Bethiah Prescott Willard

A Short Biography: Bethiah Prescott Willard, Harvard Shaker  (1758-1832)

by Roben Campbell, Shaker researcher

 

Bethiah Willard is best known as the sister who leapt on the back of Father William during the horrific whipping scene that occurred in 1783.[1] She was born Bethiah Prescott in Westford, and married Jeremiah Willard, a prosperous farmer living in the northeaster part of Harvard in 1779.[2] Jeremiah and Bethiah united with Mother Ann and the Elders in 1781, and were chosen by Mother Ann to accompany her back to Watervliet.[3]

Bethiah served the community as the Church family deaconess from 1791 until 1826.[4] She was in charge of the sisters’ work, the spinning, weaving, dyeing, making clothing and sundry other items for the community and for sale.

In 1819 Bethiah traveled to Alfred to be doctored for cancer. No other information was noted, although the treatment apparently was successful.[5]

Bethiah penned several recollection, and many others mention her. The first below is Bethia’s account of what it took to be a Shaker:

I am thankful that you are engaged in so good a work, young brethren & sisters, laboring to overcome and subdue the enemy of your souls. You will find you have a great work to do before you find full redemption from a fallen nature. You will have to travel in tribulation and mortification, yea you will find that the work of redemption is a real heart work. If you should shake till you shake the flesh off of your bones, that would not do the work, unless you come down into the valley of humiliation, and repent and cry to god. Not but what shaking is a good gift and is a help. I have found by experience that the travel of the soul in the gospel is in tribulation, I never was sensible of gaining one step in any other way.[6]

The second is Harvard Elder John Warner’s account of the hostility and abuse the Shakers received from the townspeople of Harvard and Shirley when Father James was shipped in 1783. This account also includes the Shaker response, which is usually not included.

Elders James and William had come from Shirley to the house where Mother Ann lived, and were followed by the mob, who “enquired for the Elders, but having no answer, they soon rallied up stairs and found them, took hold of them and conducted them to this place, the Believers following them. They then tied Father James’ hands up strech’d to the limb of a tree, strip’d him to his shirt, and whip’d him very severely till his back was covered with wounds and a number of places bruised to a jelly. He made no resistance, but bore it, very patiently, — They then released him, and took Father William to serve him in like manner, but he turned to them, and said, with great confidence and power, ‘I will not be tied, but I will kneel down and take what God pleases to let you give me.’ He then knelt down and they began, but had not struck a few blows when Bethiah sprung on to his back and took the blows. – Some of the mob instantly struck her over one of her eyes, which caused her eyes to turn very black – and some of them tried to extricate her from his back, but said they could not do it. They continued whiping till they had given her a severe whiping and then left off. After they had got up, Father Calvin told the mob to look and see what they had done to this woman …. [he] then opened the gospel to them in plain language, and they soon began to disperse, and left the Believers. After they had gone the Believers started to return, and when they came into a valley on their way they all kneeled down in sorrow and pray’d for their persecutors that they might be forgiven for they knew not what they did. They then returned to Jeremiah Willard,s where they started from, the distance of half a mile[7].”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] August 10, 1832, Letter from ministry, Harvard, MA to Lebanon, WRHS.IV.A.f.21.

[2] p. 236, Nourse, Henry, History of Harvard, MA.

[3] ‘Incidents Related by Jemima Blanchard of her experience and intercourse withMother and the Elders Written’, Collected and recorded by Roxelana Grosvenor, unnumbered, the left side of ninth sheet, in the Manuscript Collection at WRHS.VI.B.9.

[4] Harvard Shaker Record Book, section on leadership succession, in the Manuscript Collection at Fruitlands Museum FM 1.8, 102 Prospect Hill Road, Harvard, MA 01451.

[5] August 19, 1819, in the Harvard Record Book, in the Shaker Manuscript Collection at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.

[6] ‘Spoken by Bethia Prescott [Willard] after the brethren and sisters had been warring with great zeal’, from the Manuscript Collection at WRHS.VI.B.8, unnumbered, 1831.

[7] September the 6th 1827, “Elder John’s Sayings”, from the Shaker manuscript collection at the Western Reserve Historical Society, in Sermons and Addresses(VII) WRHS.VII:B-18, pp. 191-193.

 

 

 

 

All rights reserved. © Roben Campbell, 2016.