9 July 2014

Flo Morse: The Story of the Shakers (1986)

Flo Morse's book is only short about one hundred pages – but there's a great deal of information in it.

What I didn't say in my post below is that the Shakers were so named due to the frenzy they worked themselves up into in their worship of God. Such behavior led to some being imprisoned in Manchester, England, for disturbance of the peace or profanation of the Sabbath. Ann Lee (1736–84) was one of the imprisoned people, and it was there that this illiterate factory worker – the daughter of a blacksmith – had her vision and felt the spirit of Christ entering her. Originally from a Quaker sect, she went on to be the leader of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, more commonly known as Shakers.

But Mancunians believed she was a witch and stoned her. With a small group of followers she left England for New York in May 1774. A few years later, during the American Revolution, the tiny group of Shakers that had established itself in Niskayuna, New York state, received a number of visitors consisting of the serious-minded and the curious.

Lee gained converts, some of whom went back to their nearby towns to spread the word, but at the beginning the Shakers weren't accepted in America either, saw Lee as a witch and Shakerism as splitting belief in the established churches and (because of its advocacy of celibacy) of splitting families. Lee – though seeing sex even in marriage as a sin – obviously realised that abstinence is not for everyone, and must have to some extent seen the paradoxical nature of a religion with a built-in self-destruct button: she said that those incapable of being a Shaker were committing the least sinful thing by remaining servants to their families.

Ann Lee died in 1784 and James Whittaker (1751–87) became leader, dedicating the first meeting house in New Lebanon, New York state, but wore himself out in the task and it was left to Joseph Meacham to set up a number of independent village-communes. Shakers – as also mentioned in the post below – believed in equality of the sexes, and Lucy Wright from Pittsfield was Meacham's equal in sharing his work. Ten years after Ann Lee's death, ten Shaker communities – from the Berkshires down to Connecticut, through Massachusetts, up to New Hampshire and Maine – had been established.

The book tells of the famous author Charles Dickens traveling to the New Lebanon community at the end of an American tour in 1842, but being refused to see the Shakers at prayer. It quotes a little from Dickens's American Notes of his 'revenge', but this is very interesting albeit, er, very repetitive, grim stuff and I quote below all of Dickens's words on the event, using my italics:

We had yet five days to spare before embarking for England, and I had a great desire to see ‘the Shaker Village,’ which is peopled by a religious sect from whom it takes its name.

To this end, we went up the North River again, as far as the town of Hudson, and there hired an extra to carry us to Lebanon, thirty miles distant [...].

[W]e went to visit our place of destination, which was some two miles off, and the way to which was soon indicated by a finger-post, whereon was painted, ‘To the Shaker Village.’

As we rode along, we passed a party of Shakers, who were at work upon the road; who wore the broadest of all broad-brimmed hats; and were in all visible respects such very wooden men, that I felt about as much sympathy for them, and as much interest in them, as if they had been so many figure-heads of ships. Presently we came to the beginning of the village, and alighting at the door of a house where the Shaker manufactures are sold, and which is the headquarters of the elders, requested permission to see the Shaker worship.

Pending the conveyance of this request to some person in authority, we walked into a grim room, where several grim hats were hanging on grim pegs, and the time was grimly told by a grim clock which uttered every tick with a kind of struggle, as if it broke the grim silence reluctantly, and under protest. Ranged against the wall were six or eight stiff, high-backed chairs, and they partook so strongly of the general grimness that one would much rather have sat on the floor than incurred the smallest obligation to any of them.

Presently, there stalked into this apartment, a grim old Shaker, with eyes as hard, and dull, and cold, as the great round metal buttons on his coat and waistcoat; a sort of calm goblin. Being informed of our desire, he produced a newspaper wherein the body of elders, whereof he was a member, had advertised but a few days before, that in consequence of certain unseemly interruptions which their worship had received from strangers, their chapel was closed to the public for the space of one year.

As nothing was to be urged in opposition to this reasonable arrangement, we requested leave to make some trifling purchases of Shaker goods; which was grimly conceded. We accordingly repaired to a store in the same house and on the opposite side of the passage, where the stock was presided over by something alive in a russet case, which the elder said was a woman; and which I suppose was a woman, though I should not have suspected it.

On the opposite side of the road was their place of worship: a cool, clean edifice of wood, with large windows and green blinds: like a spacious summer-house. As there was no getting into this place, and nothing was to be done but walk up and down, and look at it and the other buildings in the village (which were chiefly of wood, painted a dark red like English barns, and composed of many stories like English factories), I have nothing to communicate to the reader, beyond the scanty results I gleaned the while our purchases were making.

These people are called Shakers from their peculiar form of adoration, which consists of a dance, performed by the men and women of all ages, who arrange themselves for that purpose in opposite parties: the men first divesting themselves of their hats and coats, which they gravely hang against the wall before they begin; and tying a ribbon round their shirt-sleeves, as though they were going to be bled. They accompany themselves with a droning, humming noise, and dance until they are quite exhausted, alternately advancing and retiring in a preposterous sort of trot. The effect is said to be unspeakably absurd: and if I may judge from a print of this ceremony which I have in my possession; and which I am informed by those who have visited the chapel, is perfectly accurate; it must be infinitely grotesque.

They are governed by a woman, and her rule is understood to be absolute, though she has the assistance of a council of elders. She lives, it is said, in strict seclusion, in certain rooms above the chapel, and is never shown to profane eyes. If she at all resemble the lady who presided over the store, it is a great charity to keep her as close as possible, and I cannot too strongly express my perfect concurrence in this benevolent proceeding.

All the possessions and revenues of the settlement are thrown into a common stock, which is managed by the elders. As they have made converts among people who were well to do in the world, and are frugal and thrifty, it is understood that this fund prospers: the more especially as they have made large purchases of land. Nor is this at Lebanon the only Shaker settlement: there are, I think, at least, three others.

They are good farmers, and all their produce is eagerly purchased and highly esteemed. ‘Shaker seeds,’ ‘Shaker herbs,’ and ‘Shaker distilled waters,’ are commonly announced forsale in the shops of towns and cities. They are good breeders of cattle, and are kind and merciful to the brute creation. Consequently, Shaker beasts seldom fail to find a ready market.

They eat and drink together, after the Spartan model, at a great public table. There is no union of the sexes, and every Shaker, male and female, is devoted to a life of celibacy. Rumour has been busy upon this theme, but here again I must refer to the lady of the store, and say, that if many of the sister Shakers resemble her, I treat all such slander as bearing on its face the strongest marks of wild improbability. But that they take as proselytes, persons so young that they cannot know their own minds, and cannot possess much strength of resolution in this or any other respect, I can assert from my own observation of the extreme juvenility of certain youthful Shakers whom I saw at work among the party on the road.

They are said to be good drivers of bargains, but to be honest and just in their transactions, and even in horse-dealing to resist those thievish tendencies which would seem, for some undiscovered reason, to be almost inseparable from that branch of traffic. In all matters they hold their own course quietly, live in their gloomy, silent commonwealth, and show little desire to interfere with other people.

This is well enough, but nevertheless I cannot, I confess, incline towards the Shakers; view them with much favour, or extend towards them any very lenient construction. I so abhor, and from my soul detest that bad spirit, no matter by what class or sect it may be entertained, which would strip life of its healthful graces, rob youth of its innocent pleasures, pluck from maturity and age their pleasant ornaments, and make existence but a narrow path towards the grave: that odious spirit which, if it could have had full scope and sway upon the earth, must have blasted and made barren the imaginations of the greatest men, and left them, in their power of raising up enduring images before their fellow-creatures yet unborn, no better than the beasts: that, in these very broad-brimmed hats and very sombre coats—in stiff-necked, solemn-visaged piety, in short, no matter what its garb, whether it have cropped hair as in a Shaker village, or long nails as in a Hindoo temple—I recognise the worst among the enemies of Heaven and Earth, who turn the water at the marriage feasts of this poor world, not into wine, but gall. And if there must be people vowed to crush the harmless fancies and the love of innocent delights and gaieties, which are a part of human nature: as much a part of it as any other love or hope that is our common portion: let them, for me, stand openly revealed among the ribald and licentious; the very idiots know that they are not on the Immortal road, and will despise them, and avoid them readily.

Leaving the Shaker village with a hearty dislike of the old Shakers, and a hearty pity for the young ones: tempered by the strong probability of their running away as they grow older and wiser, which they not uncommonly do: we returned to Lebanon, and so to Hudson, by the way we had come upon the previous day.

The Story of the Shakers adds that Dickens wrote from hearsay all the unpleasant things he'd heard about the Shakers, and this would appear to be true: in his very brief visit, he couldn't possibly have seen all that he describes. There was much malicious gossip about the Shakers in the outside community. Certainly some Shakers were lured away from the communes, and 'winter Shakers' put up with the ceremonies they secretly thought ridiculous for a warm home until the better weather came. But why is there no mention of pregnancies within the Shaker community, as I can't believe that they didn't occur: perhaps the women left before it became obvious?

One thing that — for a time at least — ensured the survival of the Shakers was the fact that they took in orphans and unwanted children. But only between 10% and 20% of the children remained permanently in the Shaker community.

A major problem that presented itself was the Civil War: the Shakers were pacifists. But the New Lebanon group had a good leader in Frederick William Evans (who with his brother edited radical newspapers concerning land reform, women's rights and wage slavery): he visited President Lincoln in Washington in 1863 and procured a draft exemption for the Shakers.

Sabbathday Lake Shaker village in Maine is the last remaining active community, with only a few existing members.

This is a fascinating little book about a minor religion that had a surprising influence on society at large.

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