Eldress Mary Ann Cummings
Mary Ann Cummings, Shaker dairy woman, Infirmary sister, deaconess, and eldress, born March 3, 1844, in Hebron, New Hampshire, was the son of Edward Taylor and Mary (McGrath) Cummings.
Edward and Mary (McGrath) Cummings their five children came to the Enfield Shaker community in October 1844. Mary Ann was their youngest child–only seven months old. Mary (McGrath) Cummings had no faith in Shakerism and opposed the idea of the family uniting with the society. Ultimately, she agreed to accompany her husband to Enfield rather than be separated from her children. According to her testimony at the 1848 trial of the Shakers before the New Hampshire Legislature, she was promised the exclusive care of her two youngest children, Rosetta (age 3) and infant Mary Ann. Instead, three months after their arrival, Edward Cummings placed Rosetta and Mary Ann in the custody of the Church Family sisters. Within weeks of his doing so, Mary left the society and was never again afforded meaningful contact with her children.
Mary Ann, called Ann by her new family, would never have an opportunity to know her mother. Despite this loss, she managed to thrive in her adoptive home and family. She was raised in the girls house and educated in the Shaker school until she was 16. A surviving 1858 teacher’s register credits her with “positive moral deportment” and “positive habits of study,” Her “rank as a scholar.” was indicated with a plus sign. After completing her formal schooling, Ann worked in the Church Family dairy. The federal census of both 1860 and 1870 list her occupation as “Dairy Woman.”
In September 1870, Ann’s sister Rosetta left her post in the Trustees’ Office to become an Eldress at the North Family. Ann took over her sister’s former duties, and for the next 40 years held positions of responsibility and care in either the Church Family or North Family in the Enfield Shaker community.
Ann Cummings was a deeply committed Believer and she frequently shared her faith through poetry and song. An 1869 hymnal kept by Rosetta Cummings contains 17 of Ann’s songs, many of which were received or written that year for specific members of her Shaker family.
Ann was a gentle teacher who made unconditional love the cornerstone of her ministry. In a presentation prepared for a family “lyceum” meeting in 1874 she testified,
“The heart was formed for love, and can never be happy without an opportunity to receive & impart this priceless boon. It is an old saying that ‘Religion is the cement of Society’ but do not religion & love go hand in hand? Can a community long exist whose principles are not based on un-alloyed love? Surely not. For God himself is love, and whatever attempt we make to carry on what He has designed for us, must if pleasing in His sight, be prompted by an emanation from the ‘spirit of Love’.”
The Manifesto, in November 1875 (pp. 87-88) published Ann’s meditations on the nature of un-alloyed love in a piece she entitled, “The Potency of Love”, a revised version of her lyceum essay.
She challenged her community to examine its own interactions asking,
“Have we that love among us that allows no manifestation of coldness or unkindness? Has a little one (suffering perhaps from some provocation) strayed from the path of duty, is that love abiding with us, sufficient to win them back to the path of rectitude? And give them the assurance that however strongly we might feel duty bound to admonish a sinful act, still they are ours to love, and upon our hearts affection they have a strong claim. Do we manifest a love that supercedes all natural love that will hold within its strong embrace the most weak and erring of the little ones numbered in our ranks?”
Ann’s strong Shaker faith did not make her indifferent to the struggles of those whose commitment to Shakerism wavered. Ann’s oldest brother, John Cummings, was a valued member of the Enfield Shaker community, but in the 1870s he had a crisis of faith that prompted him to consider leaving the society. Although his brother, Henry Cummings, was an elder at the North Family, and a person experienced in counseling those wrestling with their faith, John chose to write to his sister Ann. He probably never sent the letter he drafted, and in the end he remained a faithful Shaker, but it is clear that he trusted Ann to hear him out without judgment or recrimination. “I know it will make you feel bad to have me leave you as I have had proofs that you have not lost your affections, nor do I believe you can. …..What I have written is not to influence you but to let you know how I feel.”
Ann Cummings devoted her life to the well-being of her Shaker family. Short entries in Enfield’s “Home Notes” in the Shaker publication The Manifesto offer a hint of her capacity for hard work. “May 1897: The woodwork in the chapel is patched and painted entirely, only one coat, work done by Deaconesses Ann Cumings and Marinda Kenniston with some help from sisters.” “March 1898: An important and lengthy work, of painting the 182 windows of our dwelling house is being done by sisters Marinda Kenniston, Ann Cumings and the writer, George Baxter.”
Enfield had been Ann’s Shaker home for her entire life, but each year the aging community of Believers grew smaller. It was inevitable that the society would have to be closed and its remaining members relocated. On November 22, 1917, Sister Ann Cumings and Eldress Mary Ann Joslin were the first two sisters to be moved to Canterbury Shaker Village.
At Canterbury, Ann continued to serve as a comforter and friend to her sisters arriving from Enfield, who lived together in Enfield House. Once, when Sister Myra Green was struggling to remember an oft-sung Shaker hymn, Ann sent her the text with the note. “Dear Sister Myra, This may not be word for word as we sang it, but is as near as I can get it. If you cannot recall the tune wait till I come over again and we will sing it together.” The hymn began,
“Abound, abound O righteous cause with thy unchanging sacred laws
And let thy truth without a pause roll on, roll on to cleanse our souls and keep us.”
Sister Mary Ann Cummings remained at Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire until her death on January 23, 1927. She is buried in the Shaker Cemetery in Canterbury.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen
Author’s Note: Shaker records and public documents provide no consistency in the spelling of the family name. Cummings and Cumings seem to be used interchangeably.