THE BELIEVER is a romantic and insightful story that will leave Christian readers wanting to learn more about the Shaker religion, the main focus of Ann H. Gabhart’s story.
The Shakers, whose beginning originated in England in the 18th century, are known only to a few, but Gabhart has set out to change that. Ann Lee, the vivacious leader of the Shakers, was believed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ in female form. Her group came to America in 1774, settled in the state of New York, and eventually spread into neighboring states. Interestingly, the Shakers espoused communal living, celibacy and a belief that perfection could be attained in this present life, but they forbade marriage. Their name "Shakers" came about since they worshiped in such a way as to "shake all over" when the "spirit" came upon them.
It is in this curious setting that Gabhart centers the bulk of her fictional tale of the growing faith in God and in the growing love between Elizabeth Duncan (a teenaged orphan and Christian) and Ethan Boyd (a Believer --- someone who has become part of the Shaker community). Ethan is rescued by a Shaker man named Brother Issachar when he was just a boy to escape from his abusive father. Ethan, from childhood up, lives as a brother in the Shaker community but finds himself increasingly discontent and troubled by "sinful" thoughts that counter the Shakers' strict rules for living.
Elizabeth, after the death of her father, finds herself in the undesirable position of either marrying an older predatory landlord to protect herself and her younger brother and sister or make a run for it in the dead of night. She decides that her best option is flight, and the three manage to escape after Elizabeth's brother Payton burns their tiny cabin in order to prevent the awful Colton Linley from getting hold of their personal belongings. Elizabeth, fearing swift reprisal, urges Payton and little sister Hannah on as quickly as possible to the neighboring Shaker village her father had visited the year before.
After an arduous journey, Elizabeth and her siblings meet up with Brother Issachar and Ethan. Encouraged by their kindness, the trio enters the Shaker community and asks for refuge. Little do the three realize how, in return for food and lodging, they must give up their lives for the community. Working in silence morning until evening in a place where the sexes are divided and talking is discouraged, Elizabeth and Hannah rankle against those in authority over them. Young Payton, however, soon gives in to the Shaker ways and by outward appearance becomes one of them.
All the while, Ethan and Elizabeth find themselves thrown together in unlikely circumstances where a budding attraction takes root and blossoms. For her part, Elizabeth tries to refrain from interacting with Ethan in respect to his commitments to the Shakers and their belief that marriage is evil. Ethan, too, tries to fight his increasing love for Elizabeth but to no avail. It isn’t until the villainous Colton makes a violent appearance in the village that Ethan's love takes a more assertive turn, and it is made clear that the Shaker path is not his own.
Gabhart does an exemplary job of portraying the contrary nature of Shaker tradition with all its legalistic implications to that of Elizabeth’s Christian beliefs. Readers will enjoy the insight she offers into this strange religion and how it affected the lives of those who complied with it.
Reviewed by Michele Howe on August 1, 2009