Sister Elmira P. Allard
Elmira P. Allard, Shaker nurse and “doctress,” was born April 8, 1808, in Sharon, Vermont, the daughter of Henry and Polly (Dockham) Allard.
In 1811 Shaker missionaries got news of a religious revival underway in Sharon, Vermont. They immediately set out to make converts there. Henry and Polly Allard were initially receptive to the Shaker message, but soon they “cooled off and fell back to the world.” Although Elmira Allard was only a small child at the time, she particularly remembered the singing and dancing that accompanied the Shaker meetings held at her home. Three of Elmira’s older sisters, Nancy, Betty, and Polly, were converted to Shakerism and followed the missionaries back to Enfield. Several years later, in 1819, Elmira and her brother Enoch went to visit them, determined to try the life at the Gathering Order. Over time a total of eight members of her immediate family joined the Shakers, including her mother Polly Allard, who was the last to convert.
Near the end of her long Shaker life, Elmira wrote her autobiography. Her account offers important reflections on Enfield’s formative years:
At another time Father [Job] thought it best to have an out of doors meeting. The ministry from Mt Lebanon were here on a visit. Both lots were in the Elders room. They struck up a tune and began to descend the stairs. The brethren and sisters opened their doors and followed. They passed out of doors down the street to the shore of the Lake. We had a very good and joyful meeting. Some of us thought they were going to walk upon the water to try our faith as did the Savior, but we halted upon the very brink.
Brother True was an honest upright man; he never ran in debt to the world, a good provider in his own household. His calling was of a temporal nature. So long as he held the reigns of government we were never in debt, but had money at interest. In his line of order he could not be faulted.
In addition to remembering other Shakers, she shared her own spiritual struggles, including the work of accepting the “gift” of humility:
I united outwardly with the gift but did not feel humbled in spirit as I thought was required. I felt tribulation on the account I went to Father and opened my feelings. He counseled me to be watchful and prayerful and obedient and put my trust in the gift of God. I spent many hours in supplication and prayer that I might receive the gift in full; in time I did receive it in a good degree. My proud nature did not yield to the gifts of the spirit without much effort. I was then a youth in my teens.
And she recalled life lessons that became guiding principles in her life:
One instance of her [Sister Molly Mills] generous motherly spirit I will record in this place. In early life, duties were pressing on all side. All hands, old and young, were kept busy in some servile duty. At a certain time my stockings had run low and were very poor. One day she came to the shop door and called me to come to her, and said she heard I was poor for stockings; that she had knit down a pair of hers that were too small for her, and would give them to me. Also another pair she would knit to mate them. All this was very kind indeed. Furthermore she said, “I hear you are slack about knitting. I do not want to ever hear it again. And she never did. This deed of kindness left a lasting impression on my mind and stimulated me to improve odd moments to good advantage. I have never lacked for stockings from that day to this.”
Like most Shaker women, Elmira held several positions of responsibility including that of nurse. In 1870 she was designated a “doctress.”
In her autobiography she described accompanying Elder Joseph Johnson to Saratoga Springs in search of a cure for his cancer. She recalled various epidemics that afflicted the community, and spoke fervently about issues of women’s health:
Let the rising generation be raised to toil in the open air as we did, and there will be seen an improvement in their strength and health of body will return and prove a blessing. I consider manual labor essential to health and strength of body, as rain and sunlight to vegetation to perfect its fruitage. Many females are too closely closeted and bound to needlework bowed down like a rainbow from morn til evening gray with but very little relaxation.
Elmira described seeking the assistance of doctors in Boston, but she also shared personal experiences of faith healing. She was a strong believer in spirit communication, and wrote in detail about her visionary journeys. “A Word of Warning and Invitation By the Patriarch Noah” received by Sister Elmira Allard on August 9, 1843, was included in the Shakers’ A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book, (pp. 242-244). And the 19th-century spiritualist, James Martin Peebles, published her article, “The Gifts and Clairvoyant Sight of Elmira P. Allard, a Shaker Sister, Enfield, N. H.” in his book Immortality or Future Homes and Dwelling Places (pp. 163-168).
During her long life, Elmira Allard helped build a strong Enfield Shaker community. As she aged, she also felt its slow decline and hoped for a revival. She ended her autobiography with a prayer:
At the present time and for several years past there has not been any revivals or much change in our progress; but we are praying for a further opening of light and knowledge of God’s work. May we be upheld by the arm of Almighty power till He in his wisdom may see fit to manifest a further work of his redeeming love to his needy Zion. And may each one be ready to close in with the work that still awaits us.
Elmira P. Allard died on October 30, 1886, at the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire. She is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen