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Mr. Lincoln's Chair -Reviews

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"The Civil War struck America's Shaker communities with all the violence of a hurricane. Through the dramatic story of two worlds in collision, author Anita Sanchez gives illuminating insights into the nature of each. As she unfolds the story of the Shakers' quest to spur President Abraham Lincoln to grant them conscientious objector status, the reader realizes how critically important to our nation is the legacy of a people who are too often dismissed as merely being the makers of nice chairs. Vivid and beautifully written, this book is a wonderful introduction to the history, faith, culture, and heritage of the Shakers, who have been interacting with and quietly influencing the mainstream culture of the United States for over 230 years while most Americans were unaware it was even happening." - Darryl Thompson, Shaker historian and historical interpreter

Anita Sanchez, in her newest work, Mr. Lincoln's Chair: The Shakers and Their Quest for Peace, has juxtaposed the history of the United Society of Believers (the Shakers) and one of the most traumatic events in American history, the Civil War. The basic premise of the book is to illustrate the pacifist nature of the Shakers through their efforts to convince President Abraham Lincoln to grant the sect conscientious-objector status during the Civil War.

The Shakers, the longest-surviving utopian religious group in the United States, is often remembered simply for their architecture and their handmade objects that fill museums and antique shops. Sanchez uses one of the objects the Shakers are most famous for, chairs, to show a deeper historical meaning. When President Lincoln agreed to rescind draft notices of Shaker Brethren from military duty, the Shakers sent him a gift of gratitude: a Shaker chair specifically designed for the president. This exchange may seem obscure to some, but Sanchez has recognized its historical importance. It is symbolic of the Shaker desire to remain detached from the world (and its conflicts) while at the same time engaging in the outside world in trade and reform movements. Throughout the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, the Shakers sold their products in surrounding markets. They also, as Sanchez points out, engaged in a variety of reform movements, such as dietary reform, the women's movement, and especially the peace movement. The author makes an extra effort to show that the Shakers were not completely isolated from the events that were affecting the United States. As battles raged around their scattered villages, the Shakers recognized that the Civil War was tearing at the foundations of American society and threatening the Shaker way of life also. When the draft notices arrived in Shaker villages, the leaders realized that if the Brethren fought in this war, it would contradict the Shaker believe in nonviolence and bring into the quiet Shaker village the turmoil surrounding the war.

Sanchez painstakingly gives her readers an overview of Shaker history and their quest for peace, beginning with the first group that arrived in the 1700s amidst the stirrings of the American Revolution. Persecuted for being "loyalists," this early group, led by founder Ann Lee, stood their ground and refused to take sides. Elders Frederick Evans and Benjamin Gates followed that example when they met with President Lincoln to solicit release of Shaker men from military service. As they made their case in Washington, D.C., Henry Blinn, a Shaker recently drafted and whom Sanchez focuses much of her narrative on, anxiously awaits the news about his future. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to living out the Shaker principles but who might be forced to engage in one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

Mr. Lincoln's Chair: The Shakers and Their Quest for Peace is a wonderful piece of historical literature for those who want to know more about the Shakers as well as for those who consider themselves Shaker aficionados. It also gives an interesting insight into Civil War history by connecting this religious group to the larger issue of Civil War objectors. - Book Reviews, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, byWendy R. Benningfield, Winter 2009, Vol. 107 No. 1

A captivating, well-researched historical chronicle written to appeal to readers of all backgrounds, highly recommended. - Midwest Book Review, Small Press Bookwatch, May 2009

"In the Preface, author Anita Sanchez describes how her first personal encounter with the Shakers began 'with a lamp, hanging in the polished hallway of a Shaker Dwelling House.' From such a simple beginning at Hancock Shaker Village 'on that sunny October afternoon' has come an intriguing and insightful new book on the humble yet nonetheless powerfully influential story of the Shakers.

Formally called The United Society of Believers in Christ's Seconing Appearing, the World commonly referred to them as Shakers because of their energetic worship services. They lived at Hancock, Massachusetts, from the 1780s until 1960. Here they created a Heaven on Earth, a utopian community where they put into daily practice their religious beliefs and developed a new social structure, in order to live a principled life. They consecrated themselves to their ideas of pacifism, gender and racial equality, simplicity, innovation, perfection, respect for the land, spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood, and the creation of an overall sustainable community lifestyle.

They called their village at Hancock The City of Peace, and incorporated into their lifestyle a number of social justice ideals familiar to American society today. Some of these notions were disturbingly unfamiliar, unconventional, and radical for much of America and indeed the World at the time--including pacifism and equality. In addition to the elimination of violence of any kind, in their villages the Shakers also practiced spiritual and temporal equality for all. They were commited to creating a whole system of life where all individuals would be enabled to be at peace with their communal brethren and sisters, with their spirituality, with their work, with the land and with nature, and with themselves. This Shaker quest from the past continues to resonate with society today.

At the end of her book, in the Epilogue, the author recognizes how most people today, when thinking of the Shakers, usually refer to the superbly designed, simple, and functional furniture, such as the chair they presented to Mr. Lincoln. Indeed, Shaker furniture and material culture offer a wonderful legacy for which the Shakers are rightfully renowned. However, the author quickly and correctly proceeds to the oft-missed next step, declaring: 'but the Shakers are about so much more than furniture.' During the Civil War, perhaps the most violent and trying time in our nation's history, President Lincoln clearly recognized and appreciated the ideals of principled living hidden in plain sight within the Shakers' chairs. The author explores this dynamic in an exhaustingly researched and well-written work, with an in-depth yet easy to absorb manner.

The message the Shakers offered to Lincoln and indeed to the World was particularly poignant in those turbulent times, and demonstrated how the integrity and idealism of an unassuming group of unique and unusual Americans could positively influence such World-altering people and events. Yes, indeed, 'the Shakers are about so much more than furniture.' This book also puts forth the intriguing proposition that perhaps someday the World might realize, as have the Shakers for more than two centuries, that equality can yet be about so much more than just the freeing of slaves, and pacifism can yet be about so much more than simply the absence of war." - Todd Burdick, Director of Education, Hancock Shaker Village

"In August 1863 Henry C. Blinn, a Shaker in the Canterbury, N.H., community, received a notice of being 'legally drafted into the service of the United States for the period of Three years.'  Author Anita Sanchez uses this message for the
thread interweaving the history, beliefs and achievements of the Shakers. 

Since Edward Andrews' 1933 exhibition catalogue, The Community Industries of the Shaker, America's most enduring and successful communal group has been the subject of many books.  Most have focused on one part of the Shaker way of life such as furniture or music.  Mr. Lincoln's Chair utilizes Lincoln's thank you [letter] for the gift of a chair to lift up the Shakers quest for recognition as conscientious objectors.  But the book is more an overview of the historic Shakers.  It is a brief narrative that encompasses the total of the Shakers' experience. 

Well foot-noted, Mr. Lincoln's Chair is an excellent introduction to the Shakers." - Charles R. Muller, author of 'The Shaker Way' and co-author of 'The Shaker Chair'

"Sanchez cleverly uses this unusual gift [a chair for President Lincoln] as the center for her story, which encompasses the Shakers' history from their first settlement in America to the present. Mr. Lincoln's Chair begins with the little-known fact that on August 11, 1863, the Shakers learned that four Brothers, including Elder Henry Blinn from Canterbury, New Hampshire, had been drafted to serve in the Union Army for three years. This was shocking news to a group whose belief system emphasized peace and nonviolence. Mr. Lincoln's Chair documents how the Shakers--who were often ahead of the times--responded and how their response affected the nation.

In her conversational prose, Sanchez provides the context surrounding this historical event. She engages our interest as she re-creates the sights, smells, and sounds the Shakers must have experienced. The result is a colorful account of what might have been. She imagines, for example, that on the day Blinn reports for duty, he hears morning birdsong and catches a whiff of apple pies baking in the oven. This prose provides very pleasant reading. We have to realize, however, that the scenes she depicts are conjectural, and some are incorrect.

Sanchez covers the Shakers' 235-year history in less than two hundred pages. Her text includes a map showing Shaker settlements and descriptions of the former villages, the remaining active community at Sabbathday Lake, and the museums in America that also carry on their legacy. The index is inadequate, but the footnotes are conveniently placed at the back of each chapter. The attractive layout and Joan Jobson's illustrations are easy on the eye... Sanchez's bibliography includes a respectable ist of primary and secondary sources.

...For the first time reader about Shaker history, however, the book succeeds as a general summary. Sanchez's engaging style will inspire the novice to read more." - Mary Rose Boswell, Book Reviewier for Historical New Hampshire, Volume 63, No. 2, Fall 2009.

"... If you are like me, you figured that the Shakers were a religious movement that apparently came and went, leaving behind a clean-lined furniture style and some historic settlements. This book made me aware of the other, more enduring legacies of this once thriving group.

The list of their accomplishments is long. The Shakers were forerunners in the rights of women, minorities, children, and animals, believing that all are created equal and deserve respect. The World, the Shakers' term for those not following Mother Ann, represented dirt and things unclean, both inside and out. It is no wonder that this progressive group concerned themselves with clean homes, clean water, clean air, and health care reforms like banning tobacco and attention to food safety.

The Shakers were even leaders in business administration. Alduts were allowed to rotate through different jobs until they found one that suited them, thus avoiding burnout. A select group of Shakers worked with The World to market their seeds, household items, food stuff and well-made furniture. A case in point, the company that makes Goretex models their production plan after the Shakers' understanding that smaller work communities help maintain quality control and cohesion.

..., the Shakers were always on the lookout for ways to make their tasks easier and more efficient. Their barns were designed for the comfort of the animals as well as the workers. Their communities were often the first in the area to have toilets, running water, electricity, industrial washing machines and even cars.

I'm glad that Sanchez ends Mr. Lincoln's Chair with a list of the Shaker sites, some abandoned, some repurposed, and some still functioning, perhaps not as working Shaker communities but as snapshots to a time....This is a book worth reading" - Rhana S. Paris, Outreach Coordinator, National Association for Interpretation-Region 3 Newsletter, Spring 2010.