By the time the American Revolution broke out, it was clear that James Jewett marched to the beat of his own drum. Living in Hopkinton, N.H., in 1776, he refused to sign the association test.
The Continental Congress, having opened hostilities with Great Britain, directed each colony to have its citizens sign a document. It declared allegiance to the new American government. Though they varied somewhat, a representative sample of the test declared the signer would risk life and fortune to oppose the British. The documents’ purpose was to show Congress acted with the peoples’ support.
Those who refused to sign had a number of reasons. Some were ardent loyalists. Others declined for fear that doing so would cripple their business interests. And some noted that while they would not themselves sign they had paid for a soldier to serve in their stead.
Some, like James Jewett, were pacifists.
The treatment of the non-signers varied. In some colonies, citizens faced the threat of beatings and violence if they didn’t sign. In most of the colonies, only those who expressed their support for Britain received any penalty. Often they were pressured to leave.
James Jewett started life in Rowley, Mass., in 1745. He would later move to Exeter, N.H., and then Hopkinton, N.H. After the Revolution, he moved to Enfield, N.H., ,where he worked as a laborer.
In 1793 he was working on a stone bridge in Enfield when he encountered Zadok Wright. Wright, a Shaker from Vermont, traveled with several other Shakers.
Jewett had been searching for a different way of life. So he invited the men to his home on the hillside in Enfield. There, the tenets of the Shaker life so appealed to Jewett and his wife Molly that they converted to Shakerism. They also founded the Shaker colony – the ninth of 18 eventually established.
He found Shaker practices attractive. They included equality of the sexes and races, celibacy, pacifism and communal ownership of property to create a heaven on earth.
So for the next 11 years, the Jewett family home hosted services and Shaker gatherings, which attracted large crowds.
Jewett Family History
The Jewett family history tells of some of his experiences:
“The wicked lookers-on of that day called these zealous souls by many nick-names, among which were the “New Lights,” “Come Outers ” and “Merry Dancers.” Stories were circulated of the queer things that were done by the Shakers. Some of these were black stories and some were shaded to suit the company that listened. Sometimes they were more mirthful than malicious.
“The Shakers now held their hour of worship at the residence of James Jewett. Here the faithful and unfaithful congregate. For 11 years the old “Shaker Hill ” resounded with more singing and shouting and shaking than has ever been heard, since that date, throughout the whole town of Enfield. In those meetings, the voice of God was the voice of the people.
“It was quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. To attend this meeting men and women would travel for miles. In summer it was on foot or on horseback, and in winter it was sometimes on an ox sled.
“James Jewett had a singular visitor from the State of Maine. … He called on his New Light brother Jewett, and received faith.
“This man says he was suddenly taken from his chair by some unknown power and spun like a top. He whirled out of the house, down to the shore of the Mascoma Lake, and then back to the same place again. This confirmed him in his faith and he became a zealous preacher of the gospel. It was an odd way to ordain a minister, and yet no more singular than it was to strike a man with blindness and throw him to the ground, in order to convert him.”
James Jewett became a zealous advocate of the new religion, and he opened his house to all who embraced the faith. According to the family history, “to this day his name rests upon the memory without a tarnish, and the Society in Enfield speak of him with deep affection.”
Jewett practiced Shakerism until his death in 1804. The Shaker community continued to grow and prosper long after his death. It grew to hundreds of members who managed more than 200 buildings over 3,000 acres of land.
The community finally faded away in 1923, though a museum still exists at the site.
[Note: An alert reader notes the Jewett family history got a few things slightly wrong. Shakers weren’t New Light Baptists or Come-Outers, and the religious ceremony lasted more than an hour.]
Images: Enfield Shaker Historic District By Neil.m.young – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21584227.
This story was updated in 2022.