OF PIETY AND PITCHFORKS. Two artful books honor disappearing Shakers and their practical practice of a religion of simplicity
Canterbury, N.H. — ELDRESS Bertha Lindsay is one of the last few Shakers in the world. It's unlikely there will ever be even one other. As you sit next to her near the entrance to one of the buildings at Shaker Farm here, her beautiful simplicity, dignity - and, yes, age - make you feel as if you're in the presence of spiritual history itself. A remainder and reminder of another epoch: of piety and pitchforks.
Eldress Bertha is a portrait in white: white Shaker net cap caring for her white hair, white embroidery resting on a traditional Shaker collar, and white face, hoary now with years of an indoor trade in meeting visitors.
She writes of conveying the Shaker spirit to them:
``The people who have lived before us, the wonderful, consecrated lives that have been lived here, have, I think, left their impression. We think that it is our mission now, to give that spirit to people as they come here.''
For 200 years, Shakers, like her, have turned their hands to the worship of God in everyday life. This worship has been expressed in acts of Christian love and charity, and in the creation of clean-lined mundane items such as furniture, tools, and oval, wooden boxes - and in the frequent but judicious use of herbs in cooking.
The graceful simplicity of Shaker furniture makes it increasingly valuable. Ironically, it's sold through the same high-powered New York auction houses that market multimillion-dollar Impressionist paintings.
In addition, few people realize that Shakers invented the automatic washing machine about a hundred years ago. They even ``invented'' the packaging of seeds. But this is a very small sampling of their creations.
Like all Shakers, Eldress Bertha believes that the love and useful ideas this remarkable movement brought into the world are inspirations from God and - one way or the other - will remain.
She writes: ``...we don't accept that Shakerism is going to die, ever. The physical aspects of Shakerism may disappear, but the life of dedication will always be here, and the principles of Shakerism will go on forever.''
As testimony - at least for the present - to the continuity of Shaker belief and beauty appear two gorgeous books: ``Shaker: Life, Work, and Art,'' and ``The Shakers: Hands to Work Hearts to God.''
Amy Stechler Burns, author of ``The Shakers,'' reports that ``...Shakerism endures, not through the active practice of thriving communities, but through the power of the spirit that has been left behind. Shakerism still speaks for the eternal striving of humanity toward God.
``It speaks through the buildings and furniture, photographs, writings, and music that the Shakers instilled with their spirit. Testament to this are the enormous crowds that visit the restored village sites every year, and the exorbitant prices that people will pay to own a piece of furniture crafted by Shaker hands.''
The photographs and design of both books are stunning. Each four-color print by photographer Michael Freeman in ``Shaker'' is a work of art in itself, depicting Shaker crafts, farms - even the rooms are seen as works of practical art.
Designer David Larkin, for-mer art director of Pan Books in Britain, has chosen a large format and clean layout. He uses the Shaker rail (pegboard) motif several times along the tops of pages to collect series of pages. The resulting design speaks as loudly as the text and photographs themselves.
The writing is apparently primarily the work of June Sprigg, curator of collections at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., and author of several books and arti-cles on the Shakers.
It's wonderfully done with chapter headings such as ``A Day in the Life,'' ``A Brief History,'' and ``The Shakers at Work.'' There is also a fine selected bibliography.
Of the equality of Shaker men and women, Ms. Sprigg writes:
``The Shakers were far ahead of their contemporaries in believing that women and men were equal in ability and respon-sibility. Shaker Brethren and Sisters shared equally in leadership, an unusually pro-gressive practice for the nineteenth cen-tury.
``When one visitor learned of the Shakers' acceptance of women as leaders, he was prompted to ask, `Suppose a woman wanted, in your Family, to be a blacksmith, would you consent?'
``The answer was an unhesitating no, because it would bring Sisters and Brethren into a relationship that the celibate Shakers did not think wise....
``In times of need, Shaker men and women assisted each other with chores. One Brother wrote gratefully in 1837, `The Sisters have been so very generous as to turn out & top the beets,' which were raised for cattle feed. `They are worthy many thanks.'
``He had good reason to be thankful - they had finished 500 bushels.''
``The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God,'' an Aperture Foundation publication, is a similar book, with four-color photography by Ken Burns, Langdon Clay (``Jefferson's Monticello''), and Jerome Liebling. Amy Stechler Burns has written an intelligent text. The book is based on a film by Burns and Burns, who are filmmakers.
``The Shakers'' approaches its subject with more of a historical format than ``Shaker,'' with chapters running generally in historical order. For example, ``Opening the Gospel'' (starting with founder Ann Lee's birth), ``Gathering the Order,'' and ``The Kentucky Revival.''
An introduction by Eldress Bertha, quoted from ``The Shakers'' here above and below, and black-and-white photos from various Shaker collections are outstanding features.
The book design is top-notch, and as artistic as that of ``Shaker.'' It has a bibliography, too, and a helpful chronological chart.
The Shaker life described in both these books will soon disappear - largely because Shakerism is a celibate religion - but also because of changed contemporary religious attitudes and restrictive laws passed toward the beginning of the century. These laws virtually made it impossible for Shakers to adopt orphans or other homeless children.
Eldress Bertha writes: ``...we feel that we can serve God better singly.... While we're celibate, we can have a universal love for everyone.''
And the dedication to her beliefs endures.
As a Shaker brother wrote in 1837:
Tho' the number in the hive Should be lessened down to five I shall of this number be Then we'll say so let it be
The number has ``lessened down'' to eight.
As the last Shakers pass from us, their work and their thoughts will remain - and perhaps nowhere more beautifully than as depicted in these books by non-Shakers from ``the World,'' as the group calls outsiders.
The Shaker brother's own simple benediction, ``so let it be,'' rests upon him, them - and these two tributes.
A Shaker hymn I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and he humble, Yea bow like the willow tree. I will bow this is the token, I will wear the easy yoke, I will bow and be broken, Yea I'll fall upon the rock.