Living a Tradition

At a handful of sites scattered across New England, Shaker communities transport the past into the present

Shaker House (Richard Robinson)
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"I was defiant," Sister Frances told us. "I did not want to be here, and I did not care for the sister in charge of us. I was also a bit of a ringleader, to make things exciting, so all through my teens nobody expected I'd ever become a Shaker." Shakers, she explained, raised their Shaker boys and Shaker girls with little pressure to join the sect. When the children reached adulthood, they decided whether to go out into the world, and most did. As Shaker children, they had learned at least one trade. Upon leaving, they received clothes, perhaps tools, a little money. They were always welcome to return. "I thought God had called me to this work," Sister Frances told us.

Today's meeting—Bible readings, thoughts from each Shaker—focuses on fostering world peace by creating peace within yourself, pacifism being a core Shaker doctrine. We "amen" each reading and testimony with an appropriate hymn. "There are about 10,000 Shaker songs in existence, and this community's present repertoire is 400 to 500 songs," Sister Frances had told us, noting that the Sabbathday Lake Shakers have recorded two CDs, Simple Gifts (1994) and The Golden Harvest (2000), with the Boston Camerata.

Originally, at meetings like this, Shakers danced, "shook." Elders withdrew the "gift" of dance around 1900, when few brothers remained. But the Shakers' early wild dancing unnerved nonbelievers. So did their predilection for disrupting mainstream church services with shouts of "Hypocrisy!" Persecuted, jailed, scorned, in 1774 Mother Ann Lee, as she was known, and seven followers sailed to New York City. They did menial work. Eventually, from a Dutch patroon, they leased a swath of woods and swamp near Albany, in Niskeyuna, also called Watervliet, to start building heaven on earth.

God is both male and female

Ann Lee and her followers crisscrossed Massachusetts and Connecticut, reaping converts, but also making enemies. One offense was rejecting the Trinity. God, they said, is a duality: male and female. Thus, men and women must be equal. Shakers, like Jesus, must be celibate. Also, Jesus owned nothing. And so Shakers must sign over their property to the community, to be owned in common. Shakers were communists.

During the Revolutionary War, rumors circulated that the immigrants from Manchester were British spies. After assaults and imprisonment, Ann Lee died on September 8, 1784. Her death brought Shakerdom alive. Her successor, one of her British followers, built a meetinghouse at New Lebanon. This settlement, later called Mount Lebanon, on New York's border with Massachusetts, became the headquarters, or "Central Ministry."

At Sabbathday Lake we are invited to the Shakers' Monday noon meal, in the community's six-story brick dwelling house. It is a bit like a dormitory, a lot like an old farmhouse. At 11:50 A.M. the building's Great Bell summons the Shakers from their work in the barns and offices. We assemble in separate men's and women's waiting rooms to idly talk for ten minutes.

"Mother Ann quoted Jesus about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, so Shaker communities have always paid taxes, although as religious places, they could have avoided them," Brother Arnold notes. "I can't say we've ever done it joyfully, but we've always done it—recently our tax doubled; when Sister Frances opened the bill, I could hear her from the other end of the house."

At noon a buzzer summons us into the dining room. One table for women, one for men. Most of the food we are served came from here: ham, cauliflower, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, a fruit compote of cantaloupe, honeydew melon and raspberries. Meals, like work, are worship. But rules have relaxed. Conversation murmurs.

Brother Arnold oversees the vegetable garden. "We don't grow potatoes anymore because there is no way to beat the Colorado potato beetles," he says. "We farm organically—it would be simpler and easier to just go out and buy food, but our own is the freshest and best."


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