Eldress Isabella Russell
Mary Isabella Russell, Shaker musician, poet, public speaker, trustee, and eldress, was born November 22, 1833, in Hartland, Vermont, the daughter of Sylvester W. and Mary (Rand) Russell.
Isabella, the eldest of their six children, was 12 years old when the entire family joined the Shakers at Enfield, New Hampshire. The year was 1847. Although one of her brothers and one of her sisters later left the Shakers as adults, each family member contributed to the vitality of the community during the second half of the 19th century. Like her siblings, Isabella was an intelligent, thoughtful person, who had a confident personality, and a willingness to proclaim her ideas and beliefs.
In 1864 Isabella had the good fortune to be named Associate to Church Family Eldress Caroline Whitcher, a woman of great ability, and strong faith. Eldress Caroline was equally pleased to have Isabella at her side. Writing to the Ministry sisters at Mt. Lebanon, she praised the appointment of associate elder, Oliver Joslyn, “a jewel well worth our affection.” She went on, “I can say the same of my associate Isabella, a sister that is dependent and not assuming and bigoted as some are, knowing more than anyone else, and so pure by nature that they do not need to war the flesh.”
To be a person willing to “bear the cross” of a celibate life was of utmost importance to Eldress Caroline, particularly because of the heretical ideas being espoused at that time by some Believers, particularly at the Harvard Shaker community. These “reformers” proposed that the Shakers abandon the principle of a virgin life in favor of “spiritual marriage.” As we see in Isabella’s later writings and testimony, maintaining celibacy as a foundational principle of Shakerism was strongly impressed on this young eldress by her mentor.
Isabella and her younger sisters Julia and Aseneth Russell cherished the gift of song and were recipients of many spirituals and anthems. Although they did not develop their gift as extensively as did their brother, James G. Russell, Isabella was asked in 1874 to participate with him in a six-week music teaching tour. They offered instruction in singing and sight-reading at the New Lebanon, Watervliet, Hancock, and Enfield, Connecticut Shaker societies. It was an unusual opportunity for this Enfield sister to make connections with other Shaker communities in the northeast.
At home, Eldress Caroline Whitcher was grateful for Isabella’s musical gifts. About 1866, when Eldress Caroline had felt the press of a bible verse from the Book of Revelations, “Naught that defileth or maketh a lie within thy courts shall enter,” she appealed to Sister Rosetta Cummings to labor for a song on that text. But Rosetta could not get the gift and returned to Eldress Caroline without a song. As the story was later told, “Isabella Russel was living with Eldress Caroline, and without knowing her desire in the matter, received the song one day while Eldress Caroline was absent from their room, and when she returned she sung it to her. Eldress Caroline was much pleased for it exactly suited her.” The song is titled “Promise to Zion.”
In 1876 Isabella was appointed Church Family Office Deaconess and served in that position for a year. She then moved to the North Family or Gathering Order. Here she labored, first as Associate, then as First Eldress, guiding and encouraging those who came to Enfield to try a Shaker life.
In 1885 Isabella laid down her eldership duties to become a North Family Trustee. Isabella was soon traveling with Sister Henrietta Spooner to regional fairs and festivals, selling fancy work made by the sisters. She and Henrietta were an effective sales team and generated important revenue for the family. She continued at this work until 1891 when “Sister Isabella is released from her burdens at the North Family and comes home [to the Church Family] for a rest.”
Relief from her many former duties gave Isabella time to reflect on the foundations of her faith. At Elder Abraham Perkins’ urging she began to correspond with Shaker associates at other villages. And Sister Marinda Keniston, so valued a testimony Isabella spoke in meeting that she submitted a transcript of it for publication in the March 1892 issue of The Manifesto (pp. 57-58).
On October 18, 1893, at the Centennial Anniversary of the Shaker Church at Enfield, New Hampshire, Isabella was chosen to give the Commemorative Address. Her speech contained a theme that she would continue to develop in her writing and poetry over the next seven years.
Isabella was passionate about equal rights for men and women. She closely followed the progress of the Women’s Suffrage movement and believed that Shakerism provided a shining example of progressive thinking on the subject. In her address, she praised Shakerism’s founder, Ann Lee, for being in the vanguard of that struggle. She laid out in no uncertain terms the root of the problem of gender inequality:
Hers was the voice that gave utterance to words that were like a consuming fire to the very nature of sin and every worldly lust, and with no uncertain sound protested against the injustice and inequality of a system which all down through the ages had placed women in an inferior position, subjecting her to a life of misery and degradation, from which there was no escape, no possibility of redress, so long as man was her acknowledged lord and master.
Isabella Russell went on to assert that the foundational Shaker principle of a virgin line was and would ever be the means of attaining the equality, justice, and peace that many aspired to. “Whatever opposition we may meet, Brethren and Sisters, let us not forget that this is a distinctive feature of our Church. Others may have their mission in life, but it is ours to teach and practice, at home and abroad, wherever we are, under all circumstances and conditions, in connection with every other gospel grace, this vitalizing principle.”
In the final years of her life, Isabella continued to challenge her Shaker community to remain true to the fundamentals of their faith which she defined as community of property, a virgin life, and peace and goodwill to all mankind. She warned her fellow travelers against spiritual laziness, discouragement, and ingratitude for the temporal and spiritual legacy that they enjoyed. In a published testimony in the May 1898 issue of The Manifesto Isabella declared,
Again I say this responsibility [for supporting the Shaker testimony] can not rest upon two or three individuals, but upon every member who has placed his name to the Church Covenant, and is devoting his time and talents for the interests of our home which has long been known as a place consecrated to God, and designed to be a refuge and protection from the snares and temptations of a worldly life. I am deeply interested in its growth, its honor and its prosperity. When I become lost to its interests, I am lost unto the mission appointed me and to the salvation of my soul. (67-68)
Mary Isabella Russell died March 4, 1900, in the Shaker community at Enfield, New Hampshire. Joining her parents, her brother James, and her sisters Julia and Aseneth, all of whom predeceased her, Isabella was buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield.
Eldress Rosetta Cummings wrote of her Shaker sister, “Spiritually, educationally or materially, she leaves a vacancy in the home and a loss and sorrow upon our hearts which only the memory of her own sweet, cheerful, courageous spirit can lighten or help to bear. Thoroughly identified with the interests of the home where she had been a resident for more than 50 years, she was at the same time intelligently in touch with all the vital questions of growth and progress in the world at large.”
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen