June 18, 2014

The Shakers: A Community of Faith and Work

When Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, visited a Shaker community in 1959, he felt a kinship with their spirit of simplicity:
They had the gift to express much that is best in the American Spirit. They exemplified the simplicity, the practicality, the earnestness, and the hope that have been associated with the United States. They exemplified these qualities in a mode of humility and dedication which one seeks in vain today in the hubris and exasperation of our country with its enormous power.
This quote, and the one from Charles Dickens below, come from a fascinating essay, "Thomas Merton and the Shakers" by Fr. Bernard van Waes. In it van Waes describes the Shakers––or to use their correct name, "Shakers" having come from Shaking Quakers because of their mode of worship, United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing––as a "new kind of monasticism"; like monks and nuns, the Shakers were celibate and lived apart from the world, though partaking in some commerce with it. This idea of "general monkhood" was something that struck me on my weekend visit to the Hancock Shaker Village museum; as I walked around the peaceful, well ordered grounds, and through the beautifully preserved buildings, I had a sense of a community gathered for a prayerful life, in which every task was performed as humble worship. The Hancock Shaker community was active from the late 1780s until 1960.

Mother Ann Lee, who came to the United States from England in 1774 to establish her new sect, and who her followers believed "embodied all the perfection of God in female form", said "Labor to make the way of God your own; let it be your inheritance, your treasure, your occupation, your daily calling." The dwelling house above....

....and the iconic round barn, are evidence of a clarity of thought and simplicity of form, having nothing extraneous to their function.

The round barn was efficient: there was access to all three levels from earthen ramps, and wagons could drive around the central area depositing hay, without having to back up. The cows faced the center for feeding. There are two Shaker inspired round barns, no longer in use, in my area of Vermont.

The Shakers interest us today because of their spectacular sense of design. They were adherents to "form follows function" long before modernism. One of their most famous products made for sale are the oval boxes, perfectly joined, seen here in modern reproduction. On the table are the molds used for making them. About work Mother Ann said:
Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.

Another well-known Shaker design is the small elongated woodstove that they used throughout their dwellings and work spaces.

A Shaker Brother recognized the greater efficiency of a flat broom to a round one in about the year 1800.

This tin dust pan is a simple and elegant design.

Of course, the utopian community of Shakers was primarily a religious one, and their mission, as described on the museum's website, was to "live a perfect Christian life as portrayed in the gospels and in the early Christian communities". The room above is the Meetinghouse where the Brothers and Sisters would gather on Sundays for prayer. The prayer included singing and dancing, with men and women facing each other on different sides of the room. There is a video of Shaker songs and dances at the website link above. The words from one song say: "shake shake out of me all that is carnal".


These two doors, one for men and one for women, are the entry to the Meeting Room.

During the 1890s the community no longer used the Meetinghouse for prayer, so they met in this room in the dwelling house. Women sat on the western side of the room, men on the east. You can see the beautiful built-in cabinetry that is found throughout this building.

This is the room of a Shaker Elder, someone who was responsible to "oversee the family placed under their care and to gather the family to them by the arm of love and rod of correction...." Shakers were unusual in having Elders and Eldresses, men and women, equal in the hierarchy of the community. Although for a leader, this room is as simple as that of the Brothers and Sisters. Notice the potty chair (there were privies outside for others) and the wash basin, which was the only sign of washing that I saw. I forgot to ask a docent about the Shakers' bathing habits. I mention this because there are written responses to visiting Shaker communities from several famous 19th century writers, who were not as taken with them as Thomas Merton was. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Hancock in 1851 with Herman Melville and was very discomfited by what he saw in the Dwelling house:
It was a large brick edifice, with admirably convenient arrangements, and floors and wall of polished wood, and plaster as smooth as marble, and everything so neat that it was a pain and contstraint to look at it....The sleeping apartments of the two sexes had an entry between them, on one side of which hung the hats of the men, on the other the bonnets of the women. In each chamber were two particularly narrow beds, hardly wide enough for one sleeper, but in each of which, the old elder told us, two people slept. There were no bathing or washing conveniences in the chambers; but in the entry there was a sink and wash-bowl, where all their attempts at purification were to be performed. The fact shows that all their miserable pretense of cleanliness and neatness is the thinnest superficiality; and that the Shakers are and must needs be a filthy set. 
Oh my! Hawthorne felt the sect should be extinct. Melville, on the other hand, was writing Moby Dick at the time, and one source I read suggested that he got his inspiration for the very funny scene with Ishmael in bed with Queequeg from seeing the Shaker sleeping arrangements. Charles Dickens was another writer who had nothing good to say about the Shakers. His wry description:
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.
I was so fascinated by the evidence of Shaker life and work that I saw at Hancock that I am interested in these contemporary accounts, however raw. I was so far from finding the place grim, or a "pain and constraint to look at". There is a huge difference in aesthetic sensibility from the mid 19th century to the 20th and 21st centuries. Shaker aesthetics are even used as a jumping off point for a show of contemporary art, such as "Simplest Means". I apologize for the very long blog post, and there will be more to come on the Hancock Shaker Village; when I looked at my 200 or more photos, I was wondering how I would organize this material, so this is my introductory post. I am planning one on women's work and one on that of men, as they had very different spheres of activity, just as they were separated in all aspects of life. As a community they achieved a great deal.

Additional posts on Hancock Shaker Village:
At Hancock Shaker Village: Women's Work
At Hancock Shaker Village: Men's Work


  1. Inspiring post, Altoon. I didn't know about the round barns. I look forward to more from you on the Shakers. I agree that with our now finely tuned modernist sensibilities, the Shakers were ahead of their time. What a peaceful and clear place the village is. I'd love to visit sometime.

  2. While the Shaker life is too austere for me I do appreciate their buildings and furniture.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Diane and Lisa. The Shaker life was indeed austere, but not so different from other religious communities.

  4. The Shakers did strip a lot of extraneous decoration from their implements and furniture. David Pye writes some interesting things about "form follows function" in his book, "The Nature and Aesthetics of Design".
    I remember it so clearly because just after I'd written "form follows function" in the margin, he proceeded to eloquently shoot the concept down.

    1. I'm surprised at Pye shooting down "form follows function", which seems to be just a sensible way things are designed before the "extraneous decoration" is added.

  5. It is very good, if difficult for me, deep reading.
    Just noticed the serendipitous circles on the meetinghouse floor under the benches.

    1. thanks, JBS. And thanks for noticing those circles; I hadn't paid attention to them.