Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Tamara Van Dyken (Director), Lawrence Snyder, Glenn LaFantasie

Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


In 1807 the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (Shakers)
established a society near the Gasper River in Logan County, Kentucky. The society was soon named South Union, and it lasted until 1922, the longest-lasting Shaker community west of the Appalachians. Most of the first Shaker converts in Logan County had only a few years beforehand participated in a series of evangelical Presbyterian camp meetings known collectively as the Kentucky Revival, the Revival of 1800, or the Great Revival.Though Presbyterian revivalism and Shakerism shared certain characteristics (particularl millennialism and enthusiastic forms of worship), there were many differences between them as well; Shakerism was not necessarily a logical continuation of the Great Revival. So why did so many Scots-Irish Presbyterians in south-central Kentucky convert to Shakerism? How did conversion make sense to them? And how was Shaker conversion understood by those who did not convert? Through a close reading of primary sources, this thesis attempts to answer these questions. Shaker conversion is better understood as an interaction within a community rather than as a transaction between an individual and God. The decade or so preceding the establishment of South Union—the disestablishment of state churches, the mass migration to the trans-Appalachian west, the burgeoning market economy—was, for many Scots-Irish Presbyterians, a period of social disorder. This was especially true in south-central Kentucky, where the local Presbyterian establishment was riven by schism. The Great Revival was a brief but ultimately disappointing creation of an alternate community, a way of escape from the surrounding chaos. Shakerism offered the apotheosis of that alternate community. South Union was a camp meeting that never ended. However, the denizens of south-central Kentucky who did not convert to Shakerism were quite hostile to the new sect. They understood conversion as a form of betrayal, a renunciation of a community which they still identified with. This understanding became especially clear during a divorce case involving William and Sally Boler, in which William Boler’s rights as a man and a citizen became circumspect because of his conversion to Shakerism. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Shaker conversion has become less threatening to the outside world. Indeed, the popular imagination has co-opted South Union as quintessentially American. By reclaiming the Shakers from the margins of society, popular memory has effectively erased conversion from the Shaker story. After all, Shaker conversion was never as much about belief or even practice as it was about a distinct and separate community.


Christianity | Cultural History | History of Religions of Western Origin | Religion | United States History