Daughter of Robert and Hannah Gibbs White
The fourth of five children who survived infancy, Anna White was a daughter of Quakers and a relative of prominent New Englanders. She attended a Quaker boarding school at Poughkeepsie, New York. At eighteen, she rejoined her family in New York City, learned tailoring, and was trained by her mother in "systematic benevolence to the poor." White's father, however, was the principal influence on her life. A successful businessman, he shocked his family by joining the Shakers. Despite family opposition and disinheritance by an uncle, she followed her father into Shakerism in 1849 at New Lebanon, New York.
In 1865 she was made second (or assistant) eldress, and at the death of Eldress Mary Antoinette Doolittle in 1887, she became eldress, a position she held until death. Described as "cheerful and vigorous," practical and intellectual, White was at the same time committed to mystical experiences, especially spiritualism and faith-healing. An ardent reformer, she served as vice president of the Alliance for Peace and the National Council of Women in the U.S. and met with President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss international arbitration. An active feminist as well, she belonged to the National American Woman Suffrage Association and spoke before the Equal Rights Club of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1903.
With Eldress Leila S. Taylor, White wrote Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (1904), an authoritative history of Shakerism and the only published history by Shakers themselves. Written when Shakerism was rapidly dying out, the book seeks proselytes and puts the case for Shakerism before the world. According to the preface, "Shakerism presents a system of faith and a mode of life, which, during the past century, has solved social and religious problems and successfully established practical brotherhoods of industry, besides freeing women from inequality and injustice."
Despite its polemics, Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message is a valuable account of the origins of Shakerism, its early leaders and first societies, its movement westward, and its numerical growth. It explains the principles of Shakerism, its theology, and its advocacy of pacifism, celibacy, and communism. Further, the history provides an insider's view of the practical lives of the Shakers, of their industries and inventions, and their instruction of children. Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message concludes with an exhortation to remaining Shakers to maintain their spiritual commitment. Prophesying Shakerism would rise again and flourish, the authors maintain that Shaker principles will continue to influence the world outside.
White also wrote songs and compiled two books of Shaker music. Her verse appeared in a book of poetry by members of the North family at New Lebanon. Although her talent as a poet was limited, her prose was forceful. In an essay on feminism, "Woman's Mission," written for the Shakers' official periodical, the Manifesto (Jan. 1891), White declares "Man has exercised his power over woman to a marked degree. She has either been worshiped by him as an idol, used as a plaything, or bandied about as a slave." White's formal education—an advantage many Shakers lacked—and her wide social concerns made her an intellectual leader and the most effective Shaker woman writer.
Original Shaker Music (1884). Affectionately Inscribed to the Memory of Eldress Antoinette Doolittle (1887). Voices from Mount Lebanon (1899). The Motherhood of God (1903).
Taylor, L., A Memorial to Eldress Anna White and Elder Daniel Offord (1912).
—HELEN DEISS IRVIN