Sister Zelinda Smith
Zelinda E. Smith, accomplished Shaker tailoress, cook, and office deaconess, was born January 30, 1820, in Mount Morris, New York, the daughter of Uriah and Susan (Peck) Smith.
Zelinda Smith was born into a family of religious reformers and preachers. Her uncle, Elias Smith was a founder of New England’s Christian Connexion movement, and the editor of what is believed to be America’s first religious newspaper, The Herald of Gospel Liberty, in 1808. Zelinda’s father Uriah was not as charismatic or controversial a preacher as his brother, but the two shared the belief that common people should take their religious destiny into their own hands, think for themselves, base their faith only on the bible, and oppose centralized authority. Their faith called them to reject the doctrines of the Trinity and of predestination, to oppose slavery, espouse temperance, and support women preachers of the gospel. These beliefs were consistent with Shaker teaching and led Uriah to consider a Shaker life for his children.
In 1835 the family moved from Woodstock, Vermont, to Enfield, New Hampshire, at which time Zelinda and three of her siblings, Elias, Amanda, and Philo, were placed with the Shakers. Uriah, his wife, and youngest child, Susan, settled on property at the head of Mascoma Lake and began to gather a small congregation of individuals who would ultimately identify themselves as Universalists. Zelinda’s sister Amanda and brother Philo left the Shakers as young adults, but Zelinda and her older brother, Elias, remained lifelong Shakers.
Zelinda moved from the Gathering Order to the Church Family in 1837 and entered fully into the Shaker religious revival that was underway. She was one of many instruments who conveyed messages from the spirit world to the Society during “The Period of Mother’s Work.”
She became an Office Deaconess in 1857. Her duties included serving as cook for Trustee’s Office residents, and for Shaker and non-Shaker visitors traveling here for business or fellowship. Zelinda was also an accomplished tailoress.
Between 1864 and 1899 she served alternately at the Trustees Offices of the Church and North families. In both places, she is identified in the public census as a seamstress.
Zelinda’s biological sister Susan married an Enfield entrepreneur, James Willis Johnson. They lived in Enfield Center. James had many business dealings with the Shakers, and Susan brought relatives to visit the community. Zelinda’s niece wrote this description of a visit to the Enfield Shaker community:
When I was a young girl I visited an aunt every summer who lived in Enfield Center. The only way for her to entertain was to hire a horse and democrat wagon of a neighbor and go to the Shakers for either dinner or to Church…. How well I remember the face, but have forgotten the name of the lovely gracious woman who had charge of the office [Mary Fall], her cheeks were like red roses. When we came she would send word to the dining room that we would be over in a little while and after we went over our Aunt Zelinda Smith would come in and curtsy and then leave, too busy to stop.
She certainly exemplified the saying of “straight as a ramrod.” I always wondered why she didn’t crack when she stooped over. After eating and going back to the office her brother, Uncle Elias, would be called and always seemed to enjoy having us come. He was as jolly as Zelinda was stiff. He played a fife, which was permitted. I suppose they both lie in the cemetery back of the church. They had brother Filo there who ran away and a sister Amanda who left and married in Minnesota.
Zelinda’s Shaker family knew her not as a stiff ramrod but as a sweet Shaker sister, who for 60 years was universally loved and respected.
Sister Zelinda E. Smith died January 30, 1899, of pneumonia at the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire. A brief obituary was published in March 1899 issue of The Manifesto (p. 43). She is buried in the Church Family Shaker Cemetery in Enfield.
Original author: Mary Ann Haagen