|Hancock Shaker Village — photo by Massachusetts Office of Tourism, used under Creative Commons License|
Presented to the Club on Monday evening, March 9, 2020 by William P. Densmore
I’ve been thinking a lot about furniture lately as my sisters and I assess the provenance and best disposition of fine furniture in our parents’ Worcester home. We’re learning that “dark furniture” isn’t very valuable anymore. Kind of like the stock market after today, and quite out of our individual control so not to worry. But thinking about furniture and value inevitable leads to the mass-market tag line for the Shakers furniture. Excellent, simple, stripped of vanity and excess — furniture.
But it is not Shaker furniture on my mind for tonight. Rather, I wish to digress in perhaps contrarian fashion to a set of difference considerations about the Shakers — their status as the longest running intentional community in America — an effort at utopia which has tested a set of values in many respects relevant not only to contemporary American society but as well perhaps to some of the attributes of the culture which occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Fifteen years ago I spent six months working at Hancock Shaker Village. Like most people, I knew about furniture and celibacy and that was about it. I learned somewhat more, but ever since I’ve wanted to spend a chunk of time digging into Shaker values and practices. This talk is the result and it stems from sit-down interviews last month with five Shaker experts — and an admittedly fast literature review.
What I will highlight, using with attribution the words of my interviewees as well as published authors is this: The Shakers can teach our contemporary politicians, and maybe Donald Trump, much about gender equity, caring for “others,” housing and economic security and the management of dissent. Seventy-five years before emancipation, and 150 years before suffrage, Shakers were already practicing social, sexual, economic and spiritual equality. For the most part, the Shakers just lived their politics, although in 1852, Shaker elder Frederick Evans was proselytizing that women should have the right to vote.
There are multiple sources — from Wikipedia to scholarly volumes, to fill in the basic Shaker history so I’ll rewrite to a few sentences. Factory worker “Mother” Ann Lee and her husband arrive near Albany, N.Y., in 1774 from Manchester, England and after several frustrating years begin to attract converts to her Protestant-offshoot idea of a community that sees women as a natural representation of God after the death of Jesus. The three tenets: celibacy, confession and community. At its peak, the Shaker movement involved 6,000 members and followers at 19 sites from Kentucky east to Maine; only two (or is it three) members remain — at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.