“A cult is a cult is a cult no matter how benign,” said Alie. We were visiting Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, the largest restored Shaker community, and the “shakin’” wasn’t what Jerry Lee Lewis had in mind.
Mother Ann Lee, born in Manchester England in 1736, founded The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance, more commonly known as the Shakers. She and her followers came to the English American colonies in 1774 and founded a community in New York where she died in 1784.
Seeking spiritual solace from a traumatic life, Mother Ann’s basic tenets included celibacy, a simple communal life, open confession of sins, and that Christ would reappear in female form. Eventually, Believers were to accept she was the reincarnation of Christ.
In 1805, three missionaries from the New York community arrived in Kentucky and established a community which would become Pleasant Hill.
The community eventually covered more than 4000 acres, peaking at around 500 people in the 1820s and lasting until the last half of the 19th Century.
Men and women, even married couples, lived separately “as brothers and sisters” in five large communal buildings. We saw the East House, the Center House, and the West House [named for their locations] and some of the out-buildings. More senior Shakers lived in the center house. The members of each house lived, worked, worshiped daily and even played together during the week. The entire community met one day a week for two worship services which were often attended by outsiders, “tourists.” Elders watched through windows in stairwells to see if any of the faithful were inattentive and to see what the outsiders were doing.
A guide told us they engaged in “aerobic worship.” 80 percent of the service was dancing and singing. The other 20 percent was what you might call “testimony” during which some of the Believers would stand and speak on what moved them or quote from scripture. The vigorous dancing sometimes led to what was called “shaking” perhaps resembling an epileptic fit.
Our guide had a beautiful voice and beautiful hands and demonstrated the music and dancing and led us in a few slow ones that she said the more elderly residents might have done. The music started as chants but evolved into songs which were printed so all could follow the words. One was quite beautiful. She said it was adapted by Aaron Copland for his Appalachian Spring.
I was impressed that an 18th century religion was quite gender and race neutral. In addition to many female leaders, our guide told us about one prominent African-American leader at a time when slavery was still common in Kentucky. But Alie pointed out, the women still did all the cooking, sewing, spinning and washing, while the men worked at farming and crafts.
Inherent elements of the religion were simplicity, cleanliness and order. They engaged in a continuous search for perfection in all aspects of their lives. Shaker design is very simple and elegant, one would even say “modern.” Pegs line the walls of the buildings. Everything from benches and chairs to clothing and tools was hung from the pegs which made keeping the floors clean easier. Candle and lamp holders had long handles with multiple holes so that the light could be raised or lowered depending on where it was hung on a peg.
The Shakers did not avoid the rest of the world. They sold their food, crafts, honey and produce to wide markets. They invented the “seed packet” now common for gardeners and are credited with inventing the flat broom.
People had many reasons for joining the Shakers. Some sought spiritual solace, some sought escape from their troubles, some sought a utopia, and some sought a roof over their heads and food to eat. But the requirement for celibacy limited recruitment. Communal life does not eliminate leadership rivalries. Finally, their “simple” ways could not compete with an increasingly industrialized world. The community died out in the late eighteen hundreds.
Click on photos to enlarge.
Date of our visit: 27 Aug 18