Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals

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On David and my annual trips to his family's property in rural New Hampshire, we drive by a road sign directing tourists to an old Shaker village. Long abandoned, it's apparently been preserved as a museum, and although we have never stopped to see it, my brain has tended to pause a moment upon seeing the sign to pass over my paltry knowledge of the Shaker movement. The sum total of this knowledge consisted of: "Aren't they sort of like Quakers, except they didn't have any sex? And didn't they also make furniture?" I imagined a peaceful yet dour people, whose worship, like the one Quaker meeting I have attended, would probably take place in stillness and near-silence. But I knew none of this for sure. So when I came across Clara Endicott Sears's aptly-named 1916 volume Gleanings from Old Shaker Journals, I decided to find out more about the Shakers from their own pens.

As it happens, almost all my assumptions about them were wildly wrong. Far from sitting still and maintaining near-silence in meetings, for example, Shaker worship revolved around loud singing and shouting, and wild, erratic dancing (including the "shaking" that earned them their common name) punctuated by bouts of speaking in tongues. Meeting sessions in the early years often lasted until the early hours of the morning, and sometimes the entire night. Not unexpectedly, this method of worship earned the Society of Believers (as they called themselves) the distrust and animosity, first of the authorities in England, and then of the townspeople in the New England villages where they settled. They were persecuted by the police in England and by mobs in Massachusetts, for everything from witchcraft to political subversion.

This animosity was so strong, in fact, that the English authorities arrested Ann Lee, soon to become the leader of the Believers, and essentially left her to die in solitary isolation. Kept alive covertly by her adopted son, Lee had a vision of angelic beauty, which could only be attained on earth if she and her followers renounced sex and all earthly things. Upon her release from prison, Lee was hailed by the other Believers as the second coming of Christ, which they had already been expecting in female form in the near future. (Their rationale: since the Holy Spirit is all-gendered, and has already appeared on Earth once as a man, it stands to reason that its second appearance would take a female form.)

From a modern perspective, it's almost impossible not to read Ann Lee's life in psychoanalytic, pathologizing terms. The illiterate daughter of an authoritarian father and a zealously religious mother, the young Ann as Sears describes her was "a strange child, subject to extraordinary spiritual experiences - visions and prophetic dreams were her constant companions, and her mind dwelt continuously on the wickedness of human nature...She would frequently cry herself to sleep, or lie awake shivering with the fear of God's wrath." After her mother's early death, Ann was married off by her father, strongly against her will, and had several still-born children. "Sometimes," records a follower of an older Ann, she "would be taken under great sufferings, so that it would seem as though her life must go from her. --at other times she was filled with unspeakable joy and triumph, and would say, 'I feel as terrible as an army with banners'." These dramatic vacillations between jubilation and despair continued throughout Lee's life, as did her visions, and although I dislike the tendency to reduce historical figures to a bundle of symptoms and a diagnosis, it's difficult to avoid thinking of disorders like schizophrenia and manic depression when I read her story. And how psychologically understandable, given her history of being essentially sold into marriage, raped, and made to suffer the grief of stillborn babies, that she should perceive a life without sex to be a blessing! Likewise, given her factory background, it's not hard to understand her teaching that "good spirits will not live where there is dirt. There is no dirt in heaven."

In any case, the followers of Ann Lee (now called Mother Ann) soon emigrated to the American colonies, arriving on the eve of the Revolutionary War and immediately aroused suspicion for their refusal to fight (they were, like the Quakers, opposed to violence). Interestingly, though, and in a connection I was in no way expecting, what they founded at Harvard Village, Niskayuna and elsewhere were the first communistic societies in the United States, and ones which, unlikely as it seems, prefigured in several ways the counterculture movements of the 1960's.

True, the sexual attitudes of the two movements were almost diametrically opposed. Whereas the social philosophers of the 1960's opined that lifting sexual repression was the key to human progress, the Shakers saw the total renunciation of sex as the key to spiritual enlightenment. However, in other particulars the two movements bear an eerie resemblance to one another. The Shakers lived communally, with all property held in common. All residents were fed and cared for during the duration of their time with the Shakers, through their old age. Until they were too old or sick, all residents also worked to support the community at large, and their list of occupations stops just short of hammock-making in its resemblance to a hippie commune: they gathered herbs and roots for medicinal purposes, dyed cloth from plants gathered in the nearby wilderness, tended and sold fruit trees, grew vegetable gardens to feed themselves and sell at market, ran livestock, hand-crafted wooden items (broom-handles, spools, knives, furniture, wooden boxes) for sale in the greater community, caned chairs, carved gravestones, and had an entire facility devoted to binding books. Not only that, but their relationship with the natural world at times seems strangely modern. Each community of Shakers, called a "Family," had a holy hill near their residences, where they would go to worship on special occasions. The dancing and singing would be freer and more exuberant in direct contact with the natural world. In 1848 they began the custom

to sow the seeds of Love, Hope, Charity, and all the virtues, in the fields before the planting began. Groups of the brethren could be seen sowing imaginary handfuls of seed the length and breadth of one field, while an equal number of sisters would be doing likewise in another. In this manner every field belonging to the Shakers was sown with the spiritual seed of all the cardinal virtues before any material seed was planted, in order that a special blessing should rest upon the growing crops.

At several points in the journals, different Believers told anecdotes involving Native American reactions to Mother Ann, which also brought to mind the modern white counter-cultural romancing of Native people. In one incident, for example, a Believer writes that "a number of Indian natives were at the ferry, and on discovering Mother they cried out 'The Good Woman is come! The Good Woman is come!' and manifested great joy and satisfaction on seeing her and the Elders." The Natives in this vignette are used as a kind of barometer of legitimacy for Mother Ann: they operate as a repository of mystical-instinctual wisdom, so their recognition affirms her status as a spiritual leader. As clich├ęd as this Noble Savage trope has become, it was fairly unusual for white folks in the New England of the 1780's. The general populace were more likely to view Native Americans as lazy, sub-human inconveniences who should be wiped from the land as quickly and completely as possible, so it's interesting that the Shakers took such a different view. Even their defense of the wild singing and dancing of their worship has a 1960's ring to it; one believer wrote "Why should the tongue, which is the most unruly member of the body, be the only chosen instrument of worship? God has also created the hands and feet, and enabled them to perform their functions in the service of the body."

All of this was fascinating to me, and I enjoyed reading the spare, eighteenth-century cadences of the journal fragments. Sears's book as a whole feels somewhere between a primary and secondary source. The author/editor does connect the dots for the reader, filling in the Shakers' back-story and placing the journal fragments in context, but her writing itself is very much of her time, or an even earlier one: flowery, novelistic, and drenched in Romanticism. Although she herself is not a Shaker, she seems to feel near-reverence for both their initial incarnation and the fading remnants of their community still available to her in 1916. On the other hand, her embarrassment and even slight contempt for their spiritualistic incarnation of the 1840's makes itself equally plain. Her commitment to communicating the Shakers' story in their own words as much as possible, while admirable, is also sometimes frustrating. The primary concerns of the diarists are not necessarily mine, as in this journal fragment from the late 1700's about the Elder Father James, written by Sister Jemima Blanchard:

The last time but one that Father James was here I lived at Jeremiah Willard's; I was (with others) under trials at that time, in consequence of some singular gifts, but we had kept it to ourselves, remembering the advice of our blessed Mother, to wait with patience for a suitable time to make known our trials...Father stepped into the kitchen and spoke to me of the labor I had in cooking for so many, and said God would reward me...When I found that he was gone I burst into a flood of tears; and having retired to a bedroom I threw myself flat on the floor, thinking I would certainly cry myself to death. I had been in this position but a short time, when I was raised by Father James. he said to me: 'I saw you before me as I was riding away--just as you are now.'

Sister Jemima's priority in telling this story is the miraculous vision of Father James, which caused him to return to comfort her. My priority, on the other hand, that of a nosy reader: what were these "singular gifts" that caused Jemima to labor under trials? Who were the "others" involved? Why did Father James's departure cause Jemima such agony? None of that is recorded, and the book is rife with other such tantalizing accounts. Nevertheless, the fragments paint a vivid picture of the atmosphere in the village, and the reader can imagine herself into the long-ago lives of these strange and remarkable people.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography