The Shakers originated in Manchester, England. Reference to them crops up in the histories of American design, architecture, music, invention, social movements and education, as well as religion. As a member of the American Studies Department at Manchester University I was vaguely aware of all this. And so it is no surprise that when I saw a sign to The Shaker Village when driving my family through New Hampshire on a late summer day in 1980, that we turned to see what we would find.
We expected, and were not disappointed by, the clean lines of buildings in the town of Canterbury; we were charmed, but not surprised, by the neat white fences; we were moved by the cemetery with its single stone, dedicated to The Shakers. But we were taken aback, and delighted, by a greeting from Sister Bertha Lindsay and Eldress Gertrude Soule. They were equally pleased that one among us was a baby, and Bertha sat on the porch of the Trustees building holding six month-old Andrew, and told us of the time, about seventy years earlier, when her parents had asked the Shakers to take care of their little girl, as they could no longer support all the members of their family.
Like many other local children, Bertha was supported by the Shakers and educated in their school. As they grew, most children left to make their way in the world, but a few stayed in Chosen Land, and at the age of 21 Bertha made her decision to become a Shaker.
Hers was not an isolated life. Canterbury is a small place, but her family visited often, and she regularly went to the local town cinema where her brother was the projectionist. The Shakers have never rejected technological innovation. Canterbury Shaker Village was the first community in New Hampshire to have a telephone system, and by the time I first visited in 1980 they were experimenting with solar collectors on the roof of the Meeting House.
There were just three Shakers left in Canterbury when I first visited. Gertrude died in 1988, Bertha in 1990, and Ethel Hudson in 1992. The site joined others such as Hancock, Massachusetts, and Enfield, New Hampshire to become a superb museum of the Shakers. But while in Canterbury I was told of another Shaker community, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Here, Shakers are still living.
The Sabbathday Lake Shakers welcomed Christmas 2003 spiritedly in the card they sent out to friends. A couplet in its two verses of poetry promised that Devoted to this festive hour / Well shout and well play and well sing. This determined commitment to celebrate their Christian faith directly, openly, and sometimes noisily, has lasted for about 250 years, since the Shakers first emerged from the religious tumult of mid-18th century England.
The sojourn of Mother Ann
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The 18th century was a time of great social change in England, prompting many to search for new and different ways of satisfying their spiritual needs. Ann Lee, uneducated and illiterate, was nonetheless a sincere seeker for religious guidance, recognised as gifted by those around her. She joined a group that had been nicknamed the Shaking Quakers, where her fellow-seekers began to call her Mother Ann.
Then as now the Shakers believed that Gods spirit could be received directly, and in many joyful ways. Speaking, dancing, and singing their devotion seemed natural to these devoted Christians, but it did not sit well with more orthodox Christian celebrants, especially when Shakers brought their activities into their church services.
Ann Lee was arrested, fined and jailed for disrupting the Sabbath. While imprisoned, she received a vision that she and her followers would find more tolerance for their ideas and their methods of celebration in America. In 1774 Ann Lee and eight others landed in a North America that was itself in a period of political and social turmoil.
Levels of tolerance are prone to decline when a society feels under threat, and this handful of Shakers did not find America an entirely welcoming environment. These were English immigrants, with odd and socially disruptive ideas, at a time when colonists were having to decide between the traditional view of England as the nurturing homeland, and the new view of England as the enemy justifying a war for independence. Ann and her followers impressed some with their religious message, while being viewed with great suspicion by others.
The suspicious wondered whether this handful of committed migrants were spies for the English, or interlopers intent on disrupting the local American community. Their ideas certainly contained challenging concepts. Those who chose to follow the Shaker path had to embrace celibacy as a central principle of faith and life.
Celibacy is a counterintuitive route for a new, emerging and growing nation, as well as being threatening to the stability of families. Relatives could react aggressively when any of their number were drawn to the Shakers, since joining meant the normal family relationship would be replaced by a celibate, communal life-commitment, and individual ownership would be subsumed into the common pool. It is not difficult to imagine the intra-family battles that this would stimulate.
Mother Ann died in 1784, to be followed as leader by a fellow Mancunian, James Whittaker, until his death three years later. But it was really the next leaders, James Meacham and Lucy Wright who invited their followers to build and live together in permanent communities. The first villages of the United Society of Believers in Christs Second Appearing to give the Shakers their full title, were established near Albany, now the state capital of New York, in 1787. A generation later, at the societys height, there were nineteen communities, and about 6,000 members; communities were at one time or another established in eleven different states.
The fruits of equality
This was a community led initially by a woman, and which has valued female leadership throughout its history. Central to Shaker belief is the concept of the equality of female and male in God. Once the Shaker communities were established, this principle was fixed firmly into the government and spiritual leadership of this religious group. In particular, men and women simultaneously occupied all offices within the Shaker community. The ministry, the role of elder/eldress, and the positions of deacon were each occupied by a team of two men and two women.
Men and women contributed different labour to the community, and in practice they were separated by their labour for much of the time, but in theory at least the work of each sex was treated as equally valuable. There was a great deal of cooperation within the Shaker community, and some of this was devoted to making working life more efficient, productive, and if only as a side-effect, more pleasant.
Men worked the fields, mended fences and painted the buildings, while women tended to the laundry, sewed the clothes, and cleaned the rooms. But the fieldwork was made more efficient by constant improvements in the equipment, redesign of the fences with metal stands to make them last longer, and extra-strong paints developed by the Shakers to withstand better the New England winters.
In the laundry the hard work was eased by a Shaker-designed and patented community-sized washing machine, together with heated drying racks and stoves with special shelves to maintain the warmth in hand-irons; the seamstresses worked with the woodworkers to design sewing desks and tailoring tables that suited their needs precisely; and cleaning the rooms was simplified with built-in cupboards, furniture designed to make dusting easier, and the Shaker-invented flat broom.
The Shakers have always believed that all individuals can witness the spirit of Christ. From there, it is only a small step to a culture which values all sincere creative and working effort as virtuous, in a society which is striving to be close to its God. Shakers are encouraged to do all your work as though you might die tomorrow, or as though you might live a thousand years. There seems to be room in this conception for most people to do their ordinary bit, and be proud of doing it well, and for individual and original designers and craftspeople to be fostered or just given room to flower.
Shakers most skilled in design, crafts, engineering and building have traditionally devoted thought and effort to making their creations work well, and this may be why their ideas have an abiding influence in many areas of design, especially furniture and architecture. The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair, said one observer, is that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.
But Shaker life and work was not confined to chairs and building. Recruits to the communities brought their own goods and furniture into the community, and these were mixed with Shaker-built goods as necessary.
The community traded with the world, and designed and manufactured to sell into its markets, including very ornate objects and fancy materials when these were the fashion. It pioneered the packaging and marketing of seeds, including mail order, making Shaker Seeds the equivalent of a highly valued brand. Boxes, poplar ware, cloaks, furniture, fancy goods, seeds, herbs, preserves, pickles and sweets were all made by some communities at some time as trading goods to be sold through catalogues, at markets, or from the villages.
Surviving by adapting
Today, 230 years after Mother Ann took her small band across the Atlantic, the Shakers have a special place in social history as the longest-lasting communitarian group in America. The Shaker village at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, established in 1794, continues to house a small community of Shakers. A celibate community can only replace itself by recruitment. The religious fervour and social conditions that combined to help recruitment declined after the mid-19th century as America became more secular, and economic opportunities expanded and moved to the cities.
In the face of declining recruitment, the lead ministry in Canterbury decided in 1965 to stop accepting new Shakers. This effective sentence to death was resisted by Sabbathday Lake. In recent years this community has at various times made its income by selling fruit from the orchard, and wood from the forest, breeding and selling lambs, restarting the herb industry, contracting to provide educational programmes for schools and colleges, accepting visitors to tour the village and the shop all supported by an organisation of Friends.
They like privacy, but bear their visitors with grace. I have visited alone a few times, but in 1985 took my family to see Sabbathday Lake. Not wanting to pester the Brothers and Sisters, we joined the line to take one of the tours led by local volunteers. We were spotted by Sister Frances Carr, who swept us into the kitchen where she makes the dishes that can be found in her fine cookbook, soothed us on that hot day with cold drinks, and plied our children, Andrew and Carolyn, with the donuts and ice cream that she had just brought back from the supermarket.
We may have been treated to homemade sweets too. Sister Mildred Barker took over the sweet-making at Sabbathday Lake in 1947, when she was already 50 years old. For more than twenty years she handmade and dipped in chocolate over half a ton of sweets annually. Simultaneously she was business manager of the journal Shaker Quarterly, wrote four booklets and many articles on the Shakers and was a spokesperson for the community. She remarked sharply to a visiting TV crew lovingly filming the furniture that she didnt want to be remembered as a chair. When she heard a tourist lament that it was too bad no Shakers are left, she interjected Im left. Until her death in 1990, aged 93, she was still usually the person who came out to serve anyone at the community store.
Sabbathday Lake Shakers go to the supermarket. They also take the dog to the vet, talk to the neighbours about problems and projects that affect them all, and occasionally visit the local cinema for entertainment. These acts may be done in consultation with the rest of the group, but not necessarily as a group. They eat their meals together, joined by non-Shaker workers in the community, friends, and visitors. The conversation is lively, pointed, friendly, bright, warm, as it should be around a family meal table.
One of the Brothers says, people should understand how ordinary we are. The Shakers live in their Chosen Lands, but they have never been isolated from the world. They were entrepreneurs, and had to adapt their trade as factory produced goods lowered the prices of the competition. They accepted change and innovation, welcoming useful modern developments.
The song of Sabbathday Lake
There is inevitably a question whether a celibate community of this kind can recruit strongly enough to maintain its existence. Mother Ann predicted that the number of Shakers would reduce to fewer than a child could count on the fingers of one hand, at which time there would be a regeneration. Even forty years ago, with numbers much higher, some Shakers and their supporters saw regeneration as coming through the experiences imparted to the many thousands of interested people who visit those Shaker museums that have developed out of former communities. Sabbathday Lake welcomes visitors, and has a library that is a must for any serious researcher into the Shakers. But it has also continued to welcome recruits.
Recruitment in recent years has not outpaced the deaths of elderly members, but new members have come to Sabbathday Lake. As ever, some have stayed for a few years of hard work and sincere contemplation before moving on to another stage in their lives, while others have made their Shaker life a permanent commitment. The number of Shakers has now fallen as low as Ann Lee predicted, but the age range at Sabbathday Lake is wide, and Shakers seem a contented, and long-lived family. The community may well have a few decades yet in which to regenerate.
In this leap-year of 2004, they will especially enjoy the chance to celebrate Mother Anns birthday. 21st century Shakers are not given to shouting, but they might play, and sing, on 29 February.