Quite a few years ago, I had written a rather lengthy article about Theophilus R. Gates and the Battle-Axe sect he founded that made its home in North Coventry township, copies of which found their way onto a number of other folks' sites, often without proper credit being given. In the years since then, I have done a bit more research into this rather unusual group and, in the interest of setting some of the records straight, have created a section devoted to this rather bizarre sect. While there have been many articles written about the Battle-Axes over the year, quite a few of them are woefully short on documentation. Hopefully, this section will provide a bit more meat on the topic. My original article follows below.
In Futhey and Cope's History of Chester County, a short article appears that attracted my attention the first time I saw it. It reads as follows:
"They had a number of followers in the northern part of the county in 1840, at which time they seem first to have attracted attention. In 1844, a number of them were arrested; some of whom were tried and convicted, the others being subsequently discharged. William Stubblebine seems to have died in this faith, and in the case of (Snyder vs. Stubblebine) regarding the validity of his will there is a mention of this sect. Its principles were essentially those known as 'free love', the leading ideas being that all connection between husband and wife were severed, and to possess all things in common, in the fullest sense of the words. The leader of the society was Theophilus R. Gates, then a resident of Philadelphia, 1 and the chief female votary one Hannah Williamson, a single woman. 2 It is unnecessary to add that this peculiar sect has now no existence here."
That was enough to make me curious and some further research found a bit more to the story:
"Gates, Theophilus Ransom (1787-1846). B. Hartland, Connecticut; early experienced strange, disturbing visions; in Philadelphia 1810-35; criticized existing religions; pub. the monthly Reformer; unhappy home life led him to adopt perfectionism*; influenced by J. H. Noyes*; launched 'Battle-Axe Experiment' 1837, advocating free love based on a 'principle of holiness' leading to union of 'soul mates'; his colony in 'Free Love Valley'; near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, disappeared after he left in reaction against excesses." 3
Apparently, the 'Free Love Valley' was situated in North Coventry township and was even labeled as such on some old Chester County maps. Anne Broomall Wiegle, a local Chester County researcher, gave the following information about the sect in a message sent to the PACHESTE-L list on Rootsweb a number of years ago:
"About 1840-45 there was a strange religious sect called the Battle Axes of the Lord. The ladies of the sect would feel "called upon by the lord" to leave their husbands and move in with another man; whereupon the wife of that man would be called upon to move on. They also had a practice of skinny dipping in a local lake for some religious reason. The matter culminated when the Battle Axes were said to run naked up and down the aisle of Shenkel Church. About 1845 they were rounded up and jailed for various offenses such as indecent behaviour, and the cult died out. It is said that Temple Methodist Church, about a half mile away, was founded to bring some religion to that wild area. A local historian, W. Edmund Claussen, did some research on them. If you are interested, look for his books."
It appears that the sect attracted some of the local Pennsylvania Dutch to its beliefs as well. An interesting article about some rather curious local sects had the following to say:
"Most extraordinary of the nineteenth century enthusiasts were the followers of a New England prophet, Theophilus R. Gates. Preaching views on sex far from orthodox, Gates gained some adherents among the Dutch farmers in the country back of Pottstown. No wife, he declared, should lack a husband brisk in bed; no husband should lack an 'attentive' wife. The emphasis was on sexual satisfaction rather than marriage, for if a woman came upon a man unhappily married it was her right to offer herself to him to console him. This was a religion suited to strongly sexed people with inhibited spouses. Tied in with this was "planned parenthood," no doubt a wise precaution in a religion in which sex relations were so free. In addition there was a measure of communism in that all worldly goods were to be shared. A colony called Free Love Valley, where both free love and nudism could be' practiced, was established not far from Pottstown. As soon as the local authorities discovered what was up, they arrested Gates and his followers, charging them with adultery. Apparently religious fanaticism could be carried too far, even in Pennsylvania." 4
A wonderfully well-done website on the Stubblebine family pointed me in the direction of a lengthy article about the sect, printed originally in the West Chester Local News in 1987.
From Farm Community to Haven for Free Sexual Affairs
Sunday Local News, West Chester, PA, pp A17-A18, March 29, 1987
By ELIZABETH HUMPHREY of the Local News Staff
In the northernmost wooded country side of Chester county lies a village called Shenkel, its serenity only a cover for the tumultuous hedonism of the past.
Consider the mid-19th century - as straight laced as women's corsets, covered by the layers upon layers of frills and enshrouding societal 'lace'. Somber and reserved.
Ironically considering the severity of repression at the start of the Victorian age, the era brought on the antithesis of reserve in many an unassuming American town.
Such was the advent of Free Love Valley (so designated on certain old Chester County maps): religious cult, nudist colony, alleged Utopia. The transformation of the small North Coventry township corners from a peaceful farming community to a haven for sexual exchange and un-inhibited nudity followed the arrival of an evangelist by the name of Theophilus Ransom Gates.
The story is told in detail by Charles Coleman Sellers in Theophilus the Battle-Axe. A sickly boy, born in Connecticut in 1787, he was haunted by visions of the pits of hell.
Thrown into Philadelphia's Old Arch Street Prison for debt, Gates gained note for an impassioned public plea in which he attacked the practice of jailing debtors.
Gates rebelled foremost against the clergy and theology of his day, publishing a small sheet in Philadelphia entitled Battle Axe (1837) with a quotation from Jeremiah: 'Thou art my battle-axe and weapon of war.'
He walked the street selling the sheet for five cents a copy or a dozen for 20 cents.
Quoting from Cor. vii, 31, 'For the fashion of this world passeth away,' Gates construed the bond of man and wife a mere fashion.
'No two persons, therefore, ought now to agree or promise to live any longer together than they live in mutual good will, peace and comfort with each other,' he wrote.
Gates said it would be better, in fact, to change partners 20 times than remain 'bound with an incompatible mate in strive and disagreement, and so in the order of the devil, and in his dominions on the road to hell.'
It is assumed this may have arisen from the fact that his own marriage to a Philadelphia woman wasn't a happy one. She suspected him of insanity.
'Falling in love' he said, 'now so common in the world, is in every case an enchantment of the devil, the direct tendency of which is to love and regard a creature more than the Creator.'
Thus free love was granted a theological justification.
Gates also took a daring stand in defence that no one should have a child who did not want one. Even Gate's assistant John Humphrey Noyes, a Dartmouth dropout who latched onto Gates beliefs, was in dis-agreement by his advocation of birth control, then called 'onanism.'
When Gates moved from preaching before Baptist congregations in Virginia, he traveled north to Philadelphia -- in those days holding the reputation as big, bad city.
He had a hard time getting people to help him distribute his pamphlets until Hannah Williamson, a daughter of an old Welsh Quaker family in Chester County, offered to help.
She had left the farm of her stern parents to become a obstensible woman of easy virtue in the eyes of Philadelphia society. When she later joined with Gates, she went to work capturing converts. They left the judgement of the big city and set up camp on the South Bank of the Schuylkill.
The preacher and his followers, sometimes termed 'Gatesites' were commonly called 'Battle Axes' and labeled heretics. All members were listed as unmarried. Early communists, they shared common ownership of property.
Gates made a few dozen converts, among them the simple farms of German and Dutch heritage on whose farms the Battle Axes would gather and disrobe, leaving clothes and morals in a heap.
Gates doctrine of power over human and scriptural laws enticed the group of followers to meet in different homes around Shenkel, where they would engage in ritualistic exercises.
Before followers took part in the cerimony, they had to remove all of their clothes and forget about thier morals. Whenever the doctrine was attacked, members would justify thier actions by eluding to the existance of Adam and eve in Eden.
Williamson shared her affections with two brothers. Twice she was with child, twice she proclaimed she wold deliver the new messiah. But both babies died, and both were buried beside her log cabin. Neighborhood children reportedly avoided the spot where 'Christ was buried.'
The Battle Axes developed a ritual tailored to their doctrine. The sect members disrobed and marched single file into a pool near their leader's cabin.
Despite their fragrant free spirit, looking around while waling was forbidden. Once in that pond, however, they were unrestricted -- so much so that Billy Rhoads, sheriff of neighboring Berks County, felt the call to cross into Chester County and disperse the cultists with a bull whip.
Gates also called for an end to the Sabbath laws that enforced inactivity on Sundays. An issue that remains in hot debate today, it was labeled blasphemous at that time.
Local Pastors were horrified. At one point, the pastor of the Shenkel Church brought his parishioners to task for their decadence, and a group of battle Axes walked naked up the aisle in declaration of their beliefs.
Williamson thought nothing of marching into the church and plopping a stack of tracts on the pulpit.
Members felt that through refusal to marry they would become immortal and inherit the riches of those around them. For five years, the county looked on the scandalous scene with interest, until townspeople decided that the time had come to intervene. When all else failed, Squire Willauer, the local justice of the peace, led a legal investigation and brought three men and a girl to trial for disregarding the marriage laws.
In 1844 a number of them were arrested; some were tried and convicted. The courthouse in West Chester was packed with the curious, but the trial offered little sport as the four Battle-Axes convicted themselves through thier own testimony. David Stubblebine served the longest term for adultery, convicted on six of the seven counts against him and sentenced to 18 months in the county prison.
Others tried and convicted were Lydia Williamson and Samuel barde. Historians Furthey and Cope, in their History of Chester County (available for purchase at the Historical Society, West Chester, PA) record the fact that William Stubblebine died in this faith. In the case of Snyder vs. Stubblebine regarding the validiy of his will years after the sect had cleared out, there is mention of the Battle Axes.
A wager between Magdalena Snyder and Daniel Stubblebine, who died April 20, 1871, in North Coventry township, became connected with Snyder through the Battle Axes.
According to a newspaper account of the day, she exercised undue influence over him over the management of his property. Stubblebine became infatuated and left his wife and six children.
'She estranged him from his family and finally caused him to drive his wife and children out of his house', the report stated. He left her $1,000 and his wife nothing and lived 25 years before his death.
Claiming influence and insanity, the jury found for the defendant against the validity of the will.
After the group had become subject to the law, the numbers decreased and eventually diminished. Asked in later years why he looked on life's darkest side, Gates solemnly replied that all sides of life are dark.
The end was near. The Battle-Axes had not risen to the universal society of which he had dreamed, but were one of the many struggling cults across the county in the 19th century.
Aged over the controversy and the fall of his once-booming sect, Gates died in 1846. His body rests in Union Cemetery along Rt. 724 in Parkerford. A small white tombstone now marks the spot where his body lies.
Hanna Williamson, remaining the one faithful convert, became the cult leader after Gates's death. But the cult died with the passing of it's first generation. At the demise of the Battle Axes, Williamson left the valley behind and headed west as a missionary. 5
It would seem that it is indeed possible to carry things too far, and the sect of the Battle Axes claimed at least one victim, in a particularly sad tale, as reported in the Delaware County Republican on June 12, 1840:
"MELANCHOLY SUICIDE. On Saturday last the Coroner of this county was called on to view the body of AARON T. MORTON, of Ridley, who was found dead at his residence, having cut his throat with a razor from ear to ear. The deceased was a quiet and inoffensive citizen, and until within a few weeks previous to his death, was much respected by his neighbors. Owing to an aberration of mind from his youth, he was somewhat singular in his religious sentiments, professing and acting upon the creeds of different religious denominations, neither of which he was fully satisfied with, until he became acquainted with Theophilus Gates, of Philadelphia, whose singular tenets he embraced, the effects of which it is believed worked so powerfully on his already shattered mind, as to bring him to an untimely end. Happening in the city some time since, he came in contact with Gates, a man whose character is so well known to all, that it is not necessary for us to comment upon it. Gates invited him to his RETREAT, explained to him his doctrines, furnished him with his publication called the 'BATTLE AXE,'and from thence forward his peace of mind was destroyed. He became possessed of a religious monomania, and was heard at times to say, that he had found reason to bless God that Theophilus Gates had come among men to save them. Morton was in this state of mind when Gates, in company with Hannah Williamson (who is also a member of the society of Socialists, and sister to ____ Williamson, who is imprisoned in New York, a year of two since, for marrying a coloured man,) came to his house, on Saturday the 30th ult., with the intention, it is said, of finally separating him from his lawfully wedded wife, for the purpose of forming a connexion with the woman Williamson, whose intellect is also shattered..."6
Though I know much more about this group now than I did when I first became interested, I am left with some questions as well, primary of which is that of Hannah Williamson's background, and that of her sister. Which of the many Williamson lines produced this pair of rather rebellious young women and what can we conclude about their upbringing that led them to the paths they chose for themselves?
Notes and References
- 1. In 1837 several numbers of a pamphlet entitled 'Battle-Axes and Weapons of War,' and devoted to the new faith, were printed, being edited by T. R. Gates, 290 North Third Street, Philadelphia
- 2. West Chester Local News, February 12, 1874
- 3. Archived link no longer available
- 4. Archived link no longer avaiable
- 5. original site no longer available
- 6. Delaaware County Republican, June 12, 1840