Sept. 20, 2016
Today I took advantage of our mobility to look at other cultures within the United States. This one is that of the Shakers from Canterbury, New Hampshire. We first found out about the Shaker Village through our Time Traveler’s membership that came with our Minnesota Historical Society membership. The presentations at the village were easy to understand and imagine what their lives were like. My boys were able to hear about life in a commune. They did have many admirable virtues, but also, several ideas that I cannot agree with. I’ll try to expound on this slightly in this blog.
First, a little background on the Shakers. This was a religious sect that originated from England. Founder, Mother Ann Lee, had a Quaker background. She reveled in worship experiences that included wild dancing and body convulsing, or shaking. Her group became known as the “Shaking Quakers”. This was shortened to “Shakers” when they left for America due to the persecution from the Church of England. In their movement’s peak, they were several thousand strong, living in many different utopian communal villages scattered throughout New England. Besides their worship style, this group was known for being progressive in women’s rights, communal living, and having a celibate lifestyle. To me, I best associated this with a pentecostal version of a monastery, convent, and orphanage all placed together.
Back to our day at the village. We started out catching a guided tour with 26 other people. The guide was interesting and she tried to keep my 10 year old actively involved in the tour since he was the youngest one there. We went into several buildings that are locked up unless the guide was present. I enjoyed hearing of their beginnings, lifestyle, and eventual closing of the village. You just can’t beat the ability to gain so much of the story through the tour. She told a lot of short tidbits I would have not noticed by just reading plaques.
After the tour, we were able to freely walk the grounds and wander through the other open buildings throughout the day. I appreciated how they clearly identified which buildings were open at the time with little flags. Inside each of the buildings, volunteers explained about their crafts, houses, and lifestyle. These volunteers were over the top with their desire to tell of the Shaker’s story to us. Besides the personable attention, several videos played in different areas as well. These varied from a heifer’s perspective growing up to become a milk cow on the commune and several testimonials about the culture and their upbringing on the campus.
While most of the time was looking at their artifacts, buildings, and listening; I think the boys were intrigued and listened well. After a while, my teenage boy’s stomach persuaded his attention to be elsewhere until lunch was served. Three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, carrots, and water later, his “snack” was done and we resumed walking around. His favorite room was the tool shop. My 10 year old boy enjoyed trying his hand at weaving and later rug hooking. We had to pry him away from each of the activities or he’d be there still.
Overall, we spent the entire day there. We arrived a little after 10am, the opening time, and left when they locked the gift shop doors behind us at 5 pm. This was a full day’s event and was worthwhile to take the time to see. Their belief structure also gave the family quite a bit to think and talk about the entire drive back home.
They exhibited several good attributes and character traits which we likewise are striving to instill in our children.
1. Good Work Ethic: “Hands to Work and Hearts to God” is their motto. Their goal was not to get the job done or to make the most money from it, but rather to obtain perfection in the work they do. They strove to do their best no matter how menial a task it was. Their work was looked upon as a service for God not for man.
2. Good Reputation: I saw how important it is to always leave others with a good experience and satisfaction, as that is a lasting testimony to the outside world even after you are gone. Even though there are only three remaining shakers left in the world, the quality of products associated with their name still speaks for who they were.
3. Generosity: When neighbors were stealing the vegetables, they just planted more because “even the crows and the thieves need to eat.” Visitors were welcomed as guests complete with food and shelter for the night. Even when others took advantaged of them, especially during the difficult winter months, they knowingly gave to the outsiders. Their communal living was beneficial to all of their society as long as they all worked hard. This eliminated poverty among followers.
4. Community: They were a close network of friends and felt a sense of belonging. This is lost when people only see each other once or twice a week and distance themselves with their “busy-ness”. Living, working, eating, and worshipping together in close quarters necessitated good people skills.
I also appreciated how they were innovative problem solvers and had an entrepreneurial spirit.
However, the Shakers held to some beliefs that I cannot embrace.
1. Women Equality: is skewed from the belief of equal in value, to equal in authority and everything. They insisted in equality in all ways. However, they still intrinsically knew there were differences as they had the men do the difficult field work and other tasks until there weren’t enough of them left. If they truly felt they were equal, why didn’t the men do the cooking and sewing?
2. Great to know that Christianity is more than a religion of rituals but their exclusive reliance on spiritual experiences left their Biblical grounding in the dust. Their experiences as a basis for their actions left them open to deceitful, demonic experiences. They didn’t realize the “heart is deceitful” beyond all measure. This was seen in how they allowed native american, deceased elder, and former famous political figures’ spirits speak and direct them through mediums (which are clearly forbidden in the Bible).
3. They went from the Christian belief that God, the Holy Spirit, dwells inside of true believers guiding them in life, to a belief that a god dwells inside of everyone and they just have to tap into it, closer to a hindu or new age belief.
4. The meaning of “family” is distorted. They strayed from God’s design of a father and mother in a nuclear family to a system that proved itself to be unsustainable with celibacy. If a family joined their group, the children went to their buildings, and the wife and husband separated to the woman and man buildings. Then they acted as if they were not married anymore, having minimal interaction on the commune. This practice overrides how God has made them one, likening this to a divorce in my mind, when couples decided to join the village.
Overall, it was a good learning experience for everyone in the family to see how people lead different lives. The volunteers telling the Shaker stories have a clear affection for the people who once lived that lifestyle. Even one of the volunteers grew up with his dad working for the Shakers, so he had many first hand memories of the people to share. This was a good presentation and worthwhile of our time, and no, I’ll probably never want to become a Shaker.
Until we meet again,