Eldress Mary Ella Briggs
Mary Ella Briggs, Shaker girls’ caretaker and eldress, was born September 28, 1852, in LaSalle, Illinois, the daughter of Horace B. and Caroline E. (Ballou) Wing.
Family tragedy filled the years leading up to Mary Ella (Ella) Briggs’ coming to the Enfield Shakers. In early childhood, while living in Illinois, she and her mother were abandoned by her father, Horace Wing. Her mother brought her back to Boston and the 1855 Massachusetts Census lists them living in the home of Ira and Mary Jane Ballou, her grandparents. In 1856, Carrie married Charles H. Briggs in Boston and Ella was given her stepfather’s surname. Unfortunately, her stepfather died from consumption in 1858. In the wake of these losses, Carrie went to live in Salem, Massachusetts, and Ella remained with her grandparents. Several years later, Ira Ballou suffered heavy reverses in his business and decided to move his family to the Enfield Shakers. In June 1862, accompanied by his wife, daughter Carrie Briggs, granddaughter Ella Briggs, and youngest daughter Isabella Ballou, Ira Ballou and his family were reunited at the North Family Shakers in Enfield, New Hampshire.
After a short stay at the North Family, Ella was moved to the girls’ order at the Church Family. Her first term of Shaker school was from May to September 1863. She continued as a student until she was almost 17 and later became a Shaker schoolteacher at age 19. In 1875, she signed the Church Family covenant, making Shakerism her vocation.
As a young believer, she submitted a heartfelt hymn for the August 1876 issue of The Shaker entitled “Pray Ope’ the Gates,” in which she asked the ministry to “pour out a flood of fire and truth” for a “soul that’s wrestling for the truth” (p. 64).
Ella was named caretaker of the girls and became a sister devoted to the spiritual development of young people. Once when she was away from Enfield, she wrote a letter back home that captures the tenor of her love and her mentoring style:
My Dear Girls one and all old and young
I shall not be with you in body Sat. evening as usual but you may depend my spirit is not far away. Thought travels quickly, and I shall be in your midst hoping that the moments you spend together will be well spent. That the beautiful pieces you sing will awaken a love for purity and truthfulness; as you know they have been first sung by those who have traveled the way before you.
May the promises you make before each other be a new bond to unite you all in the way of well doing.
You all have some knowledge of the way, as the light has shone into the soul, and you can understand by studying to know the right from the wrong.
You remember Jesus said, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments.’ So if you have begun to love a pure life and honesty, better than the reverse of this, walk or strive to walk each day in the light of your own conscience, and the guides before you.
Love the truth, for truth’s sake, and never foster a friendship that cannot endure, because it is not founded on the rock of truth. For all else will fail. It is like the sinking sands. Honesty, obedience, respect to age, are safe guides for the young, remember this and you will never regret it.
Now sing for me, and for your company ‘Come let us press on in the path of the wise’ and I will say a Good Night to each one.
Lovingly and with an interest
Your friend and
For two years (1881-1883) Ella was assigned to live and work at the Infirmary. But her special gift was working with children and in 1883 she was again put in charge of the girls. She remained their caretaker until she was appointed Associate Eldress of the Enfield Church Family in 1888. In her eldership position she remained particularly engaged with the young sisters.
Ella was a singer, a hymn writer, and a member of the community’s Shaker Quartette. This vocal group frequently joined Shaker preachers in sharing the Shaker message at camp meetings, revivals, temperance meetings, and other benevolence society gatherings in “the world.” Ella also attended regional music conventions and encouraged the musical education of Shaker youth.
From 1890 to 1894 Ella was the community’s correspondent for the Shaker publication, The Manifesto. Her submissions of “Home Notes” add significantly to the historic record of Enfield Shaker life in the late nineteenth century. She used this platform not only to give lively reports of family activity, but also to raise thought-provoking questions about the future of Shakerism. In the October 1890 issue of The Manifesto, she wondered aloud about how her community was perceived by its many visitors, and asked her readers, “do they depart with the antique idea that we sold applesauce and brooms, did not marry &c? Or have they realized the good influence which could emanate from pure, honest lives, an idea, at least, that here is a Community based upon the radical principles of Christianity, which, with all its defects (not in principles but individuals) is the straight and narrow way, of which, our Savior said, ‘But few there be who walk therein?'” (pp. 234-235) She reflected publicly on how Believers were using their time and temporal resources and in the November 1891 issue of The Manifesto challenged Believers to “take a good square look at ourselves” (p. 259).
Ella’s health was always fragile. In 1892 the family record noted, “Ella Briggs, having been confined with sickness for nearly a year, leaves us for a short time to tarry at the North Family in Canterbury hoping to find rest and desirable change.”
The break from family responsibilities was helpful, and Mary Ella Briggs was able to return to her many duties as Associate Eldress, a position she fulfilled for a total of 24 years. She continued to serve in this capacity until February 27, 1913, when she died suddenly of pneumonia in Enfield, New Hampshire. She is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery.
Mary Ella Briggs was only 60 years old and the effect of her death on the community was profound. A letter written by Eldress Rosetta Cummings expressed the grief the Sisters felt on losing their friend and co-worker:
But my dear you will realize how truly great & deep is our sorrow. That we may never never again see her in the accustomed places, & meet her as I have for the past 50 years. It leaves an awful space that nothing nor nobody can fill. Only this we know; that all her love & interest was here, & she has really given her life in sacrifice doing duty for others, and she cannot leave us now, but will be near & do what she can to lift the burdens that this has brought to us and soon or later we shall meet her and other loved ones who have gone on & who welcomed her no doubt to the rich reward she has earned.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen