That’s what makes the following letter by Caleb Callaway (1761–1829) so valuable. Tucked away in one of the sprawling notebooks of John Dabney Shane, s nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister and amateur historian, is a brief note that Callaway penned to his brother-in-law, James French, during the summer of 1811. At the time, Callaway had been living for two years at the Gaspar River (later South Union) Shaker village near Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Callaway provided a detailed exposition of the “faith and manner of life that I now live.” Like many western revivalers and recent Shaker converts, he believed he was living in an extraordinary new dispensation in which “Christ has made his 2nd and last appearance into the world.” Interestingly, Callaway did not associate the Christ’s return with the figure of Shaker founder Ann Lee. But he did presume, as did all Shakers, that Christ was not a man but rather an inward principle, an “anointing of the Holy Ghost,” available to all of the “sons of God.” For those who crucified the flesh, gloried in the celibate “cross of Christ,” forsook all “natural relations,” and devoted themselves to the communal life of the Shakers, it was possible to “live a holy life” on earth “clear from sin, from day to day,” with a “peace & union the world knows nothing of.” And that choice was voluntary, as Callaway explained in the final lines of the letter. “Salvation is free for every soul,” he encouraged his brother-in-law, “they may choose or refuse it. All are free Agents as to that.” Utterly confident in the rightness of his new Shaker faith, Callaway proclaimed he would not “exchange my present situation, for the whole world.” He concluded the letter with an exhortation: “Come and see us, and know for yourself.”
Callaway’s crooked road to Shakerism began in what is now Bedford County, Virginia. He was born in 1761, the son Richard and his first wife, Frances Walton. The elder Callaway had fought in the Seven Years War, and he later joined Daniel Boone in blazing the Wilderness Road to Kentucky. Caleb spent his early years at Fort Boonesborough, where he witnessed the capture of his sister and the death and mutilation of his father at the hands of the Shawnee. Early in the 1780s, Caleb sold his share in his father’s lands and lucrative ferry operation, returned to southwestern Virginia, and married Elizabeth Callaway, his first cousin once removed. He appeared regularly on the Virginia property tax rolls for Campbell County during the next two decades, slowly rising through the ranks of society as he accumulated material goods and enslaved servants. The Callaways had at least seven children between 1784 and 1802. Then, in 1804, Elizabeth died unexpectedly—“passed away to the Summerland,” according to later Shaker records—and Caleb vanished.
Some evidence suggests that Callaway moved his family to North Carolina. Or he may have fallen on hard times and sought refuge with relatives. But when he resurfaced in Ohio County, Kentucky, five years later, Callaway was a changed man. Like so many of his contemporaries, he had passed through the fires of the Great Revival and been transformed. According to Shaker missionary Benjamin Seth Youngs, who encountered him for the first time on June 1, 1809, Callaway had joined the Halcyon Church, one of the most peculiar religious sects of the early American republic. Founded around 1806 in Marietta, Ohio, by a quixotic prophet named Abel Morgan Sargeant, the Halcyons renounced the traditional Christian doctrine of the trinity, rejected Calvinism, and advocated universal salvation. Denounced as an imposter by his opponents, Sargeant claimed to communicate with angels; he traveled throughout the Ohio Valley with a group of twelve female apostles; and he exhorted his small group of followers to live “without sin” and “become so holy as to work miracles, heal the sick and live without eating.”
Following his encounter with Youngs and the Shakers, Callaway abandoned the Halcyons and moved with family to the newly organized Shaker settlement at Gaspar River in Logan County, Kentucky. The following year he wrote to James French explaining his new faith.
Callaway’s two-decade life among a Shakers was uneventful, although not without challenges. In 1815, he indentured his three teenage sons, John Constant, Henry, and William, to the believers at South Union, who agreed to provide food, lodging, education, and trade skills until the boys turned twenty-one. John Constant remained with the Shakers until his death in 1830, as did a daughter, Matilda, who lived into the 1880s. Caleb’s other two sons, along with their two older brothers, Elijah and Elisha, left South Union in 1818. Callaway occasionally traveled on business for the believers and worked in their various mill complexes. In 1827, he was listed among the 75 brothers and sisters of the “Junior Order” who were living in the East Family dwelling house. Callaway died on the morning of July 8, 1829, and was buried the following day in an unmarked grave in the Shaker cemetery at South Union.