A remarkable Shaker image from 1887, apparently designed as an educational tool to help arrest the decline of the Shaker community.
The chart features a timeline of major Biblical figures and ancient empires; genealogical charts for the descendants of Adam and Eve, Noah, King David, Herod and others; charts listing the miracles and parables of Christ and their location in the Gospels; and much, much more. The whole is superimposed on a large map of Europe, the Near East and North Africa, featuring a bizarre blend of modern nations (England, France, Prussia, etc.) and ancient kingdoms (Assyria, Babylon, Kush, and so on). The chart’s considerable size (roughly 2 ½ by 4 feet), exuberant imagery and vibrant six-color printing create a most impressive effect.
Skeen apparently also published a 64-page “Key of Explanation to Skeen’s Genealogical Chart” (Louisville: Skeen Chart Co., 1886). The only known example is held by held by the Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York.
According to Shaker scholar David Newell of Ashfield, Mass., the prime mover behind the chart’s production was Brother Alonzo Hollister (1830-1911) of the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon, New York. Hollister was an important voice of Shaker orthodoxy in the midst of the sect’s long decline in the face of wrenching demographic and social change:
“Elder Alonzo’s legacy as a writer is that he resisted the temptation to dilute Shakerism by trying to appeal to the secular world. He did not think Shaker theology could change…. This orthodoxy stood in opposition to Elder Frederick Evans, and other Shaker leaders who went along with him. They clashed over issues such as the Bible and spiritualism. As Elder Frederick was writing and publishing scores of books, tracts, pamphlets, and newspaper articles, Brother Alonzo on a smaller scale was writing and publishing his own material…. [But] Elder Frederick had captured the public’s imagination, and the few remaining Shakers were too busy trying to keep their community going to get involved with theology. In this way, his valuable insights showing the continuity of Shakerism were virtually ignored.” (Stephen J. Paterwic, Historical Dictionary of the Shakers, pp. 110-111)
In commissioning Skeen to develop the chart, Newell suggests, Hollister’s goal was to demonstrate the continuity of Shaker theology with Scripture, and in so doing both attract new members and strengthen the commitment of existing Shakers. He of course failed in this effort, and today Sabbathday Lake, Maine is the last active Shaker community, with but a handful of members.
Whatever Hollister’s exact role, the chart was published by a joint venture based in Louisville and operating under the name Skeen Chart Co. Limited. Participating in the Chart Company were Jacob Skeen of Louisville; M[atthew] B. Carter of the Shaker community at Union Village, Ohio; Benjamin Gates of the community at Mount Lebanon; and F.M. and W.F. Pennebaker of the community at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. According to Newell,
“The chart was delivered to Mount Lebanon by February of 1887, when Br. Calvin Reed noted that Br. Alonzo Hollister took the “cars for Bridgport and New-Haven. He starts as agent for the Great Historical Chart reaching from the dawn of creation down to the birth of Jesus Christ. It is an elaborate design, artistically arranged, forming a synopsis of both Sacred and Prophane [sic] History, and grouping each national epoch under its own particular chain.” The business was flourishing by April when Reed noted in his journal that “Benjamin [Gates] packs and sends to New York, quarter of a hundred of Skeene’s [sic] Historical Charts, more or less.” Professor Skeen himself favored the community with a lecture explaining his chart on April 10th, 1887.” (www.shakerlit.com, last accessed 2016 and no longer available)
The mystery of Jacob Skeen
All I can learn of Skeen comes from an 1891 obituary, and that serves only to muddy the waters:
“…. Following by a few days the completion of ten years’ labor on a work of history, Mr. Jacob Skeen, aged sixty-nine years, died last evening…. Mr. Skeen was born in Pennsylvania in 1823. Until a number of years ago he was at the head of the Louisville Crucible Steel Casting Company, of which he was the originator. Mr. Skeen was always a deep student of history, and he became so interested in it that over six years ago be retired from business to pursue his studies is this direction. He was particularly fond of ancient history, to which his work was chiefly directed. It was ten years ago that he first conceived the idea of placing his studies and research in a permanent form, and at his death he left what he has styled a genealogical, chronological and geographical chart, embracing biblical and profane history of the ancient times, from Adam to Christ…. The author drew all the sketches himself, and, for one of his advanced years, they are said to be of a very fine order. After ten years of patience and perseverance Mr. Skeen walked from his study about two weeks ago and said, “My work is done.” The next day be was taken sick, and his death followed…. He was very proud of his chart, which is now ready to be turned over to the printers, is about eight feet high by four wide and works on rollers, which, are placed on a stick….. Mr. Skeen left two children, Mrs. Margie Boyd and Mr. D. Skeen. who is with the Pullman Palace Car Company. He was a member of the First Presbyterian Church.” (Louisville Courier-Journal, Aug. 1, 1891, p. 4)
This raises far more questions than it answers: Is our published chart of 1887 an earlier version of Skeen’s magnum opus, which was unpublished at his death in 1891? If not, how did they differ? And how did the work of Skeen, a non-Shaker, come to the attention of the Shakers, and did they contribute to the scholarly heavy lifting involved in its compilation and design?
Mode, Persuasive Maps: The PJ Mode Collection, #2085. Rumsey #8687. Mary Richmond, Shaker Bibliography, #1312a (Hancock Shaker Village and the New York Public Library). As of May 2020, OCLC 65518491 et al locate holdings at Boston Public Library, Hamilton College, Harvard, Huntington Library, Princeton, and Winterthur, while others are held by the American Folk Art Museum and the University of Kentucky. Shaker expert David D. Newell of Ashfield, Mass. generously shared information about the history of the chart (private conversation, Sept. 23, 2014). Also helpful was “Shaker Bible Charts,” a Sept. 16, 2013 entry on the Curiosities and Wonders blog of the Special Collections Research Center at University of Kentucky Libraries.
Minor mends to margins, but very good or better.