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September's Book
The Believers
by Janice Holt Giles

Historical Notes

About the Shakers | The Great Revival | Earthquake!

About the Shakers

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming originated in England in the late 18th century, as an offshoot of the Quakers. A dissident group led by Ann Lee began incorporating whirling dances and frantic movements into their worship, causing them to be ridiculed as the “Shaking Quakers.” Lee herself claimed to speak directly with God, and many of her followers regarded her as the Second Coming of Christ, this time in female form.

Like many other persecuted religious groups, the Shakers looked to America as a land where they could live and worship in peace. Ann Lee and her small band emigrated shortly before the Revolutionary War, in 1774, founding their first community in New York. That community established the pattern all other Shaker settlements would follow, with strictly enforced separation of the sexes, communal ownership of property, members divided into “families” based on their level of spiritual maturity, and a long day devoted entirely to work and worship.

As the United States grew, the Shakers also looked to the frontier for places where they could attract new converts and live apart from “the world’s people.” As Janice Holt Giles recounts in The Believers, Shaker missionaries came to Kentucky in the early 1800s. They eventually founded two communities in the state: Pleasant Hill, near Harrodsburg, in 1806, and South Union, the Logan County community where Giles’ story is set, in 1807.

At its peak in the 1840s and 1850s, the South Union community had about 350 members and owned 6,000 acres of land. The Shakers raised prize livestock and seeds and made brooms, bonnets, preserves, kerchiefs (from silk produced by their own mulberry trees), cheesecloth, carpets, and other products, many of which were sold as far away as New Orleans to support the community. They even ran a hotel, the Shaker Tavern, for the last 30 years of the 19th century.

In other Shaker settlements with African-American members, the houses were racially integrated. But as Giles correctly depicts in her novel, the South Union community maintained a separate house for its black family—apparently to avoid the wrath of the neighbors, since southwestern Kentucky was generally pro-slavery and, during the Civil War, pro-South.

Because the Shakers were celibate, they relied on recruitment of new converts to sustain their way of life. They also took in orphans and raised them in the Shaker faith, but most of those children left on reaching adulthood. Recruiting became more and more difficult as the 19th century wore on, and both Kentucky Shakertowns were heavily affected by the Civil War, with crops, animals, and even buildings confiscated. By the dawn of the 20th century, the Shaker experiment in communal living was dying. The South Union community was broken up in 1922, and the last Shaker living at Pleasant Hill died the following year.

Online Resources:

The Great Revival

The Believers also portrays a great religious awakening that began in Kentucky’s Logan County in 1800 and swept through the South over the next five years. A Presbyterian minister named James McGready, whose congregation included churches at Gasper River, Muddy River, and Red River, invited two fiery Methodist preachers named John and William McGee to take part in a joint service. The McGees were overcome with emotion during the service, and many worshippers were caught up in the shouting and frenzy. Convinced that they had been given a sign that a time of great awakening was at hand, the three ministers began holding mass meetings. People flocked from miles around, often camping out for days to hear the preaching.

As the movement spread, the manifestations of the spirit felt by participants escalated from shouting and crying to jerking movements, fainting, and speaking in tongues. Eventually most Presbyterians, along with more conservative Baptists, withdrew from the revivals. But the fervor laid the foundation for various Southern evangelical denominations—and made Kentucky seem a ripe territory for recruitment by groups such as the Shakers.

One of the largest camp meetings, at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County in 1801, is credited as the origin point for the Christian Church and Disciples of Christ. The Cane Ridge Meeting House is still an active church, and is believed to be the largest one-room log structure in the country. Located on KY 537 off US 460, the site also includes a museum.


The earthquake experienced by Rebecca and her fellow Shakers in The Believers would have been part of the New Madrid quakes, which began on December 16, 1811—four years after the gathering at South Union—and continued for almost a year. The quakes were centered in the area where Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas come together and make up the greatest sequence of earthquakes ever recorded in North America. Two settlements in Missouri and one in Arkansas were destroyed, far western Kentucky experienced landslides and subsidence, and structural damage was noted as far away as Louisville and Maysville. The Virtual Times has a map of the quakes and links to eyewitness accounts.

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