My daughter and I visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a Father/Daughter mini-vacation over the Memorial Day weekend. Both halls, much to our surprise, took only a half day to see. We had planned a day apiece. So with the extra time available we decide to add one more stop on our way home; Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. I had been there three times prior, but my daughter had never visited a Shaker village and both she and I wanted her to see it.
The Shakers are a significant part of my life. I was born at home, on Albany Shaker Road in Colonie, New York, approximately one mile from Mother Ann Lee’s grave and the site of the founding village in Niskayuna, New York. I spent my childhood ice skating on the Shaker Pond where the Shakers cut ice in the winter. I worked on a farm owned by the Engel family who were very close friends of our family, and to this day attend our family reunion each year. The family elder, Walt Engel, worked for the Shakers cutting ice during the winter when farm activity was slow. Working next to him in the fields he would regale my brothers and me with Shaker stories. I graduated from Shaker High School in 1963. Throughout my life I have always been attracted to simple Early American furniture with a special liking of Shaker pieces. To this day my own furniture designs are guided by my early Shaker influence. Some of you may not know, or heard of the Shakers. The following is a digest history.
Ann Lee, born February 29, 1736, was a member of a group derisively referred to as Shaking Quakers due to their spontaneous dancing that accompanied their worship. The group resided in Manchester, England where they were often persecuted, beaten and imprisoned. From early youth Ann believed she experienced “divine manifestations” and believed that intercourse and its sexual pleasures were sinful. However her parents convinced her to marry a blacksmith with whom she had four children. All died in infancy. This experience and her religious beliefs later led to her strong belief in celibacy, void of marital family structure.
Ann herself was imprisoned in 1770 at the age of 34. While in prison she experienced Christ more strongly than ever. After being released from prison Ann Lee, with her strong belief in the second coming of Christ and a vision of what living a Christ like life must be, eventually became the leader of the Shakers, now formally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s First and Second Appearing. The group bestowed on her the title of Mother and she was from then on known as Mother Ann. Members of the Shakers were called Sister or Brother.
Due to continued persecution, in 1774 Ann Lee led seven of her followers, including her husband, brother, niece and a wealthy financier to America arriving in New York City on August 6, 1774. Her husband abandoned the group shortly thereafter. Upon arriving they split up to find work but two years later bought 200 acres in Niskayuna located in the township of Watervliet, NY.
The Shakers practiced their religion quietly and without much notice. As a communal sect they farmed, made their own furniture, tools, equipment and built buildings. Because of their beliefs they opened their own schools. They remained under the radar until a period in colonial life when many people feared religion was being lost in American society. The Shakers offered what was considered a pure religion and was soon discovered by those seeking a deeper dedication. Mother Ann recognized this and from 1781 to 1783 traveled throughout Eastern New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut as a missionary seeking converts, who once converted opened new villages.
Shaker orthodoxy included celibacy, equality of the sexes and races, pacifism, communal living and property ownership, strict Christian worship and confession of sins. In support of these beliefs there were no marriages or children born into the Believers. Their numbers grew by converts and adoption, particularly of orphaned children. Upon entering the Shaker community converts offered all their property and belongings to the community. Shaker communities were governed by four elders, two women and two men, which served to support their belief in equality. Indeed after Mother Ann’s passing on September 8, 1784 the Shakers as a whole were led by Mother Lucy Wright and Father Joseph Meacham.
Mother Ann died from frailty largely as a result of her missionary work from 1781 through 1783, where she often met with violence and beatings from those who viewed Shakers as troublesome. This was particularly true in Shirley, Massachusetts. But Mother Ann almost always succeeded in her mission. The Shakers survived and thrived well beyond her life to become the America’s most successful communal sect. At their peak there was 19 major communities with a population between 4 – 5 thousand members and stretched from Kentucky to Maine. A community sprung up even in Shirley, MA, where Mother Ann was tormented and beaten. Mother Ann never lived to see the completion of a village but her convictions and guidance remained the focus of Shaker life.
The Shaker contribution to American society went well beyond beautiful and simple furniture to the creation of the circular saw (table saw), the flat broom, packaged seeds, clothes pins and many other inventions.
The Shakers were good neighbors, they paid taxes, obeyed the laws, sold their wares to the community and purchased goods and services from the community. They took in workers who were unemployed and gave them jobs, took in abandoned and orphaned children and gave them homes and love, and yes, most importantly to a woodworker gave us a clean, beautiful in its simplicity, furniture style.
The Shaker orthodoxy, their beliefs and Mother Ann’s strong guidance shaped their furniture with a simple principle, simplicity of purpose, that is, form follows function and nothing more. Mother Ann instructed her followers to “do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as you would if you knew you would die tomorrow.” To the woodworker this meant build it to last and don’t procrastinate. Father Joseph Meacham wrote “All work done, or things made in the Church for their own use ought to be faithfully and well done, but plain and without superfluity.” To the woodworker this meant well joined, simple trim and no ornate pieces or carvings. It is stated in the Millennial Laws that guided the Church that “Members of the church of God…are forbidden to make anything for Believers that will have a tendency to feed…pride and vanity”. Indeed, signing a piece was not allowed early on, although in the 19th century many Shaker woodworkers did sign their work but always hidden from plain sight.
Despite the avoidance of “superfluity” and simplicity of purpose, Shaker furniture is beautiful, it is elegant in its simplicity, and it is nothing else if not well constructed. Thumbnailed drawer edges, mushroom shaped pulls, dovetailed drawers and carcasses, brilliantly arranged and proportioned doors and drawers, functionally configured desks, sewing benches and tables all combine to give us this unique and beautiful style. Perhaps never again will there be such a distinctive style tied so closely to so few a people as Shaker furniture is to the Shakers – and their beliefs.
To anyone who wants to know more about the Shakers and their works I highly recommend a book titled “The Complete Book Of Shaker Furniture” by Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks. I also suggest you visit the websites of Hancock Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village or Shaker Villages And Museums.