The Believers is a great story that includes some real insights into frontier life in Kentucky, the Scots-Irish Calvinism/Presbyterianism of the rural folk, the bits and pieces of classical education some were privileged to have, and the effects of the more unusual offshoots of the Second Great Awakening.
Under men like James McGready in Kentucky and Asahel Nettleton back in the east, the Second Great Awakening was used to revive churches and reach the lost. But there were far more unusual and unorthodox and American-grown offshoots from the revival movement. In the book, there is some mention that Pastor Rankin, the circuit riding Presbyterian, had aligned himself with the New Lights. Things go down from there because he manages to persuade the Richard and Rebecca Cooper to move to the county in Kentucky where things were happening.
Very clearly, the religious emotionalism and fervor of the frontier revival created shock waves among the faithful. The more traditional Christian churches were viewed as less spiritual, and the church members’ salvation was questioned unless they were experiencing some of the physical manifestations of the revivalists.
In time, Shaker missionaries show up and families start joining the Shaker Movement and adhering to the teachings of Mother Ann Lee. Shakers are a religious oddity and curiosity among most Americans today. People tour the old Shaker communities. The song “Simple Gifts” is often remembered and enjoyed. One would be prone to think that they were a short-lived, but generally pleasant religious community that existed in a utopian society for a time and then disappeared. As brought out in the novel, there were plenty of good-hearted and honest folk in the Shaker community, but the community as a whole was tyrannical and controlling of both thought and actions.
In the story, Rebecca is the central character and narrator. (Her mother, Hannah Fowler is the subject of a prequel to this book titled Hannah Fowler.) Rebecca loves her husband dearly, and they both are devastated by the loss of two stillborn babies. Richard decides it is a judgment of God, so he abandons home and farm and takes his wife to join first a more “moderate” religious group. Then he is convinced that the Shaker way is the right way.
The key conflict now arises: Shakers don’t believe in marriage. Married couples are separated when they join the group. (Profound Thought: Maybe this is why this group failed to survive.)
Rebecca’s life in the Shaker community comprises the bulk of the story. She is a dutiful woman, mislead, but not suppressed in mind and spirit. This is truly the conflict of someone who wants to do what is right and traditional (as in obeying her husband), but is conflicted by what that involves.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I must admit that as a Christian of Presbyterian and Reformed persuasion. I kept wanting to step into the book and bring “chapter and verse” to those both oppressed by and indulging in Shaker beliefs.
My question is this: Why isn’t this woman’s books, especially this novel, out there in more places? I cannot wait for my wife and hopefully for my daughters to read it. It ranks up there with books like Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and others where strong women fight to survive.
This book will not be, Lord willing, my only Janice Holt Giles novel to read. The one next on the list for me is Run Me a River.