The July 2017 edition of the American Communal Societies Quarterly features a 40 page article which is the first investigation by academic scholars of a remarkable 19th century Virginian, Abijah Alley (1791-1866) of Long Hollow (aka holler) in Scott County. When I first learned of the research of Nancy Gray Schoonmaker on Alley’s role as a pioneer southern mystic, a Scott County connection jumped out at me: Abijah’s father Thomas Alley in the early 19thc had belonged to the Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church, which is best known for its place in Melungeon history. The first known written appearance of the word Melungeon is in 1813 records of this church, and some families from the church soon migrated to what would become the 20th century “Melungeon heartland,” Blackwater Valley and Newman’s Ridge in nearby Hancock County, Tennessee. Joined by Shaker historian Christian Goodwillie, Dr. Schoonmaker tells Alley’s story in this new study. It opens with this description of its subject:
Abijah Alley had the gift of prophecy. He also wrote, painted, farmed, and traveled. Sources tell us his peregrinations took him to the Shaker community at Union Village, Ohio; later in Cincinnati and across the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky; to visit the president in Washington; to Europe; in the Holy Land; to Texas. And that when he returned to his family’s Appalachian property he constructed a replica of King Solomon’s temple for his home.
A mercurial religious visionary, Alley blazed an irregular trail through the first half of nineteenth-century America. Despite his remarkable life he has thus far eluded biographers. This article attempts to bind together the disparate threads of his pilgrimage into a narrative telling of his spiritual journey.
Abijah Alley, with his claims to spirit communication, is a rare example of this phenomenon reaching the rural South, but the research of Schoonmaker and Goodwillie connect this to his long and complicated tenure among the Shakers of Union Village, Ohio. Prior to the new publication, all that was known of Abijah Alley involved his life in Scott County, where he built a replica of Solomon’s Temple in logs as his home, wrote a book containing the revelations from his visits to the spirit world, and acquired a group of followers called the “Little Band.” Abijah’s book, home, and followers are all now lost to history, making him a vivid example of what a 2011 book defines as “Lost Communities of Virginia.” I am currently preparing for a series of historic walks through lost communities in my own region a hundred miles east of Abijah’s family holdings. We have five Virginia destinations which range from “still there but totally transformed” to “gone but we know where it was located.” However, Abijah’s lost community of believers, his lost sacred book, and his lost homesite make his “Little Band” even more quintessentially an example of the phenomenon, since even their locations are yet to be determined.
The fact that the Cincinnati region was home to Shaker communities in an era when spirit communication was thriving is testimony to the pattern seen in Letters to the Sage, in which western migration in the mid-19thc produced a wild proliferation of “alternative spiritualities” such as Mormonism in Missouri and Utah. Briefly, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor tried to exemplify the communal impulse in 1886 but within weeks the scheme to form a colony in north Georgia collapsed. Two of the most prolific and significant of Moore Johnson’s correspondents (J.D. Buck and Silas Randall) were in the Cincinnati area, and a third (Helen Sumner) had spent the 1850s in northern Kentucky. Johnson’s most prolific and influential correspondent of all, Alexander Wilder, had spent several years of his youth in the now-lost spiritual community of John Humphrey Noyes in Oneida, NY. Johnson and Wilder were both deeply influenced by Bronson Alcott whose own failed communal experiment is now memorialized in the Fruitlands Museum.
The most important message for me is that the southwestern VA mountains, despite their seeming isolation from national and international currents of religious change, were home to a man like Abijah Alley. A man whose (quoting Schoonmaker and Goodwillie)
charisma and religious fervor secured the attention and devotion of followers who recognized something of the prophet in him. Finally, Abijah Alley’s visionary work planted seeds of the nascent Spiritualist movement in the American South. They grew and bore fruit, just as the seeds Alley retrieved from the Holy Land bloomed for a time around his temple at Long Holler.
The July 2017 issue is Vol 11, no 3, published by Richard W. Couper Press, available for $10 per issue or $35 annually to: American Communal Societies Quarterly, Hamilton College Library, 198 College Hill Rd., Clinton NY, 13323, checks payable to Trustees of Hamilton College.