Hancock Shaker Village

An innovative community of believers animated this town for nearly two centuries; today its legacy is preserved for visitors

ON a winter's day 100 years ago, this village in the Berkshire Hills would have been a beehive of activity.

Shaker brothers would be working in the woodshop or tending the cattle in the round barn, while sisters bustled about in the state-of-the-art kitchen preparing the next meal or labored in the laundry doing the wash for 300 people. Customers from ``the World'' - as Shakers referred to nonmembers - would be thronging to buy Shaker cloaks, boxes, seeds, spices, and preserves in the village shop.

Although the Shakers practiced strict celibacy and men and women lived apart, the sounds of children were not absent: An excellent Shaker school educated both the offspring of converts and the orphans taken in by the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing - the Shakers' official name.

The Shakers came to Hancock in 1790 and lived here until 1959. The sect began as an offshoot of the Quakers in England: Their devotional ecstasies and dancing earned them the appellation ``shaking Quakers,'' which soon was shortened to Shakers.

Their founder was ``Mother'' Ann Lee, who led a small group to America in 1774 to escape persecution. Her followers thrived in the New World, but the persecution did not stop. After settling in Niskeyuna, near Albany, N.Y., Mother Ann traveled east to Massachusetts to preach the gospel. She made many converts, but was stoned and almost killed by angry opponents in Harvard, Mass.

The Shakers saw Mother Ann as the initiator of the millennium, the female personification of God, thus making her equal with Christ. Mother Ann, who had been forcibly married off as a young woman to an abusive husband, required celibacy and strict equality between men and women. In both spiritual and business matters, boards composed of equal numbers of men and women handled community affairs.

While they practiced an unusual communal lifestyle, the Shakers did not reject modernity. Indeed, they were serious innovators who invented many products still in use today: the flat broom, the circular saw, and packaged seeds, herbs, and spices.

The Shakers remained centered around New England and New York, but they founded villages as far away as Kentucky. Their way of life became increasingly precarious: Industrialization after the Civil War threatened their cottage industries; fewer potential converts were willing to accept the celibate life; and state orphanages took the parentless children the Shakers had earlier cared for. The Shakers were forced to consolidate in fewer and fewer villages. Today, a handful of Shakers live at the last active village in Sabbath-Day Lake, Maine.

But their ``City of Peace'' at Hancock, which they sold to a foundation pledged to maintain it, remains. Although its architecture and design are mostly devoid of ornament, one can feel here the same presence of deep spirituality and faith that is felt in great cathedrals. Here people lived their lives and did their best work for the glory of God.

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