Marinda Keniston Carte de Visite
Carte de Visite, Sister Marinda Keniston
Photographer unknown, ca. 1880
Private Collection.

Sister Marinda M. Keniston

Marinda Melissa Kenniston, daughter of Francis Wendall and Cynthia Harmenia (Babbitt) Keniston, was born April 29, 1848 in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada.

When Francis Keniston’s wife died in 1851, he decided to bring his three youngest children to Enfield to be raised by the Shakers. Sarah Jane was 17, Samuel was 8, and Marinda was 4 when they arrived from Canada in February 1852.

Marinda attended the Shaker school, lived in the girls’ house, and was mentored by Shaker women in the many domestic responsibilities she would assume as an adult. In the 1870 census she is designated a tailoress.

Marinda was comfortable articulating her faith in Shakerism and became a spokesperson for her class of young sisters. In 1873 she wrote on their behalf to the leadership in Maine:
“We have entered upon the ‘New Year’ with a firm resolution that our circle shall remain unbroken, that despite the trials that may loom up before us we will struggle on, and the dawn of seventy-four shall find us a ‘firm united band of volunteers.’ Those who know us best shall have no cause to doubt our sincerity, to strive earnestly for the acquisition of gospel graces, and to become moulded after the image of our dear gospel parents.”

In 1876 when Marinda was twenty-eight she left what had been her daily responsibilities in the dairy to serve as associate Eldress of the Church family. Two years later she went to the office as a family deaconess. She remained in that position of trust until 1893 when she moved to the North Family to take charge of the office there. Two years later she returned to the Church and her former responsibilities as family deaconess.

Several notices in the Enfield’s “List of particular heavy Jobs done by church” make clear that Marinda was well acquainted with hard work. In May 1897 it is recorded, “The wood work in chapel is patched, then painted entirely; only one coat applied. Work done by Deaconesses A. Cumings & M. Keniston with some help from sisters.”

With that project completed, Marinda was given permission to go to Medfield, Massachusetts for a visit and a rest. Samuel Keniston, the brother who had come with her to the Shakers, was the person she wanted to see. Samuel had seceded from the community when he was 23 years old. Perhaps because he had ‘run away,’ rather than taking his leave in an honorable fashion, it was felt that “it is not consistent for him to visit her here.”

After two weeks Marinda was home, refocused on her Enfield Shaker family. By March 1898 “the job of painting all the windows in the stone dwelling is finished. Work done by Sisters M. Keniston, Ann Cumings and George Baxter.”

In addition to being a hard worker, she became a devoted “Shaker Mother” to Ethel Morse, a young girl who had been taken into the community.

Sister Marinda Keniston was a serious thinker and a person willing to speak her mind. Twice she submitted important questions to the Shaker publication, The Manifesto, hoping to start a meaningful conversation across communities. The first, entitled “Whither Are We Drifting?” in July 1890 (p. 150), addressed Shaker over-dependence on hired help, and its negative impact on the economic and spiritual life of Shaker societies.

Brother Hamilton De Graw of the Mt. Lebanon, New York, Shaker community replied to “Whither Are We Drifting?” in an article entitled “Are We Drifting?”, in the September 1890 issue of The Manifesto (p. 199).

Her second article, “To My Gospel Friends” in November 1890 (pp. 249-250) addressed the issue of women’s work and the value, or lack thereof, placed on Shaker Sisters’ contributions to family communal life. She wrote:

“TO MY GOSPEL FRIENDS:–Will you please answer through the columns of the MANIFESTO the following questions;

“Why should not House Keeping and Home Making, be considered occupations for Women and of no less account than Stock raising or Farming are to men?

“Why should not the home duties usually assigned to Women, tend just as really toward the important duty of earning an honest livelihood, as do those assigned to men?

“Why should a woman, who faithfully devotes herself for the comfort and well-being of the home, feel that she is in any degree dependent on another for support?

“Are not her brothers equally as dependent on her, as she is on them?

“When there is a proper growth, and better understanding of the ways of life throughout so-called Christendom, will there not be more enlightenment on the proper duties of both Man and Woman?”

Eldress Anna White of the Mt. Lebanon, New York, Shaker community replied to “To My Gospel Friends” in an article entitled “Woman’s Mission”, in the January 1891 issue of “The Manifesto” (pp. 1-2).

Marinda’s close relationship to her friend and mentor Eldress Caroline Whitcher is beautifully captured in a story shared in Eldress Anna White’s book, Shakerism, It’s Meaning and Message (1905). In this account Marinda is feeling weighed down by the burdens of her office, and grieving Sister Caroline’s death in 1902. Finally she is visited in spirit by her beloved friend, and reminded that Eldress Caroline’s helping spirit is constantly available to her if Marinda is not ‘too preoccupied.’ to sense her presence. Read more about Eldress Caroline Witcher’s spirit visitation with Marinda Keniston (pp. 247-249).

Assured that her friend’s spirit surrounded and lifted her, Marinda Keniston served faithfully as a family deaconess until her death from influenza on April 6, 1911 at the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire. Her obituary was published in The Waterbury Record, Waterbury, Vermont on April 19, 1911, p. 4.

Although she had been separated from her biological family for sixty years, upon her death they reclaimed her body for burial in the Keniston-Dobyns family lot at Vine Lake Cemetery in Medfield, Massachusetts.


Original author: Mary Ann Haagen