Simple Gifts

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

                                                                          Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

                                                                             ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

                                                                              To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

                                                                              Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

                                                                                                        – Words and Lyrics by Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848

The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in autumn
The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in autumn

Ooooh I’m suffering from major AGM envy! Several of my fellow Austen Authors are gathered in Louisville, KY right now for the JASNA Annual General Meeting, and it absolutely pains me to not be there, especially as I have a great attachment to Louisville, where my husband went to school and my in-laws live. But my place in the world is now Switzerland, which truly is a “valley of love and delight.” So I may not be able to partake of the festivities: c’est la vie! What I can do is share a little bit of my knowledge and experiences of my absolutely favorite 19th century historical site in Kentucky: the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill.

We receive little hint in Austen of the evangelical and revivalist movements of the 19th century. Mary Bennet is mocked for her religious austerity, but that is about as close as we come. However, the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a boom time for dissenters, or those who interpreted christianity in a manner differing from the Church of England. Unsurprisingly, many persecuted believers found their way to the United States, where they hoped for more religious freedom.

Amazing stairway designed by Micajah Burnett
Amazing stairway designed by Micajah Burnett

One of the new sects was the Shakers, or The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a group that splintered from the larger Quaker movement. Led by “Mother” Ann Lee, whom the group believed to be the second manifestation of Christ, a small group of believers left England for the New World in May of 1774. Ironically, they were imprisoned upon arrival for six months due to their refusal to take an oath of allegiance. Nevertheless, this was the beginning of what became a powerful utopian movement, at its height in the mid-19th century having many thousands of adherents living the Shaker lifestyle in a bevy of communities across the northeast and mid-west.

There are a few (like four) Shakers still living in their community at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, but the groups fierce belief in abstinence prevented it from ever becoming mainstream. Shaker men and women, who were considered completely equal within the community and divided all leadership roles, lived in separated communal houses. All property was shared. Everyone worked in the self-supporting communities, as the act of labor was considered a path to god. I’ve always wondered how much abstinence fueled the amazing creations the Shakers produced (need to channel that energy somewhere), for they were incredibly innovative, inventing such things as the first washing machine. The Village at Pleasant Hill is an architectural marvel. Brother Micajah Burnett, who joined the group with his parents at the age of 17, was a self-taught architect who designed the main buildings in the village, using innovative techniques to create large, open spaces, minimizing obstructive beams and supports. The buildings are in amazing condition all these years later. The acoustics in the Meetinghouse he designed are phenomenal. As Shaker worship involves ecstatic singing and dancing, the entire room must have erupted with their voices, clapping, and stomping. Above the main floor of the Meetinghouse was the housing for the village elders: two women and two men.

Attic of the Meetinghouse designed by Micajah Burnett

When I visited Pleasant HiIl we were taken into the attic of the Meetinghouse to see the impressive beams and supports. It is architecturally astounding, but also very dusty. My allergies becoming unbearable while our tour guide spoke, I excused myself and returned, alone, to the living quarters for the elders. The walls were decorated with photographs of Shakers over the years, and I was diligently studying these when something bumped into me, swinging my purse around so that it collided with my chest. I spun around to see who it was, but there was no one there. Keep in mind that while the living quarters are separated into rooms, it is still a very minimalistic space. There were no walls, pillars, or furnishing anywhere near me. I am not one to have otherworldly experiences – this is the only one I can claim – but the absolute sense of peace that filled me when this encounter occurred was truly one of the most thrilling moments of my life. Whatever or whoever it was, the experience filed me with an unshakable (ha ha) belief that the adherents of this way of life truly did create something heavenly on Earth. To visit the Shaker village is, in someways, to become a believer.

The Shakers were pacifists, like the Quakers, and were the first religious group to receive an exemption form military service during the Civil War. Though they were anti-slavery, they tended to both Union and Confederate forces who found their way to the communities. There were many African-American members, who were considered and treated as true equals in a time when even the staunchest abolitionists tended to believe in white superiority. As the members did not have children (unless the family joined as a unit), foundlings and orphans provided population stability. At age 21, members could choose to stay or remain. Most chose to leave, for no matter how prosperous and harmonious life was in the Shaker Villages, abstinence always has and will be a hard sell.

Simple and open interior of the Meetinghouse designed by Micajah Burnett
Simple and open interior of the Meetinghouse designed by Micajah Burnett

I named this post after one of my favorite songs in the world: the Shaker hymnal Simple Gifts.  Perhaps the lasting contribution of the Shakers is their music. The below video was filmed many years ago in the Meetinghosue at Pleasant Hill and recreates a Shaker call to worship and service. It is fascinating, but there is one aspect that is not very authentic (other than the fact that Mother Ann never made it to Kentucky), namely the singing. As Shakers believed that god gave everyone a distinct voice, they did not believe in harmonizing their songs. Everyone sang in whatever key was natural to them. The performers in this video are a chorus, and they use elaborate arrangement and harmonization to make it sound good. A real Shaker meeting would be far more cacophonous, but this is probably more pleasant to listen to. Please enjoy, and if any of you AGMers have the opportunity while in Kentucky to visit the Shaker Village, I highly recommend it! There is even a hotel there now so you can stay in the village, and it is only 80 miles outside of Louisville.


12 Responses to Simple Gifts

  1. I thought I had responded to this post. I must’ve forgotten to click on the post comment button. Thank you for sharing this information Alexa. When I first saw the stairway design I thought it was a lighthouse staircase. They look remarkably similarr.

  2. I have read of the Shakers and we have many Quakers here in Pennsylvania, still active communities of such. I didn’t know that about their singing – interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Sheila! I’m from Philadelphia and went to Quaker schools. Perhaps that is why the Shakers appeal so much to me. We did sing a lot, but not ritually. Meeting for Worship was a largely quite time. People would stand up and share their feeling when they had something to say. I have never personally seen anyone “quake” at a meeting, but when you do feel called to stand up and share your ideas, it was usually proceeded by an internal trembling, not unlike stage fright (at least for me). It’s hard to reconcile an image of the Quakers I know – usually highly proper, old monied society people – with the Shakers, but the philosophical connections are similar. I see more overlap between the Shakers and the philosophies perpetuated in some of my yoga classes, and I can also a connection to modern Pentecostal communities.

      • I attended Delaware Co. Christian School and we played the Friends School in field hocked plus had a Quaker family attend our school. There are several active meeting houses near where I live now near Bethlehem.

  3. I too love the post and the singing and of course there is the Aaron Copland “Variations on a Shaker Tune” (same song ) from Appalachian Spring. Don’t feel bad that you can’t go, neither can I. But … I am enjoying all of the pics and no that the gals will keep us posted. Jen

    • Thanks Jen! The longing to be there is coupled with some sentimental homesickness. Louisville is a city close to my heart. The pictures are awesome! Looks like everyone had a blast, and I am so pleased! Someday … or maybe I’ll get to Bath next year! I haven’t abandoned Alison, by the way. I’m just stymied. Here’s to a new week!

  4. What an enjoyable and fascinating post Alexa! I knew nothing about their sect other than that they were pacifist and made great furniture. I especially love the singing for there is something very humbling and holy about it. Thanks for sharing.

    • My pleasure, Brenda! I’ve always been interested in different kind of worship, and the Shakers have long been a subject of fascination for me. It was fun to share something outside the usual Austen arena, too. Now I am in Europe, I find my long-neglected interest in American history rekindling. Ironic? Not sure … be well!

  5. Fascinating post, Alexa. The only thing I knew about the Shakers before this was their style of furniture, which is quite popular over here in the UK amongst people looking for a minimalist effect. I didn’t kmow about the abstinence!

    • Hi Anji! They’re a fascinating group. I guess I forgot to mention their furniture … whoops! Or their brooms, which can be identified for their ability to sand up straight on their bristles. Their aesthetics were magnificent.

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