James Jewett started life in Rowley, Massachusetts. A laborer, he was not a follower of convention. He would later move to Exeter, N.H. and then Hopkinton, N.H. There, in 1776, he refused to sign the association test.
The Continental Congress, having opened hostilities with Great Britain, directed each state to have its citizens sign a document declaring their allegiance to the new American government. Though they varied somewhat, a representative sample of the language of the test would declare that the signer:
“solemnly engage, and promise, that we will, to the utmost of our power, at the risk of our lives and fortunes, with arms, oppose the hostile proceedings of the British fleets, and armies, against the United American colonies.”
The documents were designed to show the legitimacy of the Congress, that it was acting with the support of the people.
Those who refused to sign had a number of reasons. Some were ardent loyalists, others declined for fear that doing so would cripple their business interests, some made note that while they would not themselves sign they had paid for a soldier to serve in their stead and some were pacifists, many of them Quakers.
The treatment of the non-signers varied. In some regions of the new country, citizens were coerced and threatened into signing or they would face beatings and violence. In most of the colonies, only those who expressed their support for Britain were subjected to any penalty, generally pressure to leave the colonies.
Jewett continued on as a laborer after the Revolution, and in 1793 he was working on a stone bridge project in Enfield when he encountered Zadok Wright, a Shaker from Connecticut and several other Shakers who were travelling in the area.
Jewett, who had been searching for a way of life that matched his beliefs, invited the men to his home on the hillside in Enfield. There, the tenets of the Shaker life so appealed to Jewett and his wife Molly that they converted to Shakerism and became founders of the Shaker colony – the ninth such Shaker colony of 18 that would eventually be established.
The Shaker practices of equality of the sexes and races, celibacy, pacifism, and communal ownership of property to create a heaven on earth were what he was seeking, and for the next 11 years the Jewett family home became the host for services and Shaker gatherings, which attracted large crowds.
The Jewett family history tells of some of his experiences:
“The wicked lookers-on of that day called these zealous souls by many nick-names, among which were the ” New Lights,” ” Come Outers ” and ” Merry Dancers.” Stories were circulated of the queer things that were done by the Shakers. Some of these were black stories and some were shaded to suit the company that listened. Sometimes they were more mirthful than malicious.
The Shakers now held their hour of worship at the residence of James Jewett. Here the faithful and unfaithful congregated and for eleven years the old ” Shaker Hill ” resounded with more singing and shouting and shaking than has ever been heard, since that date, throughout the whole town of Enfield. In those meetings, the voice of God was the voice of the people.
It was quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. To attend this meeting men and women would travel for miles. In summer it was on foot or on horseback, and in winter it was sometimes on an ox sled.
James Jewett had a singular visitor from the State of Maine. He was a ‘ New Light Baptist,’ and on his way to Vermont in search of a new home. He called on his New Light brother Jewett, and received faith.
This man says he was suddenly taken from his chair by some unknown power and spun like a top. He whirled out of the house, down to the shore of the Mascoma Lake, and then back to the same place again. This confirmed him in his faith and he became a zealous preacher of the gospel. It was an odd way to ordain a minister, and yet no more singular than it was to strike a man with blindness and throw him to the ground, in order to convert him.
James Jewett became a zealous advocate of the new religion and opened his house to all who embraced the faith, and to this day his name rests upon the memory without a tarnish, and the Society in Enfield speak of him with deep affection. To him the scripture promise was a sure inheritance. ‘Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.’”
Jewett was an active Shaker until his death in 1804, but the Shaker community continued to grow and prosper long after his death, growing to hundreds of members who managed more than 200 buildings over 3,000 acres of land. It finally faded away in 1923, though a museum still exists at the site.