The Seeker by Ann Gabhart is romance. Fans of Gone with the Wind will no doubt eat up the opening party scene on the verge of the American Civil War. The female lead, Charlotte Vance, daughter of a Kentucky state senator, has all the spunk of Scarlet O’Hara as well as her love for the land. There is even a Rhet Butler character who steals passionate kisses in the rose garden, but from there the story takes completely different directions since Charlotte is much more of a thinker than Scarlet ever was..
Gabhart knows the Shakers well (This is not her only Shaker title), and she presents them with sympathy. I find myself identifying with their values of simplicity, peace, equality and hard work, and yet from a Biblical standpoint, they were heretics. They believed their founder, Ann Lee, was the second coming of Christ in female form. After all, if God made both male and female in his image, he must be feminine as well as masculine. This gender equality sounds very twenty-first century, but elevating Mother Ann to the level of Christ and praying to her as well as the Eternal Father is blasphemous to any biblical Christian.
Gabhart presents some Shakers as grim; others as finding serenity in the Shaker way of life. Edwin, Charlotte’s intended at the beginning of the book, blossoms and seems to find confidence in a way that he never had, growing up in his grandmother’s shadow. But as Charlotte’s former maid, Mellie, says, “We’d best keep our eyes fastened on Jesus till we know more about this Mother Ann and her spirit fruit.” (p.162)
In preparation for writing my own historical novel, I have been researching the 1550s, when Mary Tudor tried to return England to the Roman Catholic Church. She is a tragic figure to my mind, rejected by the father who had adored her as a small child and abandoned by her Spanish husband. She turned to violent oppression when her people did not embrace the faith she had suffered for under both her father and her brother. Nearly 300 Protestants were burned at the stake at Mary’s direction. But my own Protestant sensibilities are embarrassed to find that some of those died screaming curses at Mary and their executioners. Some were arrested for disrupting church services to shout that the worshippers were going to hell for idolatry. One even attacked a priest with a knife during the Mass. Although I agree with the theology these martyrs died for, I can’t condone violence or screaming damnation. Nor do I anticipate that such behavior brought one “idolater” to repentance any more than burning a Koran has brought any Muslim to Christ.
So how is right thinking related to righteous behavior? "By their fruits you will know them," Christ said. The Shaker's reputation for peace, a strong work ethic and feeding the hungry (serving 14,000 meals in one day after the Battle of Perryville!) has been handed down for more than a century, yet they were guilty of gross heresy. (They were also known for the “lively” worship that gave them their popular name and the weird doctrine forbidding marriage, which played no small part in their dying out.)
Gabhart doesn’t examine the question theologically. She presents people with strengths and weaknesses, joys and pain, growing as they interact with one another in the context of a Shaker village and a terrible war. She left me with a great deal to think about.