THE SHAKER MUSEUM
in Hancock, Mass. Is located on the site of what has been, from 1783 to 1960, an active Shaker community beloved by its residents as “The City of Peace.” When I visited, I could see why More than that, I could feel why. That spring afternoon, I stepped out of the daily clamor of modern life and into a calmer, more hospitable world. As I walked amid the graceful, sturdy buildings of clap-board, stone and brick, something of their abundant grace settled deep within me. Still, I was surprised to find myself wondering: Is this heaven on earth?
In 1758, a textile mill worker named Ann Lee joined the Wardleys’ meeting, and this charismatic young woman would chart the course of Shaker history. Under Lee’s leadership, in 1771 the group officially became “The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing .” Arrested numerous times during a period of religious persecution, Ann Lee experienced visions in jail. These visions instructed Lee that believers must be celibate to follow Christ. They also compelled Mother Ann, as she came to be known to lead the Shakers to the New World It would be a harrowing journey, but Lee got a little heavenly help. During its transatlantic crossing, the ship Moriah sprang a leak. The culprit: a loose plank. Crew and passengers desperately pumped water out of the sinking vessel. Ann Lee told the captain not to worry “Not a hair on our heads shall perish, and we shall arrive safely in America,” she assured him , “For I was just now sitting by the mast, and I saw a bright angel of God, through whom I received the promise.” As Lee spoke a giant wave hit, jerking the loose plank back into place and saving the boat ----the work, no doubt, of the angel she had seen earlier by the mast.
Soon after the Mariah docked in New York harbor, Mother Ann led the Shakers to a house on Queen Street. “I am commissioned of the Almighty God to preach the everlasting Gospel to America,” Ann Lee announced to its owner, “and an Angel commanded me to come to this house, and to make a home for me and my people.”
The lady of the house welcomed the Shakers into her home, and engaged their leader as a housemaid. The Believers found a haven in the New World, if not quite heaven on earth. That was still to come.
By the time Ann Lee died in 1784, she and her disciples had spread the Shaker gospel throughout New York and New England. Her followers Elder Joseph Meacham and Eldress Lucy Wright developed the ideas of communal living that would shape the Shaker experience. The first Shaker community was established at New Lebanon, N.Y, in 1787; within 40 years, the Shakers had put down roots as far north as Maine and as far west as Indiana. For a society covenanted to celibacy, converts were essential for survival. The qualities that attracted new believers are eloquently articulated in “Beautiful Valley,” a famous 1825 song by Brother John Whitbey of the Pleasant Hill, Ky., community:
Ye lone sons of misfortune, come hither
Where joys bloom and never shall wither;
Where faith binds all people together;
In firm love to the sov’reign I am.
The serene beauty of Shaker villages reflected not only the Believers’ all-pervading faith, but also their hard work and ingenuity Mother Ann had instilled within the Shakers a maxim that only a textile-mill-worker-turned-prophetess could formulate: “Hands to work, hearts to God.” For Shakers, work and worship were of a piece. In both, they sought to give glory to God.
The Believers’ commitment to perfection is beautifully expressed in their objects, and it did not take long for the Shakers to earn a reputation for the excellence of their craftsmanship. The monk and writer Thomas Merton grasped what accounts for the breathtaking effect of Shaker furniture. “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair,” Merton wrote “is due to the fact that it was made by someone cap-able of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”
Merton understood that angels were ever in the Believers’ midst. Their presence is most evident in the years from the late 1830s to the 1850s, when Shaker member-ship was thriving, and gifts of the spirit and heavenly communications were most abundant. Much of the Shakers’ finest art dates to this period, best represented by the symbolically loaded ‘gift drawings” made mainly by sisters at New Lebanon and Hancock. Despite the talent that went into the drawings, their makers saw themselves as mediums, not artists, because they “received” the drawings directly from angels.
Hannah Cohoon describes the source of the gift drawings in an annotation to her celebrated 1845 image, “The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree.” Just below the tree, with each of its dark leaves painstakingly emblazoned by fine, bright-red flares Sister Hannah inscribed in her graceful hand: “I saw the whole Tree as the Angel held it before me as distinctly as I ever saw a natural tree. I felt very curious when I took hold of it lest the blaze should touch my hand. Seen and received by Hannah Cohoon in the City of Peace.”
Only 30 years later, Shaker membership began its steady decline. For all of their toil and ingenuity the Believers could not compete with the means of production heralded by the industrial revolution. Shaker men were lured away in great numbers by work opportunities created by the economic boom. As the nineteenth century came to an end, so too had many Shaker communities. “There is a trad-ition among the Shakers,” the historian Stephen J. Stein writes, “that Ann Lee, looking to the future, spoke about a time when the number of Believers would decline to the point that those remaining would not be sufficient to bury their dead. At that moment in history it is said, there will be anew outpouring of interest in the Shaker gospel and the society will be reborn.” Today, four Shakers remain, in one active community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Aware of the popularity of Shaker furniture, the late Sabbathday Lake Eldress Mildred Barker once quipped, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair.” As magnificent as a Shaker ladder-back is, I can only hope that the Believers are remembered too, for the depth of their faith, and for the unusually intimate relationship they enjoyed with the angels in their midst. That day in Hancock, I felt like part of that relationship, as though Mother Ann herself had presented to me a little piece of heaven, if just for an afternoon.
ANGELS on EARTH
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Carmel, NY 10512
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