The Perfect Man

Visitors to the Harvard Shaker Historic Village District in Harvard, Massachusetts can still see many of the historically preserved buildings that mark the oldest Shaker settlement in Massachusetts and the second oldest in the United States.   Though the property had long since passed from the hands of the original Shakers, the buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 because of their place in history.   Of these, the historic Square House, built in 1769, remains the cornerstone of the settlement due to its connection with Mother Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, and many of her early followers (known as Mother's First Born).

But the Square House actually predates the Shakers, having been built by the followers of renegade preacher Shadrack Ireland, someone who has been largely ignored by history.   Which seems a pity considering that Ireland was likely one of the most bizarre religious leaders in the history of the United States (quite an honour given the competition).   Ireland was especially memorable  for the strange circumstances of his life, the relationship he had with his follower, and what happened to his body after his death.

Though little is known about Ireland's early life, one of the few facts available was that he worked as a pipe maker in Charlestown, Massachusetts where he had a wife and six children.    Described as a "strange secretive man and full of fancies", Ireland underwent a religious conversion sometime in the 1750s.  Though he had been part of the First Great Awakening and a New Light preacher, Ireland's revelations about religion put him in a class by himself. 

According to his own account, Ireland's spiritual journey began in the spring of 1753 when he "experienced such a change, both in body and in mind, that he was become perfect and immortal, and a number more with him."   Abandoning his wife and family, he moved to Grafton, Massachusetts where he gathered a group of followers, not least of which was Sarah Prentice, the wife of a fellow Reverend, Solomon Prentice.   Among various teachings that upset the sensibilities of many of his neighbours was Ireland's insistence on strict abstinence from all sex for anyone not deemed to be "perfect".   For those who were perfect though (including Ireland), they were to marry "divinely chosen partners" and produce "sinless children."  

Ireland quickly became notorious, both for his pretensions and his taking of "spiritual wives."  This began with a woman named Abigail Lougee and eventually Sarah Prentice as well.   The publicity drove him out of Grafton and he eventually settled in Harvard, Massachusetts where the largest group of his followers were located.   It was there that he personally constructed the Square House where he would live for the rest of his life. 

Despite lurid rumours of what Ireland and his followers were up to in their closed community,  he continued to attract followers, many of whom visited him in Harvard for spiritual advice.   Though his "spiritual wife" Sarah was second in command of the community, she still remained in contact with her original husband (even if she insisted on addressing him as her "brother" and denied any carnal association with him or anyone else).   Solomon Prentice was certainly not happy with this state of affairs and there are reports suggesting that he beat her on several occasions.   This led to his being fired from his job as preacher and being unable to find a new post.   Through it all, Sarah and Solomon would remain married until his death.

As for Sarah, guided by Ireland's teachings, she declared herself immortal and uncorruptable like her mentor and the rest of his strange congregation.  They continued to live at the Square House though Shadrack became increasingly paranoid as he grew older.   What exactly he was afraid of is open to speculation though he kept regular vigil from a special place near the roof of the house.  Not only was this safe place only reachable using a secret staircase, Ireland also had a bell that he could ring to give an alarm.   When he wasn't in his bolt hole, he spent his time on a nearby hill where he preached to his followers (but still able to keep watch).

As he grew older, he also provided his followers with strict instructions relating to what they should do if his "spirit left his body."   Since he insisted that he was immortal,  any appearance of death would be strictly temporary and his followers needed to be certain not to bury the body by mistake.   This odd congregation continued to function despite the political upheavals that were affecting the American colonies at the time.  Though rumours kept flying about what was happening in the small community (including stories about orgies, etc.),  Ireland's followers managed just fine.

Until of course, their "immortal" leader died in 1788.  According to one account describing what occurred:  "The night he died he walked the floor in great distress of mind and groaning with deep groans. He said, 'I feel the wrath of God.' . . . Abigail Lougee called Abigail Cooper to get up and light a light. They got a light as quick as they could, but he was gone when they got to him, as I understand."   

Ireland's death marked a major crisis of faith for his small circle of followers.   There was also the more basic question of what to do with the body afterward.   Would their leader stay dead or would his spirit return to it?    Eventually, they decided to wait and see what would happen next.   Unfortunately, in an era before embalming, this was probably not the best thing to do with a dead body.    As his followers kept a constant vigil, the smell became bad enough that some of them were forced to flee the bedroom.  Eventually, Ireland's body was placed in a white coffin and kept in the Square House cellar for another few months of waiting.   After a year, he was eventually buried in an unmarked grave nearby.  

With the fall of their immortal leader, Ireland's small community was left devastated.   Though another disciple, David Hoar, ran things for a while, it was the arrival of Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, who truly put an end to Ireland's immortal dream.   Lee, who had immigrated to New York along with some of her followers, became quite successful in winning over disaffected churchgoers throughout New England.   This included Shadrack Ireland's group and she converted many of them, including Ireland's "spiritual wife", Abigail Lougee.  

To win over the Perfectionists, Ann was emphatic in denouncing Shadrack Ireland and what he had promised them.   As she told Ireland's followers,  "You are old people now, all of you, and you think you will never die.  Look at yourselves!  You carry about you all the marks of mortality, just as other people do.  Your skins are wrinkled, your hair turns while and is falling; your eyesight is failing;  you are losing your teeth and your bodies are growing feeble. "   1509180_orig[1]

Shortly afterward, the Shakers purchased the Square House in which Ann then took up residence.  This led to a rather bizarre episode soon after she moved into the house.   According to Harvard Shaker records, Ann was reportedly awakened by Shadrack Ireland's ghost and, as she later told her followers, "Shadrack Ireland is here.  He began in the spirit and ended in the most total darkness of the flesh."   To banish the ghost, she and her followers "went into the labors or danced" with the shaking dancing that earned them their name.   This apparently worked since Ireland was never heard from since.  

The Square House became the centre of the Harvard Shaker community and Shadrack Ireland was nothing more than a troubling memory afterward.   By then, most of his followers had become Shakers, and their search for immortality was apparently over.  

As for Shadrack Ireland, he remains virtually forgotten except as a footnote in the history of the Shakers.  His body is still somewhere on the grounds of the Harvard Shaker village presumably though nobody knows where it was buried.    A sad end for a "perfect" man. 



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