many of whom were related to her through her cousin, Hervey Elkins.
Eldress Caroline was a singer, and placed great value on the Shaker spirituals that articulated and conveyed her faith. She was a recipient of songs and she encouraged that gift in others. In addition to promoting singing in union meetings, she regularly convened singing schools for the family and encouraged musical training for children and adults alike.
In 1876 Caroline traveled to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This was a rare privilege extended to only a handful of Shakers. On that trip Caroline also visited the small community of African-American Shakers who lived and worked in Philadelphia under the leadership of Eldress Rebecca Jackson.
In 1879 Sister Mary Fall became too ill to bear the responsibility of head sister at the Trustees’ Office. She had carried that burden for 42 years. Because Caroline had previous experience as an office deaconess, she was released from the order of Elders and assumed Mary’s duties. In a letter to Groveland, New York Shaker sister, Lydia Dole, Caroline acknowledged, “I am real glad to feel the heavy burdens of the Elders Order laid off to wear and bear in a new place.”
Caroline formally assumed the title of Trustee in 1886. As the Sisters industries became more and more vital to Enfield’s economic viability, Caroline traveled extensively to major east coast cities, and nearby towns to purchase materials and machinery needed to support those industries. She was also responsible for generating sales and securing contracts for the sisters’ work. She became a well-known and highly respected businesswoman throughout the region.
Eldress Caroline was a teenager and young adult during Shakerism’s spiritual revival called “The Period of Mother’s Work” (1837-1850.) Throughout her life she maintained her faith in the revival and in her own experiences as an instrument for spirit visitors. In 1899 she contributed an essay for Henry Blinn’s publication, Manifestations of Spiritualism Among the Shakers, (pp. 56-58). She connected Shaker visionary experiences to the spiritualism movement that was flourishing in the late 19th century.
Whether serving as an Eldress or Trustee Caroline Whitcher wrestled with the issue of bringing converts to Shakerism. She wrote to Groveland sister Lydia Dole in March 1900, “When are believers to start upward and along in doing more to spread the gospel testimony that will convict souls of their lives of sin and show them the better way to live! Are we sleeping or does not the awakening messenger call upon us yet to go forth into the world as the first believers did when hungry souls listened to the call, received a baptism of fire which made them able to renounce all worldly selfish lives?”
Eldress Nancy Caroline Whitcher worked tirelessly for her community until weeks before her death in Enfield on March 15, 1902 at the age of 80. She is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery, Enfield, New Hampshire.
In The Enfield Advocate on March 28, 1902, her Shaker family remembered her:
“We have for many years depended upon the strength of character and the wisdom of her counsel and judgment and these have inspired a confidence and trust which we have never found misplaced. She has been as a tower of strength in our home, a true and loving teacher, counselor and companion, a sympathetic friend and sister especially tender to the erring and unfortunate. She has been a thoroughly good, strong, and truly Christian woman, identified with all the interests of our home temporal and spiritual and the impress of her life cannot be best[ed]. Such lives are indeed eternal in their influence for good.”
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen