Sister Sally Ceeley
Sally Ceeley, Shaker spirit instrument and nurse, was born December 31, 1805 in Tuftonboro, New Hampshire, the daughter of William and Dorcas (Bodey) Cilley.
Sally Ceeley’s Shaker life spanned most of the 19th century. Her mother died in Concord, New Hampshire in 1813. Though we do not know the date of her arrival at Canterbury Shaker Village, her childhood was spent in a small gathering order located west of the Church. Elder Henry Blinn credits Sally as his primary source for information about the West Family in his Historical Record of the Society of Believers at Canterbury (1892). This gathering order was absorbed into the North Family in 1818.
In 1820 Sally moved from Canterbury to the Enfield, New Hampshire Shakers and lived in the Church Family. We know little about her specific duties or assignments until 1838 when the community began to embrace the spiritual revival sweeping through the eastern Shaker societies: “The Period of Mother’s Work.” (1837-1850.) Almost immediately Sally was recognized as an instrument who would relay spiritual messages to Believers. A manuscript titled Sacred and Inspired Writings and Messages received in the Church, Enfield, New Hampshire, Between December 22nd 1838 and January 1st 1842 contains hundreds of communications that she conveyed.
Many of the messages and teachings were from gospel parents who she had known in life. The spirits of Father Job Bishop, Mother Hannah Goodrich, and Elder Benjamin re-iterated instructions she had received as a young believer. Through Sally they preached the importance of separation from the world, the need to be closely united with one’s lead, the constant need for self-examination, confession and repentance, and the rewards of “seeking after spiritual gifts,” rather than resisting them. Many of the messages she received addressed specific groups within the family: the children, the kitchen sisters, the deacons who traveled for business, caretakers of youth, the aged, even the community’s elders. Mother Hannah’s communications, in particular, were often surprisingly practical and detailed:
“Meat tubs should be looked to as often as once in a week. Fish that is enclosed in brine skimmed once in a while; the pickle tubs examined, the fassets of barrels left tight, all kinds of vegetables kept secure from frost. Ye must make a prudent use of all things, and make the family as comfortable as you can with what you have entrusted to you.”
“I will give the youngest one that works in the kitchen a little chore which they may attend to regularly in remembrance of me. Sweep the cellar stairs three times in the week; it is none too often where sisters pass constantly with something in their hands. Their clothes will get very dirty if such things are not attended to.”
Other communications delivered through Sally Ceeley pointed to personal shortcomings requiring reformation:
“I entered the rooms of all thy people in retiring time, but I found all were not in their rooms. I found one seeking to please their appetite by getting something they could not so easily obtain any other time. I found such an one in a by-room fixing and primping in the glass, because they desired to look beautiful in the eyes of those who should behold them. If I hear such things, I shall say, O dread! Dread upon such souls: they have served themselves, they have neglected to obey God; therefore he will not listen to their cries in mercy, but judgment must and will take place.”
The messages Sally conveyed constantly challenged Believers to come up higher, to broaden and refine their faithfulness and to use the gifts of humility, union, repentance and gratitude to progress spiritually. These were lessons that she also internalized and continued to live by long after the revival had waned.
In 1845 Sally left Enfield for the Church family at Canterbury Shaker village where she lived until her death in 1898.
At the age of 79, likely speaking about herself, she submitted a letter to the February 1884 issue of the Shaker Manifesto (pp. 33-34) inspired by a previous article, in which she wrote, “I have thought it unwise to measure health and strength by age, if one should retain their youthful vigor at eighty years of age: why not enjoy the precious blessing of moving in active labor and not fearing any sad results therefrom?”
Two recollections by others speak to her ongoing devotion to a life of rectitude and close adherence to Shaker Order. In his autobiographical reminiscence, “Forty Years A Shaker”, that was serialized in The Granite Monthly in 1920-1921, former Canterbury Shaker brother Nicholas Briggs recalled,
“Then there was Sally Ceeley, one of the nurses, to whom I was always sent when suffering some indisposition. She quite adopted me as her son, and told me she ‘loved me particularly.’ Once she gave me a great big hug, which would no doubt have elicited a reproof from the Eldress if known. Very likely she confessed it and received her reproof, as I never received a second hug.”
The second is a poignant essay entitled “In Memory of our Sister, SALLY CEELEY” by Elder Abraham Perkins on Sally’s unwavering adherence to Shaker principles. Published in the July 1898 issue of the Shaker Manifesto (pp. 103-104) on the occasion of her death, Elder Abraham acknowledged that,
“With a God fearing spirit she abounded, ever bearing testimony against every form of evil, tho it cost her suffering, and tho in a degree, it severed friendships she would gladly hold; and yet, with that testimony she exercised care and gentleness, to avoid giving wounds and knowing such effect it grieved her and reconciliation and pardon would invariably be sought.”
On a more personal note he recalled that when he was a young believer at Enfield, Sally revealed a truth that took him years to fully understand: that whether a person comes into community as an innocent child, or as a converted adult, an honest and faithful Shaker life is one of continuous self-examination and spiritual labor.
Sally Ceeley died June 4, 1898 at Canterbury, New Hampshire and is buried in Canterbury’s Church Family Shaker Cemetery.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen