Sunday Driver: Simple Gifts
September 13th, 2009
Today, especially in contemporary America’s Fox News-driven style of political environment where anything smacking of shared obligations and sense of community is loudly and angrily denounced as “socialism” or worse, it’s hard to remember that communitarian Utopian ideals were an important religious and societal impulse which built great swaths of the country in the early 1800’s. These communal experiments of the Harmony Society, Zoar, the Shakers, the Oneida community, the Amana Colonies — these have all left an indelible mark on American society and its landscape.
One such group, and perhaps the most ardent in its communal strictures, were the Shakers. Founded by Ann Lee, an illiterate mill worker who was strongly influence by the Quakers, the Shakers adopted similar theological beliefs but added the some key elements which set them apart. The Shakers’ manner of worship involved ecstatic, animated movements which lent them their name and established a precedent for later pentecostal movements which would come about in the early twentieth century. They were ahead of themselves in other ways as well: because they held that God embodied both masculine and feminine elements, they believed in absolute equality between men and women. They rejected slavery and were open to all comers regardless of race. They also founded communal villages in which family relationships were abolished and celibacy became the most notable feature of Shaker life to the outside world.
Actually, celibacy was only one notable feature of Shaker life. Perhaps the other most notable feature was the Shakers’ remarkable craftsmanship in everything they made. Their view of work was best summed up by two well-known Shaker sayings: “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow,” and, “Put your hands to work, and your heart to God.” They believed that making something well was itself an act of prayer. Simplicity, beauty, and plain functionality were guiding principles in everything they did.
There is one point of irony in the Shakers’ much-appreciated craftsmanship. Their ingenuity and fine attention to detail has made those “simple gifts” produced by a simple people in prayer have become inordinately expensive. Original Shaker pieces now command exorbitant prices among some of the world’s wealthiest collectors.
The Shakers went on to found 19 villages from Maine to Kentucky, and at their peak counted some 16,000 members. They also drew a tremendous backlash in the outside world, often with arguments similar to those used by anti-gay activists. One such anti-Shaker argument held that the Shakers represented a dire threat to civilization: if everyone became Shaker, then the human race would die out due to their insistence on celibacy.
But in the end, it was the Shakers who eventually died out. The industrial revolution and the rise of cities marked a popular shift away from farming in general, and the Shaker’s agrarian communal lifestyle quickly became obsolete. And there was, of course, that celibacy thing which went far beyond merely a ban on sex. It extended to a ban on marriage and the denial of intimate relationships of all sorts. This smacked headlong against the growing Victorian fascination of romantic love as being the foundation of lifelong attachments. And of course, communal living experiments across the country ran hard against the lure of rugged individualism which drove Americans’ both further westward and toward greater economic freedom. Against those nineteenth century developments, “United Society of Believers in Christ\’s Second Appearing” didn’t stand a chance.
One by one, the Shaker settlements were abandoned. There is only one settlement left at Sabbathday Lake near Lewiston, Maine, with four remaining residents. The Shaker village in Kentucky, Pleasant Hill, was founded in 1806 and lasted as an active community until 1910. The last Kentucky Shaker, Sister Mary Settles, died in 1923. Pleasant Hill, about 25 miles south of Lexington, is now a remarkably preserved museum where the Trustee Office building is now an Inn and restaurant.
There is another legacy that the Shakers left for us, and it’s one that everyone the world over is familiar with. Music and dance were an exceptionally important part of Shaker worship, and one song in particular not only encapsulates perfectly the Shaker philosophy, but has become an anthem for personal excellence.
Update: After I posted this, it occurred to me that the Shaker experiment had more in common with monasticism than most other communal Utopian communities of the nineteenth century. But they didn’t position themselves as a monastic alternative to ordinary life, but as an entirely separate kind of community and religion. There are still monasteries today, even though they generally are in decline. Perhaps if the Shakers had thought of themselves as providing a different way of living out a more common Protestant faith rather than the particularly unique beliefs they espoused (rejection of the Trinity, direct communication with the dead, etc.), they might have survived as well in some form. Who knows?