Abijah Worster

 

A Short Biography: Abijah Worster, Harvard Shaker  (1745-1841)

by Roben Campbell, Shaker researcher

 

Abijah Worster had many gifts as a Shaker. He was one of Mother Ann Lee’s closest disciples in Harvard and accompanied her in her travels. With another brother from Harvard, Abiathar Eddy, he helped make Mother Ann’s coffin in Watervliet.[1] After her death, Abijah returned to Lebanon and Watervliet to help gather the Church, where he helped prepare the paint for the inside of the first house, and instructed the brothers in the business of making twisted whipstocks. In 1791, he returned to Harvard with Father Eleazer Rand when the community formed, [2] and served as first the elder in the Church family from 1795 to 1808.[3]

Abijah was also gifted with longevity, and with the ability to record not only the events that happened, which help provide context for the background of all the early Shakers but also his devotion to Mother Ann.  His own biography begins:

Harvard, Mass was the place of my Nativity. I lived with my Parents till my ninth Year, my Father Dying, I was put out to Strangers where I suffered many hardships: and by unkind dealings I lost my health, by which I have sufferd many Privations, and have had to wade through many hardships.[4]

And so, his travels began, and his search for the sort of solace that religion usually provides. He tried many of the new sects that had sprung up in the years after the  Great Awakening, but “found no solid rest for his soul.”[5] He returned to Harvard, joining the New Light Baptists under the direction of Shadrach Ireland, who believed in spiritual purity through celibacy and leading a simple life. Ireland had sought refuge in Harvard after being pursued by orthodox Christians for blasphemy. He built a dwelling called the Square House where the remains of the Shaker village are today. At the end of his life, Ireland became delusional, claiming that his body would rise again after death. It did not. When the stench became unbearable Abijah, with David Hoar, secretly buried Ireland’s body in a cornfield. Abijah’s only comment was that “he had begun in the Spirit, and ended in flesh.” [6]

Soon after this incident, Mother Ann and the Elders arrived. The following is Abijah’s account, which includes common phrases used again and again by the Shakers, the ‘operations of God’ and the ‘way of God’.

When Mother and the Elders came down to Harvard, I was not in haste to go and See them, until I heard that Harvard People were agoing to drive them off by a mob: thin I told Elijah Wilds, that I would go and See them, for there must be Something of God there, or else Satan would not bark So. I then Visited them several times, And saw nothing wrong among them, that was Counter to Innocence and Simplicity. But having tried So many ways, and found nothing but emptiness, I was desireous of Some Stronger Confirmation: and God in his deep Condesension to my weakness, Laid his Blessed Power upon me, and dropt me on my knees, where I was Shook like an Earthquake: and under this opperation, I was fully confirmd, that it was the way of God: and when the opperation ceased, I sought for Father James, and opened my wretched ungodly Life; [7]

 

The Marquis de Lafayette visited Mother Ann and the Shakers while at Watervliet. The following story was told about Lafayette’s curiosity about the operations of God.

Abijah was under great operations of the power of God. Lafayette seated himself by the side of Abijah, and when the shocks came upon him (which seemed to produce much the same effect as electricity) La Fayette would keep touching him, seeming to think he could feel it himself by so doing. Abijah said to him, “you appear to love the Power.” He replied, “It seems to be something to be desired.”[8]

Abijah was also blessed with the gift of healing, which came about in the following way. A young woman was brought to the door of death, and by a skillful physician pronounced incurable. She could not move, and her extremities were cold to the touch. Abijah felt compassion for this woman. He retired by himself and cried to God to know whether there might be a Gift of healing for her, and was answered that there was. He then laid his hands upon her, and felt a glow of warmth run through her frame and her extremities became warm. That evening she was able to go down to supper with the family.[9] At least one instance of healing is recorded in a Harvard day journal. Sarah Lucy Hanum had been sick for a month, and had a “most distressing paroxysism of disease.”[10] Abijah felt a gift of healing, and “she took hold in faith & arose from her sick bed.”[11]

More than anything else, Abijah expressed his devotion to Mother Ann, a devotion that transcended all cultural biases based on gender and tradition. A few of the couplets from his poem, entitled “Mother”, follow:

3. My Mother is a Joiner wise – She builds her spacious dome;

And all that trace her sacred ways – Will find a happy home.

4. My Mother is a Merchant man – She deals in goodly pearls

Those who receive her treasures are – More rich than kings & earls.

5. My Mother is a Treasurer – She keeps a boundless store;

To feed the feeble & the maimed  – The needy and the poor

11. My Mother is a fisherman – the deep she does explore;

She wisely caught me in her net – and brought me to the shore.

12. My Mother is a Farmer neat – She cultivates her farm;

To see her rich productions grow – It is a perfect charm.

13. My Mother is a Gardener – She sows her precious Seeds;

And by her cultivating hand – Destroys the noxious weeds.

14. My Mother is a Vine dresser – She wisely prunes her vine,

And every one will Mother bless – Who drinks her precious wine.

15. My Mother is a Tailoress – She forms the precious robe;

So rich a mantle can’t be found – Throughout this spacious globe.[12]

 

Mother Ann at Watervliet said; God does not look upon creatures according to their lost nature, but according to their desires after God.[13]

Mother Ann [said], you should make the way of God your occupation; the way of God is to be learned as much as a trade: you learn to have faith, learn to believe. A man that has a trade is industrious to work at it and get a living; and you ought to be as industrious, and as much engaged in the way of God.[14]

Said Br. Abijah, one day when speaking with Father James concerning revivals, he said, they were the operation of the spirit of God, but not the perfect work; but were sent to wake the people up, and to keep them from sinking down into total forgetfulness of the things of God. and I feel in my soul to call them the prolonging of God’s mercy.[15]

Br. Abijah heared Father James say at Shirley, be careful with whom you unite; for by uniting with those that are unsound, you may get their spirit upon you, and you will find it hard work to labor out of it, if you ever find the way out.[16]

Br. Abijah one time at Watervliet was in great sorrow; and kneeling down he laid his head upon Father James’ feet; and Father James said, O those blessed washings, how it frees the soul from condemnation.[17]

 Abijah Worster’s death was recorded in the following journal:

[His] funeral was a weighty and solemn meeting & especially so to the youngerly part, for altho he was 95 years old the 13th of July last, yet he had kept his reason and mental faculties clean & bright to the last, and has been a father and a friend to the young always ready and willing to comfort the afflicted, and instruct the young in the way they should go; and had gained their love in more than a common degree, but Alass tis done…[18]

 To close, the following interchange between Mother Ann and Br. Abijah is prescient and timely, considering the popularity of Shaker material culture in the antique world.

At a certain time, Br. Abijah speaking to Mother Ann of those words of scripture, “Their sound is gone out into all the earth; and their words to the end of the world;” Mother spoke and said; this gospel will go to the end of the world; and it will not be propagated so much by preaching, as by the good works of the people.[19]

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] Thomas Hammond Book, p. 125, WRHS.VII.B.22, Shaker Manuscript Collection, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, MA.

[2] My 13, 1791, A Book of Records of the Church of the United Society In Harvard Massachusetts Commencing January 1791, Shaker Manuscript Collection, Museum and Library at Old Chatham, New York.

[3] Harvard Church Record Book, FM 1.8 Leadership succession for the Elders, Shaker Manuscript Collection, Fruitlands Museum. Harvard, MA 01451.

[4] July 13, 1826, WRHS.VI.A.5, Biography

[5] Ibid, WRHS.VI.A.5

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.,

[8] This story appears almost identically in two sources for testimonies, those collected by Roxelana Grosvenor, who seems to be the first source, and those collected by Eunice Bathrick, who probably copied many of Roxelana’s testimonies. . RG p. 35L; and EB, pp. 108-109;

[9] Biography of Abijah Worster, WRHS.VI.A.5.

[10] February 15, 1825, and March 16, 1825, Day Journal of Joseph Hammond, FM 1.10, Shaker Manuscript Collection, Fruitlands Museum. Harvard, MA 01451.

[11] Ibid., March 19, 1825,

[12] “Mother,” not dated, but refers to to being 80 years old, which would be circa 1825, WRHS.VII:A-2.

[13] P. 7, TH bk

[14] p. 10 TH Bk

[15] P. 3 TH Book.

[16] P. 5 TH bk

[17] Ibid

[18] January 11, 1841, Journal of Grove Blanchard, FM 31.5, Shaker Manuscript Collection, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Mass.

[19] P. 3 Thomas Hammond Book, WRHS.VII.B.22.

 

 

 

 

All rights reserved. © Roben Campbell, 2016.