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Shakers

Category: Mystic groups and systems

Shaker furniture

The Shakers were a Protestant religious denomination officially called ‘The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing’

They originated in Manchester [England] in 1747 and were a spin off from the Quakers.

Both groups believed that everybody could find ‘God’ within him or herself, rather than through clergy or rituals, but the Shakers took up the baton of quaking from the Quakers when persecution and dogma took over in the Quakers.

The Shakers and Music

The Shakers considered music to be an essential component of the religious experience.

Shakers dancing

In Shaker society, a spiritual "gift" could also be a musical revelation, and the musical inspirations were recorded as they occurred using a form of music notation which used letters of the alphabet, along with a simple notation of conventional rhythmic values -  the melodic material is derived from European scales and modes.  Many of the lyrics to Shaker tunes consist of syllables and words from unknown tongues, the musical equivalent of glossolalia [speaking in tongues]. The Shakers composed thousands of songs, and also created many dances.

Most early Shaker music is monodic, that is to say, composed of a single melodic line with no harmonization [a form of chant]. Many melodies are of extraordinary grace and beauty, and the Shaker song repertoire is an important part of the American cultural heritage and of world religious music in general.

History

 

The Shakers were founded by Ann Lee, the ‘unlettered daughter’ of a blacksmith, born in Manchester [UK] in 1736.

Like many of that time she was sent to work in a textile mill, but at the age of 22 she joined the Quakers, who at that time were using shaking and dancing to induce direct religious experience. 

In 1770, during a period of religious persecution by the English authorities, Lee was imprisoned and while in jail became convinced of the truth of certain religious ideas perceived in a vision. She came to believe that only through celibacy could men and women ‘further God’s kingdom on Earth’.

 

Four years later, commanded as the result of another vision, Lee persuaded her husband, brother, and six other followers to immigrate to America.

There, her followers founded a settlement in the woods of Niskeyuna (now Watervliet), near Albany (in present-day New York state). Beginning with an influx of converts from nearby settlements, the Shaker movement grew and began to spread throughout New England to embrace thousands.

Over time, Ann Lee came to be known as Mother Ann.  In 1780, Mother Ann was imprisoned for treason because of her pacifist doctrines and her refusal to sign an oath of allegiance. She was soon released and in 1781–83 toured New England. According to witnesses, she performed a number of miracles, including healing the sick by touch.

 

After her death in 1784, her followers organized themselves around the catchy name of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but which we know of as the Shakers, and which by 1826 had grown to encompass 18 Shaker villages in 8 states - throughout New England and the Midwest, as well as in Georgia and Florida.

In 1911 Wallace H. Cathcart, Director of the Western Reserve Historical Society, began collecting Shaker memorabilia.

The collection consists of covenants, laws, legal records, land records, financial records, membership records, correspondence, diaries, journals, testimonies, biographies, addresses, sermons, essays, inspired writings and drawings (also known as spirit drawings), other writings, music, poetry, recipes, prescriptions, school books, instructional texts, scrapbooks, photographs, and miscellaneous material relating to 20 Shaker communities located in 10 eastern States.  These are an invaluable resource, if you are interested in finding out more.

Organisation

 

The Shaker communities were organised around villages in which everyone was equal, male and female, black and white, old or young, although the old were especially venerated for their wisdom.  Two elders and two ‘eldresses’ governed each community. 

To a Shaker, ‘God’ was not male.  God was male and female – in fact their definition came closer to that of the Ultimate Intelligence than it did to the old male oriented Father invention of institutionalised Christianity.  Male and female had to be equal, as without equality, there was no ‘balance’.  They fully recognised the huge dangers inherent in male dominated cultures and their communities were always organised around this balance.

 

All property was jointly owned, as such this completely squashed the idea of ‘possession’ and wealth, it removed the big block to all spiritual progress -  ‘desire’, and it ensured that the only competition was based around the community as a unit, not the individual. 

Their clothes were simple and practical, but all the same, so the idea of ‘fashion’ was meaningless. 

 It sounds idyllic, but they worked very very hard, on whatever skill they possessed.  They rose at 5.30 am and after doing their morning chores sat down to a communal breakfast before going back to work.   Some taught the children, some cooked and baked, some sewed and wove cloth, some cleaned, some painted, some were woodworkers, some invented, some became architects, some kept bees, some grew vegetables and fruit. Work was rotated so each had the chance to learn a trade.  But they ate three good meals a day, and in the evenings they listened to stories and music.  And they sang and prayed and loved together.

 

All the houses and buildings were designed around communal living, a sort of monastic community in which both sexes were represented, but slept apart.  There were children in this community, for although the ‘brothers and sisters’ had no children themselves, they looked after orphans and the abandoned, who grew up cared for, but free to leave when they came of age, many stayed.

The communities were organised around the concept of ‘families’, but a family was simply a loving group of people who cared for each other on an individual basis.  As many of the communities were quite large, anything from 300 to 800 people, the family concept ensured that there was always a group as a nucleus from which support could be obtained.

 

These communities were largely self-sufficient. 

They obtained whatever they did not have but had need of, by trading with the ‘outside world’ using the produce of their own gardens or their own workmanship. 

They were entirely self-sufficient in food and their gardens were a wonder to behold with use of companion planting.  The Shakers were strong believers in the idea of eating for health, as such the idea of a ‘physic garden’ – a garden for healing plants, had no particular meaning.  All plants healed.  Some you ate only now and again, some you ate on a regular basis.  Needless to say they were entirely ‘organic’ using compost and animal [chicken and cow] dung as fertiliser.

 

As we know today the workmanship of the Shakers was second to none. 

They devoted the same care and attention to every one of the things they made from the smallest clothes pin [which, incidentally, they invented] to the largest house. 

They aimed to instill their beliefs into their work, representing their joy and love of the beauty of creation into the artefacts that they produced.  In a sense they were thus a true extension of the Creation.  The aim was to create perfection and there was never any sense of ‘profit’ attached to their artistry.

 

 They were driven by love – love for their fellow creatures, love for the Creation and love of their fellow man.  When the birds took their vegetables or locals stole their produce, they accepted it - 'we plant in threes, one share for us, and two for God's other creatures'.  They were lovers of sacred geography and believed fervently in the idea of ‘creating heaven on earth’.  If you find the Shaker furniture and houses to be beautiful, you are in some senses seeing heaven, because the Shakers were clearly ‘in touch’ with the spirit all the time. 

 

What is key is that the ecstatic dancing gradually faded away, in fact, the frenzied shaking and quaking lasted only about ten years, it was then replaced by chanting, then by singing and dancing to their music, and all eventually centred around the activities – Love, Friendship and companionship and Love with Visualisation

They did not employ sex magick, or sexual stimulation, their celibacy was complete, but instead, all the pent-up sexual energy was channelled into creativity.  It was a form of positive unrequited love!

The result was extraordinary, because the inventiveness and creativity of the Shakers is legendary.  They learnt how to bind books, they raised silk worms and produced their own silk, they installed running water in their homes and a form of sewerage system – at a time when most of the rest of America was going to the river or the well.  They used photography, they wove cloth, but also made artworks using the loom.  They were the first people to sell packets of seeds for use by others.  It was a Shaker woman, who invented the circular saw.

 

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne considered joining the Shakers, but instead he helped to bring slaves to the communities so that they could live a free life. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson considered their way of life a perfect form of living and when he founded his own utopian community, he did so using the Shakers as a model. 

Many had enormous admiration for the values and ethics of the communities, and in many cases the only stumbling block to their joining was the celibacy and the feeling that they might have more influence by remaining outside the Community, spreading Shaker ideas in different ways. 

 

Thomas Jefferson indicated that if all communities lived in this way the world would be a sort of paradise – free healthcare, free schooling, support in old age, love and not hate, creativity and not destruction.

But, for a time, they faded away, because perfection once achieved cannot last.  All things change, the wheel turns.  Materialism placed its grubby hands on the collar of the young and they stopped coming.

Dance, dance wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance said He

 But there are indications that the wheel has now turned full circle and new communities, like the Shakers, are starting to be formed again.  Not called Shakers and different, but communities with the same ideals and the same love of their fellow man, the creation, their fellow creatures and the concept of perfection and not profit.

Good ideas never really go away.

References

We could have quoted from the ecstatic visions of people like Ann Lee or Hanna Chauncey, but instead, we decided it would be more in line with the Shakers to use their music.  So the observations provide examples of Shaker music.

 

Observations

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