Stirred by Shakers by C. R. Wiley

Stirred by Shakers

C. R. Wiley on the Elegant Errors of a Failed Sect

When it comes to the opinion of the people who matter, the Shakers are hip. They had all the correct views: They practiced sustainable agriculture, they had gender equality, and they even reduced their carbon footprint to almost zero. (At this writing, there are said to be only three Shakers left in North America—that’s what celibacy will do for you if you don’t watch out.)

Today, Shaker villages appear to be populated mostly by supporters of National Public Radio. Amish communities do not seem to have the same appeal. A superficial assessment might lead you to believe that, if you love one, you should love the other: long dresses, straw hats, cows, the simple life, community—both have them. But there are differences in the ways the two sects relate the individual to the common life, and the common life to the natural order, that I think correspond to differences between the thought patterns of several identifiably different castes. If you like Fox News, you probably like the Amish; if you prefer the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, you likely favor the Shakers.

So why is that? On the one hand, it comes down to sex. If you are the sort who sees a telos in sex—namely, children—then you should like the Amish. But if you’re the sort who thinks sex should serve personal goals—if you see children as an avoidable and even unfortunate consequence of sex—then you probably like the Shakers.

On the other hand, it still comes down to sex. Demographers tell us that as a society grows more egalitarian, a price is paid in fertility. Mother Ann Lee, the sad Shaker heresiarch whose eight children all died before the age of six, seemed to understand the connection. Since union implies submission, gender equality requires some strategy for keeping the sexes separate; so Mother Ann drew a line straight up to heaven to keep them that way, saying that even God is divided into male and female natures.

Worship tells a theological tale, and the tale Shaker worship tells is a sad and sterile one. There was no preaching in Shaker worship and no sacramental life. So what was there? Well, there was a lot of singing and dancing. The dances were especially revealing: groups of men would draw near the women, a pitiful mess of conflicted yearnings, and then withdraw. The women would do the same. At other times they would march around each other in concentric circles, men in one and women in the other, stomping their feet and clapping their hands, all the while singing at the top of their lungs about shaking out sin and beating out carnal thoughts.

While I find their ontology repellant, think their theology fatal, and even believe the world is better off without them, yet for all that, I feel some resonance with the Shakers. And I wonder, What is it about those nutty gnostics that calls to me? Could there be something worthwhile in Shakerism? And if so, is it possible, like an apothecary, to draw that something out for medicinal purposes?

Visions & Ingenuity

I have been to three Shaker villages, and recently my wife and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a pleasant afternoon at the Pittsfield Shaker village in the Massachusetts Berkshires. From the paucity of reading material at these villages, it is clear that the Shakers were not a bookish lot. One of the curators at the Pittsfield village told me that this was due to the rigors of nineteenth-century agriculture. Bosh! The history of Christianity is full of scholarship amid rural privation. No, you make time for what you care about. The more likely reason is that the Shakers did not think they had a good reason for reading. When it came to doctrine, they had Mother Ann, and besides her, they had visions. Here is a sample of one of those visions, as recorded by Hannah Cohoon beneath her famous folk painting, The Tree of Life:

I received a draft of a beautiful Tree penciled on a large sheet of white paper bearing ripe fruit. I saw it plainly; it looked very singular and curious to me. I have since learned that this tree grows in the Spirit Land. Afterwards the Spirit showed me plainly the branches, leaves, and fruit, painted or drawn on paper. . . . I entreated Mother Ann to tell me the name of this tree: which she did October 1st, 4th hour p.m. by moving the hand of the medium to write twice over, “Your Tree is the Tree of Life.” Monday July 3rd 1854.

Mother Ann Lee had died on September 8, 1784.

A taste for visions that circumvent the critical faculties does not mean the Shakers were thoughtless. Evidence of good, hard thinking can be seen everywhere in a Shaker village. They were keenly interested in natural processes, and their ingenuity in harnessing those processes was amazing. The workshop at the Pittsfield village reminded me of something out of Chitty, Chitty, Bang! Bang! At least ten shop tools are powered by a single, customized, water-driven dynamo. (It still works!) Leather belts drive band saws and table saws and lathes. It is a woodworker’s dream.

And the famous Pittsfield village round barn is a light, airy, and marvelously easy place to maintain and use. It was built on a hillside with a tunnel underneath, large enough for a manure wagon to travel its circumference. The stalls have trapdoors that allowed a worker to shovel the refuse speedily into the underlying wagon. Feeding the animals was just as easy. A hay wagon could be driven onto the roof to feed a central, gravity-fed silo. One man with a pitchfork walking in a tight circle at the bottom could make a quick job of giving the animals their daily fodder.

Elegant & Functional Simplicity

The Shakers’ thoughtfulness, and, to give them more credit, their loving concern for the comfort and happiness of their fellow Shakers, inspired them to invent the flat broom and the circular saw and a dozen other useful things that we take for granted today.

As I walked by samples of their handiwork in the museum that orients visitors to the Pittsfield village, I was drawn to a humble grain scoop. It was designed to move the contents of one container to another—that is all—but it is exquisite. I was reminded of Tolkien’s description, in his short tale, Smith of Wooton Major, of the tools Smith made: “They were strong and lasting, but they also had a grace about them, being shapely in their kinds, good to handle and to look at.”

Above the artifacts in the museum there are oversized quotations praising Shaker handiwork by such luminaries as Yo Yo Ma and Ken Burns. It is easy to over-credit the Shakers though. Listening to some of their admirers could lead you to believe that they carved out their vision of elegant and functional simplicity amid the opulence of Versailles. But anyone familiar with a typical village-green church can see that most of their work draws on the common forms of Puritan New England. But there is a grace about their work, a distinctive something that can be called “Shaker.”

One critic, I don’t remember whom—some artist I have never heard of but am sure I should have known—applauded Shaker handicraft by calling it “Zen.” Now when it comes to spirituality, that is high praise for the NPR crowd. But I think it is a mistake. It is not what the Shakers left out of their work that makes it Shaker but what it points to. Yes, it peels away the extraneous, but not to empty it. Shaker work is not a “not-ness” but a “this-ness” and a “that-ness.” It revels in a harmony between human work and the world in which it is performed—a harmony that reminds you that these people did believe in a sort of incarnation after all. (Indeed they believed in it so much they claimed it happened a second time. Mother Ann Lee was thought to be the incarnation of the female Christ.)

The Pull of Two Poles

So, in a way, their craft says, “We are home.” But in another way, it points up. It is characterized even more by a longing for things unseen—for a spiritual kingdom. It is this pull between the seen and the unseen, the here and the there, the now and the not yet, the earthly and the heavenly, that is the genius of the Shaker aesthetic. It is like a finely tuned string, a tension resulting from the pull of two poles.

Take a typical Shaker candle stand. It sits as lightly as possible on the floor, as though its maker wanted it to rise to heaven. But it is lightness without delicacy. It has a sensuality, but without impurity. It is even useful—especially that—but not utilitarian.

If life is art, then the demise of the Shakers tells us that one of those poles did not hold—the “here and now” pole. They loved this world, just not enough. They were impatient for a heavenly kingdom to come, and so they took matters into their own hands. It didn’t work out well; that never does.

Ladder-back chairs you climb to heaven in your thoughts yet bear the weight of a resting man, peg-racks to hang them on so Shaker women with their flat-brooms could sweep out the dirt that hid from view, oval boxes that nest in each other, fence posts that do not rot, milk-paint that has not peeled in 150 years—these things are very pleasing to consider, but they trouble me as well. Their works speak something disconcertingly close to the truth. But not close enough.

It seems to me that the Shakers at least had a vision of heaven that affirmed the earth. But they came at it from the wrong angle. They attempted to plant their feet firmly in the air and reach down to the earth and reshape it. Theirs was a religion in which man attempts to operate on himself. Heaven’s help is not atonement for sin, but insight into the “Spirit Land.” That is why there was no preaching—there was no salvation to announce—and why there was no sacramental life—there was no salvation to receive. For the Shakers, salvation came by “channeling” the Spirit Land into this world.

What we need is an affirmation of the earth that keeps our feet on the ground even as it lifts our eyes to heaven. The Shakers were right to try to hold the poles together. But their feet were attached to the wrong one.

Can we do better? I hope we can, but this hope is not based on what we can do, but on what Christ has already done. Christ is the man from heaven who came to earth and then returned to where he had come from. Like a needle and thread, he ties the two worlds together by a piercing that has passed through his own body. Consequently, he holds all things together. He is the reconciler. It is because he has come to us from above that we can approach him from below. This good earth was made by him and redeemed for him, and now we wait for him to take full possession of it.

If Shaker handiwork can remind us of how things can go elegantly wrong, it may be worth the effort the NPR crowd has put into preserving it. It may even give me the courage to hang up the copy of Hannah Cohoon’s Tree of Life that I bought in the gift shop. •

C. R. Wiley is a member of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters and has written for numerous periodicals. He is the author of The Household and the War for the Cosmos (Canon Press, 2019) and Man of the House (Wipf and Stock, 2017), as well as short fiction and the first book in a young-adult fantasy series, The Purloined Boy, which was republished by Canon Press in 2017.

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