The Shaker's gift to America

Stand at the top of the wide grassy avenue of great maples with the buildings of the Shaker Village behind you and you have a scene to delight the Norman Rockwell that lurks in every American. The clean lines of the Village buildings suggest a timeless peacefulness and the ideals that settled New England in the first place. Besides, the mountains in the distance are purple enough to sing about.

The hillside below is striped with newly cut hay laid there by enormous yellow machines. Neighboring farmers are in charge. Sister Bertha, one of the three sisters living here now, remembers a very different haymaking scene. When she came here to a bustling community 76 years ago, the job was done by 40 men moving diagonally over the field and singing as they swung their huge scythes in rhythm. The Shakers had found that when they worked side by side some grass would be left standing; otherwise one man's scyhte could lock with his neighbor's. Uncut hay offended the Shakers' economic sense (frugality makes generosity possible, they point out). So they developed their special method: On the first beat of a song of praise, the harvester at the end of the row would step out, swinging his scythe. His neighbor would begin on the next beat until every man was working, still singing to keep in time. The field would be completely, perfectly cut.

This was the kind of solution Shakers are especially good at and especially admired for. It was inventive, involved cooperation and the quest for perfection, and, like everything they do, combined work and worship.

When it comes to inventiveness, don't be surprised if a new kind of nondrip paint can comes on the market -- probably molded in plastic, though when the Shakers invented it they made it of wood. Recently, two Japanese visitors who saw it on display in the Village made copious, excited notes and drawings, so the Shaker invention may well be "Made in Japan."

Like most Shaker inventions (including the clothespin, the circular saw, swivel feet on chairs, metal pins, a machine for making tongue-and-groove joints , a five-pointed pen for drawing music staves, and wrinkle-resistant cotton), the can has never been patented -- the Shakers felt it would be unChristian not to share their ideas freely. In more recent times, though, when greedy men began stealing Shaker ideas and patenting them as their own, the Shakers did take out patents on, for instance, their very successful 1858 washing machine, and their revolving oven that could cook up to 40 pies at time. (The oven was a necessary invention, since Sister Gertrude -- Bertha, Alice, and Gertrude are the three sisters living in the Village today -- remembers the man who regularly devoured seven slices of bread and butter with his breakfast.) The Village would be enjoying a hefty income now if the Shakers had patented their most popular invention -- the flat broom.

Today, examples of Shaker inventions and improvements make an impressive exhibition in the Village meetinghouse. The reason that so much came from so few gradually becomes apparent: Nothing, Shakers believe, must be wasted -- especially time. Everything must be as nearly perfect as possible, since, like a flower that grows and blooms as it reaches for the unreachable sun, so man blossoms in the attempt to attain perfection.

Given those two precepts, a Shaker inevitably looks for ways to make everything as labor- and time-saving as possible. Then he will have more goods and more time to share with his neighbor. That explains fence posts set on rocks to prevent them from rotting, built-in cupboards, chairs to hang out of the way on pegs, and trapdoors to swallow up dirt swept from workshop floors and manure from barns. It is especially true of the lightweight, non-dust-gathering furniture designed to save space and work long before the now fashionable "form follows function" idea had been heard of.

The Shakers, Sister-Bertha told me, did not expect their plain furniture with its graceful proportions to appeal to the outside world. In fact, they used to make furniture for "the World" which was slightly more ornate than the chairs and tables they used themselves.

What they did bear in mind as they crafted their furniture, packaged their seeds, and made their sweaters and cloaks (Mrs. Grover Cleveland ordered one for an inaugural ball, but the Shakers insisted on making a second, since the first had a tiny, barely visible flaw) was an important article of faith: that work is an expression of God's love and should be performed with love in the workers' hearts for the person who would use their handiwork.

This Shaker Village is just outside the tiny travel-poster village of Canterbury, N.H., not exactly on the beaten path. So, as Sister Bertha pointed out, visitors who make their way here usually arrive already interested in the Shaker way of life. Even so, on the four tours I made I found the visitors amazingly respectful and enthusiastic. They admired the Shaker philosophy, relished the peace and order, and enjoyed the workmanship. They noticed that the huge stone steps to the meetinghouse had been hewn out of one piece of granite. They liked the fact that when the Shakers drained the marshes, they built five ponds and five mills that recycled the water so thoroughly that neighboring farmers said it was "tired water." The guide showed us the vegetable garden and told how in earlier years poor neighbors had crept in at night and helped themselves. The Shakers didn't want to accuse them of theft, so they simply grew extra to allow for the raids.

Less attractive to some visitors is the Shaker emphasis on celibacy and order so strict that it suggests regimentation. But order, the Shakers say, brings freedom -- freedom from chaos, mentally and physically.

In the early days of the Shaker movement (Mother Ann Lee brought it from England to the United States on Aug. 6, 1774), "freedom" seems to have involved a most unappealing uniformity. "When we clasp our hands," runs Order No. 16, Part IV of "The Order," "our right thumbs and fingers should be above our left, as uniformity is comely."

By the 1870s, some mellowing had set in. The movement had passed its zenith a few decades back, with 6,000 members in 18 villages. The shaking which had been an important part of their worship (and the cause of some cruel persecution) had evolved into a dance, and interest in spiritualism had faded away. At one time flowers couldn't be raised for beauty and were never allowed in the house. ("Now we just love them," Sister Bertha told me, "because that too was planned by God.") The once frowned-upon pets are also cherished.

So in 1904, when the eight-year-old-Bertha came to the Village, she found a much gentler life, a way of life based on principles which have not changed radically since then. Men and women were still living in different houses, wearing Shaker clothing. (Women's dress had a uniform style, but the colors could differ.) The sexes were still treated as equal, but with distinctly different roles.

"I came as an orphan," Sister Bertha told me. "I had brothers and sisters, but they were all older than I. My mother and father passed away when I was 4. My mother wanted me to be placed with the Shakers when they would take me.

"It so happened that there were some little girls here at the time that were a little younger than I, so we lived in a children's order for the little girls up to 12 or 13.

"My very best friend was Sister Lillian Phelps. She was a very wonderful person -- very religious. She was also full of fun, because I don't think you have to lose your sense of humor. After all, religion is a joyful experience. There's hardly a passage in the Psalms but it says, 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord . . . .'"

Did they have any fun?

"Fun?" she said; "I've been here 76 years. Would I have stayed that long if we didn't have any fun?"

Shakers have always welcomed orphans like Bertha Lindsay, partly because the future of the movement was largely dependent on them. In fact, if Bertha had been one of the orphans coming to the Village in 1859, she would have had a maple planted in her name. It would have been her job to care for it, thus teaching her responsibility and providing the Village with a handsome tree-lined avenue and a source of sugar.

"We didn't bring up the young people with the idea that they would become Shakers. The only things we tried to teach them was the right way to live and to give them a good school education. Other than that it was a personal thing with each individual. And when they reached the age of 21 they could decide whether they wanted to stay or not.

"Believe it nor not, there were 45 or 50 who came after I did and only four of that number remained to be Shakers. We hated to see the children leave us -- hated to see them not choose to stay, but that isn't our way. It isn't compulsory for anyone to remain here."

Those who left took with them a thorough schooling, a training in at least one trade, and the Shakers' blessing.

I wanted to know if, despite official discouragement, any of the girls and boys had married each other.

"We're human beings like everyone else," Sister Bertha said. "so, of course it happened many times that a brother or sister fell in love with each other. But they were asked to leave or knew they couldn't stay so asked to leave themselves.

"It isn't that we don't believe in marriage, because even when I was in my early 20s I thought that it would be nice if I left and could marry and have a family. I love people, and while I have always said I didn't want children of my own, I love to take care of other people's children. So I would certainly have adopted some. But in thinking it over, and in talking with the older sisters, I decided that right here I had enough to do to keep me busy, to keep me interested, and to fulfill my desires in every way. So it's been a wonderful experience. I had a lot of children right here that I have helped to mother."

Perhaps it was the Shaker's conception of the motherhood of God that made that possible?

"Yes. Even now I have a lot of young men and women that I love dearly. I try to help them when they come. It's such a blessing to be able to be with young people."

There are now only nine Shakers left: three here and six in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Will the religion die out?

"Well, Mother Ann gave a prophecy that when the numbers got down to as many as a child could count on one hand, there would be a revival. But she added that new bees do not return to the old hives, meaning that they would not come into a society that had already been in existence. They would start a new place. And they might not be called Shakers. But they would try to live by the teachings of Christ and the principles and the ideas that the Shakers have tried to live by.

"So we throughly believe that that has already started, because we have lots of young people come here, through the summer particularly, that are really seeking something substantial and some new way to go."

I wondered how she would define those enduring "principles and ideas."

"The philosophy of the Shakers is very simple. You see, we have no creed; we simply believe in living by the teachings of Christ as he taught them. It's the Golden Rule; we believe in the motherhood and the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. I think that encompasses just about everything that anyone would neet to live by."

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