Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hands to Work and Hearts to God

“‘Tis the gift to be simple,

‘Tis the gift to be free,

Tis the gift to come down

where you ought to be...”

(Traditional Shaker song “Simple Gifts”)

The hills bob up and down in the distance, an awe-inspiring landscape of cool white mist and green foliage that flows all the way to the horizon. The entire world seems hushed, quiet, peaceful outside the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, the soul surviving community of what was once a great religious and philosophical movement.

Founded in 1794, the Sabbathday Lake village has survived 215 years in the remote, pristine green lands of New Gloucester, 35 miles northwest of Portland, Maine. Though popularly called “Shakers,” the group’s proper name is the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. The term “Shaker” first appeared in a 1758 Manchester Mercury article that derisively called the adherents “Shaking Quakers.” It stuck: In 1700s England and America, Shakers were ridiculed for ecstatic dancing, speaking in tongues, and revelatory praying.

Sabbathday Lake was the eleventh community founded by Shakers, who came to the United States from England just after the American Revolution. They kept a low profile due to their “Britishness” and unorthodox views for which they were long persecuted. They lived separate from “the outer order,” and their ranks swelled. By the Civil War, they had grown from a handful of members to 6000, living in 18 communities in New England and the Midwest.

The Sabbathday Lake village serves as a living history. In the welcome center, old periodicals about Shakers are sold for $3-$5. A 1967 copy of Time Magazine features Charlie Brown and Snoopy on the cover and announces “The New Fad Sweeping the Nation!” A 1972 volume of Art & Man is completely dedicated to the Shakers, comparing their communities to 60s counterculture communes. It describes the architecture and style of the Sabbathday Lake village perfectly: “The Shakers made almost everything they used, in a severe, practical style entirely contrary to the fashion of their time. The clean uncluttered lines of their buildings, their furniture, their tools, have been a rich and influential legacy.”

While recognized today for this aesthetic contribution, Shaker architecture was not always viewed so positively. After visiting a Shaker community in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote, “We walked into a grim room where several grim hats hung on grim pegs and time was grimly told by a grim clock...” Seems Dickens got stuck on the grim.

Nonetheless, Shakers are today recognized because they emphasized communal values and philanthropy rather than just the rights of individuals. They formed during the age of revolutionary values (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness), yet they emphasized collectivity rather than atomistic individualism. In A.F. Joy's We Are Shakers, he notes that the Shakers insistence on collective ownership of farms "flew in the face of the economic philosophy of the times: private ownership of farms and working of them." Shakers were among the first to openly decry slavery and they were early champions of women’s rights. Abraham Lincoln sadly excused them from the Civil War draft due to their strict principles of pacifism, saying, “We need regiments of just such men as you.” Their communities created places of cooperation and sharing rather than competition.

Sounds great, right? Why aren’t we all Shakers?

Perhaps the most grim aspect of the grim Shaker life is their grim belief that, grimly, sex is the root of all evil. Get out of the way Marx! Sex, not private property, has caused all the evil in the world!

Shakers take a vow of celibacy, which as you can imagine, causes a little problem in maintaining a community. The Shakers relied upon converts to keep up their numbers. In modern times, with changing views of sexuality and religion, the Shakers haven’t had as many people willing to convert.

In fact, in 2009, the last remaining Shaker village, Sabbathday Lake, has only three living members. Though remaining members pray that converts will come, they also take a pragmatic view of the future. Having seen many former Shaker communities subdivided and sold to become urban sprawl, remaining Shakers are working with Maine Preservation and the New England Forestry Foundation to protect the historical village that sits on 1643 acres of land.

As Brother Arnold Hadd told Stacey Chase, a freelancer writing for the Boston Globe in 2006, “"We can't put up a Wal-Mart. Or a housing development. The land always has to remain for agricultural and forest purposes."

Though time may be ticking for the remaining Shakers, they refuse to be viewed as an archaism. Their website contains a bold declaration (yes- a website. Another misconception about Shakers is that they are similar to the Amish who reject technology and contact with outsiders. Shakers have always embraced communication with non-Shakers).

“Shakerism is not, as many would claim, an anachronism; nor can it be dismissed as the final sad flowering of nineteenth century liberal utopian fervor. Shakerism has a message for the present age--a message as valid today as when it was first expressed. It teaches above all else that God is Love and that our most solemn duty is to show forth that God who is love in the World.”


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Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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